Fitting a purpose: Crunch time for the FA

As a team of former Football Association leaders question the organisation's structure and a historic sex abuse scandal threatens to overwhelm English soccer, what role does the future hold for the beleaguered governing body?

Fitting a purpose: Crunch time for the FA

It is in the nature of the modern-day news cycle that stories develop quickly. But scarcely can a major news story have unravelled with quite the pace or intensity of the historic sex abuse scandal currently overwhelming British soccer.

What started with a single case – former player Andy Woodward courageously forgoing his anonymity to talk openly about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of ex-coach Barry Bennell while both were at English side Crewe Alexandra – soon became a fully fledged scandal when many more former players came forward to tell their stories, the floodgates opened by Woodward’s confession.

The bravery of Woodward’s coming forward should not be understated. This was a secret that he and many others had carried around for decades. Woodward had ended his soccer career early, at the age of just 29, in large part because of spells of depression he has attributed to his abuse. Others have similar stories to tell.

There is a macabre sense of horror hanging over the entire affair as the world of English soccer holds its breath, barely daring to imagine how much deeper the scandal can go. Within just three weeks of Woodward’s interview with the Guardian, almost 100 clubs and 83 potential suspects were under investigation. 350 individuals had come forward with allegations, while the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) said it had received almost 1,000 reports to a hotline.

The similarities with the sex abuse scandal which shot to the heart of British entertainment in 2012 are prominent. Both cases involved men using their positions to gain access to vulnerable young people, while the power structures around them either turned a blind eye or actively engaged in cover-ups.

Crewe Alexandra’s former manager and director Dario Gradi, for instance, was suspended on 11th December by the Football Association (FA) following allegations that he had visited the family of a victim to ‘smooth over’ sexual abuse allegations while the assistant manager at Chelsea FC. It is difficult to believe he had no knowledge at all of what was going on at Crewe, a club he managed for 30 years and became synonymous with over that time.

There is a macabre sense of horror hanging over the entire affair as the world of English soccer holds its breath, barely daring to imagine how much deeper the scandal can go.

It is also in the nature of current affairs in the era of 24-hour coverage and the constant chatter of Twitter that news passes as quickly and frequently as rain showers. In the last edition of this column, I wrote on the brief and calamitous reign of Sam Allardyce as manager of the English national soccer side, a story which dominated headlines on the front page as well as the back, but which by comparison seems tragically inconsequential. For all that story’s drama – covert meetings in high-end restaurants, undercover journalists, vast sums of money – it was ultimately a tale of light relief and schadenfreude, of a widely disliked man glugging pints of wine and costing himself his dream job.

What the FA would not give for a distraction like that now. This latest scandal will not, and should not, pass by so easily, and there is culpability at every level of the game. The English Football League (EFL), then in its guise as the Football League, was found to have addressed a letter to all 92 of its member clubs in 1989 warning them against working with Barry Higgins, who three years later in 1992 faced charges of sexual offences against boys. Though he was cleared on that occasion, the EFL sent further letters of the same nature in 1997, and Higgins is yet again facing investigation, having worked in soccer in various roles since. It is unclear why the EFL did not take any further action on either occasion. Meanwhile, the FA has similarly been accused of having some knowledge of allegations having taken place as far back as the 1980s, but failed to investigate further at the time.

In that last column, I wondered whether English soccer may not be better served by introducing a new regulatory body and dividing the responsibilities of the FA down the middle. Though the timing is apparently coincidental, and not linked to the abuse scandal, early December saw the previous three FA chairmen – Greg Dyke, David Bernstein and David Triesman – alongside former FA director David Davies and Alex Horne, its ex-chief executive, propose similar measures. Tracey Crouch, the UK’s minister for sport, did not rule out the possibility of introducing a regulator to help reform the FA.

It is not that the FA is not fit for purpose, but that the game has grown quicker than it has. In the words of Dyke et al, the FA is largely run by “elderly white men” who “block even the most minor of changes”. A chronic lack of diversity in senior roles has stymied its ability to react to an ever-changing world, while its slowness in responding adequately to the recent scandal has once again highlighted an inability to mobilise with anything like the necessary alacrity. Its actions over the coming months will be decisive in indicating where the FA’s future lays.