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Sweet FA

How the FA washed its hands of the national game.

I've often suspected that there is an unseen power at work in the universe, tirelessly and carefully arranging events to ensure that whenever anything happens, we are given a single story that works to handily sum it all up.

Those of you that follow British political scandals will have seen this unseen hand at work recently, delicately placing the UK's Prime Minister on top of a horse belonging to the Metropolitan Police, but on loan to the editor of the News of the World, which imploded in a hot mess of illegality shortly afterwards. (The paper. Not the horse.) Or on a footballing tip, there must surely have been some eldritch force at work to bring us the impossibly perfect news that following England's 2010 World Cup failure, a range of gold-plated iPods, each individually numbered and lasered with Frank Lampard's autographical scribble, were melted down due to a lack of interest.

Well, our benevolent Great Narrator was at work again yesterday, artfully extending an invisible foot to send Sir Dave Richards, chairman of the Premier League, stumbling into an ornamental pool mere moments after a remarkable and faintly unhinged rant in which he accused Fifa and Uefa of "stealing the game" from England, berated the Qataris for "having their head in the sand" over the sale of alcohol at the 2022 World Cup, and pronounced to the world that:

In our country and in Germany we have a culture. We call it 'we would like to go for a pint and that pint is a pint of beer'. It is our culture as much as your culture is not drinking.

It appears he wasn't himself drunk, which on reflection isn't all that good news: xenophobic ranting followed by unplanned water feature intimacy when sober is far more troubling than a straightforward attack of the tired and emotional. Presumably, had he been fortified, he'd have accused Michel Platini of having designs on the Channel Islands, Jogi Löw of unfairly hogging the best sunlounger, and demanded that the kitchen sort out him some egg and chips. And do the egg properly. And get some proper ketchup, this one's got funny green bits in it.

Fans of dark irony will have enjoyed Richards identifying Sheffield as the birthplace of the game, as he himself did his best to destroy one of the Steel City's most venerable footballing institutions. His ten-year reign left Sheffield Wednesday broke, and on the verge of relegation from the top flight; they have not returned. Richards, meanwhile, took a position as Chairman of the Premier League, and picked up a knighthood for services to sport along the way.

All of this is given context by a letter sent 29 February 2012, jointly signed by the FA, the Premier League, and the Football League. That letter represented the end of a long process that began in December 2010, when a committee of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport began to gather evidence from administrators, journalists, lawyers, economists, managers, and sundry other figures both within and without the game, on how the whole thing was run. The presented a report to the government in July 2011, who in October provided their response (pdf), and then that response was passed to the football authorities for their response. Such are the joys of bureaucracy. If English governance were a footballer, it would be Gareth Barry: slow to respond, ponderous in motion, and largely inexplicable.

But it happened. And the recommendations were encouraging. The football authorities were asked to address the debt crisis, look into a solid licensing model, and abolish the football creditor's rule that sees clubs in administration prioritise debts to other clubs and players over those of non-footballing concerns, most notoriously St. John's Ambulance service. The government called for strong FA oversight of club ownership, and for steps to be taken that would increase supporter representation and, where possible, supporter ownership.

And so to the response from the FA and the leagues. Or lack of it. Sixteen pages of deckchair-rearranging, finger-twiddling, hemming, hawing and buck-passing make it abundantly clear that, once you strip out the empty management-speak, that the FA has simply decided that it wants as little to do with the running of football as it can possibly get away with. Good governance, it appears, is no governance it all.

The government called for the FA to take control of the financial criteria that would underpin a new licensing arrangement for clubs, perhaps modelled on Uefa's Financial Fair Play rules. The response proposes that the leagues set their own rules, which the FA can reject but not amend; the leagues themselves will enforce them. The government called for greater funding to go to Supporter's Direct. The response states that they should "primarily run on funding raised from their membership or their own initiatives. And as football finance blogger Andy Green points out, the response contains the word "debt" exactly once, in reference to the debt of thanks owed to volunteers.

Most striking is a paragraph that sets out exactly where the FA sees no role for itself. In full, they do not think they have any part to play in: "Club and league commercial and financial matters; club business and operating issues, stadium, customer/fan issues; club/league relationship with other competition organisers including Uefa; club ticket prices; club distributions and parachute payments". Perhaps this explains why England shirts come out with such alarming frequency. They've got nothing else to do.

(Take a moment to enjoy "customer/fan", as well. Say it out loud. "Customer slash fan." That's you, that is.)

Still, at least we know where we stand now. The price of your ticket is not the FA's problem. Nor is the fact that your club is collapsing under the weight of its own debt, that it's owned by a shady cabal of anonymous hedge funds, that it's mortgaged to the hilt, that staff and ambulance volunteers are going unpaid, that it doesn't own its stadium anymore, that the money's gone and nobody knows where it is. As Ian King of the peerless Two Hundred Percent puts it:

We supported the FA, by and large, because we needed them. [...] They were supposed to be our bulwark against the asset strippers, the venture capitalists, the property developers and those that otherwise don't give a toss about anything that doesn't involve the Premier League. The FA was supposed to represent the conscience, the soul and the custodian of the best traditions of football in this country ... they deserve nothing now but our contempt.

Or as Malcolm Clarke, head of the Football Supporters' Federation, told the Guardian:

In key areas this amounts to the FA surrendering its role as football's governing body. It seems that 20 years since the Premier League was formed, this is its victory over the running of football.

There is no unseen power taking care of football for us. We needed the FA to take the wheel; they've curled up in the back seat, and they're whimpering. No wonder Richards was a little light-headed. Triumph is a stronger intoxicant than any firewater. But the suspicious foreign "they" didn't steal the game, Mr Chairman, and nor, in the final reckoning, did you or your Premier League. You were given it. God help us all.