In ordinary circumstances it might have been a pleasant surprise that someone in a high position has finally found the voice to float the possibility that Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, has spent so long building his ivory tower he has allowed his organisation to be guilty, for far too long, of operating with blurred priorities.
There are plenty of us who have wondered the same, bearing in mind the man at the top, already reputedly earning more than any other union boss on the planet, plainly felt he could do a whole lot better for himself a few years back. Taylor’s earnings went up from £1.3m to £3.4m – more, to put it another way, than Joachim Löw was paid for winning the World Cup – and if you want an example of how lopsided it all is, just consider Kick It Out’s financial struggles around that time, operating from a fourth-floor office above a pizza restaurant in Clerkenwell and trying to get by on funding of less than £300,000 a year. The PFA’s contribution, around £95,000, was the equivalent of what Taylor raked in for himself every 10 days or so.
There is, however, a time and a place to pick these fights and perhaps somebody could have gently pointed out to Greg Clarke, the chairman of the Football Association, that it might not necessarily be the right moment during the parliamentary bollocking in which he referred, Alan Partridge-style, to the “fluff of institutional racism” and gave the distinct impression that, like lots of self-made men, he was absolutely desperate to share the recipe. A man, you could say, who had allowed all the failures to go to his head.
“Let me be frank about my dealing with the PFA,” Clarke began, in one of the more illuminating exchanges with the digital, culture, media and sport select committee. “I’d like to be very frank. I have a fundamental problem with their governance – at the top. Let me tell you why.”
Full marks for his persistence, too, when one MP, sensing a diversion tactic, attempted to cut him short. “May I just have 30 seconds, sir?” Clarke requested. “Just 30 seconds.” And off he went, telling his story about meeting one of the footballers who had been sexually abused, recalling how the person in question had “cried like a baby” in his company and then, voice hardening, recounting the shock and revulsion when it became apparent that the PFA had stopped funding this guy’s counselling. “The PFA spend millions of pounds a year on their CEO salary and the CEO pension fund and they’re walking away from alcoholics, they’re walking away from addicted gamblers and they’re walking away from people like him.”
It was powerful stuff. He was absolutely determined to get it out and by the time he was done – “I will never respect their governance” – it would not have been a surprise to see him bringing down his fist on the table for added effect. He was close to shouting. And nobody should be too surprised, I suppose, by this level of disdain bearing in mind that almost implausible 14-word email – “I’ve no idea why you are sending me this. Perhaps you could enlighten me?” – when the PFA informed him two of his executives, Dan Ashworth and Rachel Brace, had cooked up a “sham” inquiry to close down Eni Aluko’s complaints about Mark Sampson.
It was a pity Clarke didn’t finish this little speech by letting us know what happened next if, as I suspect, the person he was referring to was Andy Woodward and a meeting last November when part of their discussion involved the fact the former player had reached his limit in terms of PFA-funded counselling.
Andy was the first to come forward, you might recall, to waive his anonymity and tell his story in the belief there were hundreds, even thousands, of others who had suffered the same kind of childhood horrors. Without him, there might not have been one football person on the Operation Hydrant list, never mind the latest mind-boggling figures of 784 victims, 285 suspects and 2,028 referrals, with 331 professional and amateur clubs named.
Andy has saved lives and, hopefully, changed the sport, and people still stop him in the street sometimes to thank him for his courage (heck, Barbara Knox, Rita from Coronation Street, grabbed his arm in Waitrose a while back to say “well done”). He has done more good than he probably knows.
But it’s not the life any footballer would have wanted. As a boy, Andy was raped more times than he can possibly remember, but it is in the hundreds. Something like that leaves its mark: anxiety, panic attacks, post‑traumatic stress disorder. It is a struggle sometimes. Of course it is.
What didn’t get reported to the select committee was that Taylor, to give him his due, offered to pay for extra counselling out of his own pocket when he found out. Maybe Clarke, assuming he was talking about the same thing, didn’t know that extra detail. Yet it is a dangerous game Clarke is playing if he really wants us to step away from the Sampson debacle, the lingering stench of a cover-up and some of the worst examples of boardroom buffoonery I can recall from any FA regime, to analyse how the various authorities have dealt with the abuse scandal.
We could start, perhaps, by pointing out the FA has not offered a penny of funding (barring a donation to an August charity match) to the Offside Trust, the organisation that was set up by, and for, survivors. Clarke has described what has happened as the biggest crisis he can remember in the sport but has never even been in touch with the people running the trust. Not even a good-luck message.
Instead Clarke claimed during Wednesday’s cringeworthy performance that he had been “working 22 hours a day” to make football safe and even tried to blame that workload for being so curt and dismissive in that 14-word email to the PFA and, in the words of the committee chairman, Damian Collins, coming across as both “oafish” and “passive aggressive”.
But then, Clarke says a lot of things that leave people asking questions. In his interview with the Daily Telegraph on 2 October, he claimed to have spoken to “20 or 30 [abuse victims], usually in small groups” and that has caused quite a bit of surprise among the small number of survivors who have been willing to be identified.
Maybe you saw the response, via Twitter, from Ian Ackley, one of the four people who have launched SAVE (Safeguarding and Victim Engagement), that in the past 10 months he had seen Clarke for the sum total of 15 minutes. “As a survivor, I can’t say he’s paid me much attention,” he wrote. Clarke’s press aides tell me their recollection was it was an hour an a half and that many abuse victims have gone directly to him.
Unfortunately for Clarke and his colleagues, they might just have to understand why it is so easy to be cynical in the current climate and why, for instance, some of the victims who have identified themselves and are campaigning for change find it slightly suspicious their go-to man at the FA is actually a press officer – someone whose job, for the main part, is to prevent bad publicity.
Likewise, it is hardly a surprise that questions are being asked about the FA’s motives when what could easily be described as sweeteners – overnight stops at five-star hotels, a free box for England games and so on – have been offered to the victims who have featured in the newspapers and might have some awkward things to say about the role of the governing body when it comes to all the failings and ignored warnings behind the scenes.
More than anything, I wonder how much the FA can be trusted when it comes to the independent inquiry that Clive Sheldon QC expects to be completed next Easter.
One of the more revealing parts of the Sampson affair was that Ashworth had identified 16 people whom the barrister Katharine Newton might wish to interview and yet, brilliantly, did not include the player, Drew Spence, to whom the first discriminatory remark was made or any of the six people who were in the same room at the time.
Ashworth also nominated himself to give evidence on Sampson’s behalf for the FA’s lamentable and highly suspicious internal review even though he was actually overseeing that inquiry. Yet the FA expertly removed Newton’s criticism of the director of elite development’s conduct when it published an edited summary and that would be my fear again if, as expected, Sheldon’s verdict also reflected badly on the people running the sport.
Officially, it is called an independent report but once it comes back to the FA executives it will be their possession and their decision, entirely, what they release and what they keep back. Will they publish it in full (at least, what they can without it affecting any court cases)? Or will, as I suspect, they hold bits back to protect what remains of the FA’s reputation as the so-called guardians of the sport?
One of the victims asked that question to Sheldon when he was interviewed for the inquiry in August and the transcript, seen by this correspondent, shows that not even the QC can be sure. “I’m certainly expecting them to publish it,” he says. “But I can’t guarantee they will.”
Blazers have company for calamitous gaffes
A few closing points about that mortifying session for the Football Association in the Grimond Room at Portcullis House (with a nod to my colleague on the press benches Paul Hayward, for wondering whether it was the Grim Room for short).
1) It is probably safe to assume there is no apology coming from David James for deciding Eni Aluko was to blame for all of this, subjecting her to a wholly uninformed Twitter outburst then surreptitiously pressing the delete button once he had made himself look a bit of a berk. You might remember James’s nickname as an accident-prone goalkeeper used to be Calamity – and wonder why he is so intent on keeping it that way.
2) That was a particularly ghastly moment when the four FA executives were asked about Lucy Ward’s sex‑discrimination case at Leeds, blinked dumbly (“When was that?” Greg Clarke asked) and admitted they had no idea what the MPs were talking about. Ward, to recap, tried for 18 months to persuade the FA to investigate and the governing body was asked seven times before informing her, punily, that there was nothing it could do. Needless to say, we are still waiting for an explanation how they missed a story that has attracted considerable publicity since early 2016.
3) The announcement, two days before the hearing, that Danielle Carter – a black England Women’s footballer – had been appointed to the FA council was, I presume, just another of what Dan Ashworth, the Director of Coincidence, would pass off as one of those strange quirks of timing.
4) Martin Glenn, the chief executive, wanted everyone to know the FA’s media department had been in touch with the Guardian to point out he had got it wrong – “not a pack of lies, but it was an embellishment” – during our 21 September interview for the Observer’s sister paper when he explained, at quite some length, how he had deliberately appointed Katharine Newton, a black women, to oversee the independent inquiry because of her sex and ethnicity. Glenn blamed this rather peculiar mistake on being tired at the end of a long day and maybe he was feeling jaded again when he said that about his press office. No conversation of that nature ever took place.
5) The FA’s head of women’s football, Baroness Campbell – whose interviews during and after this process have shown why she fits in so neatly to this regime – says the interviews for Mark Sampson’s replacement begin in December and guess who will be trusted to put together the shortlist. That’s right: Dan Ashworth, the man with his fingerprints all over this debacle. And on and on it goes.