News 29th Sep 2016

English football needs to face up to its problems, and fast

Robert Barrington

Executive Director (former)

Robert served as Executive Director of Transparency International UK from 2013 until July 2019. He is now Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at Sussex University’s Centre for the Study of Corruption.

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The Telegraph’s exposé of Sam Allardyce and investigations into accusations of corruption against eight current and former Premier League managers plus Barnsley assistant head coach Tommy Wright have received widespread coverage. What do they tell us about the state of English football?

Tommy Wright, assistant head coach of Barnsley, accepted £5,000 from reporters in return for his help persuading Barnsley to sign players CREDIT: -/TELEGRAPH

I will start with some disclaimers: the cases against the club managers and Wright are allegations; we mostly have not heard their side of the story; there is more to come that may change how this is viewed, etc. But there is enough meat already (not least, enough to have caused Mr Allardyce to resign) that we can make some preliminary observations. Here are six things that are immediately clear.

  1. The culture of the FA

Crises around ethical practices in an organisation reveal a lot about the organisation.

In the case of Allardyce, it’s a very mixed picture for the FA. Good marks for reaching a decisive response by the end of the day. Less good marks for an initial response that looked a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights, rather than an institution with a sound crisis management plan.

Perhaps most important, there is a feeling that in such a high profile appointment, the ethics of the job should have been spelt out by the FA with crystal clarity so that Mr Allardyce should never have been putting himself in a position to test their boundaries.

  1. The culture of impunity in football

One of the sickening things about the FIFA corruption case was the sense that so many senior officials, from Sepp Blatter down, felt so protected that they could act without fear of redress. Nobody would dare come after them.

Few senior people in business are as unwise as Mr Allardyce in boasting to unknown new clients about how they can get round the rules set by their employer. The fact that he did so suggests that a culture of impunity exists in the domestic game.

  1. Hidden corruption

Allardyce was guilty of foolishness and greed. On the other hand, the three managers named today and five others probed in the Telegraph’s separate story stand accused of corrupt practices. The UK does well on most global measures of corruption.

Critics of such measures are quick to point out that corruption in the UK takes a different form: a cronyistic nod-and-wink approach where no laws may have been broken, but ethical codes are disregarded and the rich get richer.

  1. Why it matters

Isn’t it fine to have a manager who is successful – and if so, who cares about their personal ethics? Do we mind if a match has been fixed as long as our own side wins?

There are plenty of good reasons why you would want the global face of your football team to be beyond reproach – international image, example to young people, ability to call out poor ethical standards elsewhere which damage our own interests such as World Cup bidding, keeping sponsors onside, the dangers of match-fixing etc.

But the reaction of football fans to the Allardyce affair and the other allegations is not built on a rational analysis: it is simply one of visceral disgust that the game they love can be hijacked by reptiles, that in the beautiful game money now trumps everything. How badly can a sport treat its fan base and for how long before there is an unpredictable reaction?

  1.  Who is on the case?

There was huge media coverage of the Allardyce affair, both in the UK and around the world. But unlike in other industries where there has been rule-breaking and ethically dubious practices, with dozens of expert commentators giving their views, on this occasion the commentators were all from within the football community.

There are clearly very few outside experts on the integrity of football: and that’s a problem if the game genuinely wants to sort itself out. The sponsors and broadcasters have been notably silent about the corruption allegations against the club managers and Tommy Wright.

There is, however, a big positive takeaway: theTelegraph’s investigations team who have broken all of this week’s stories. Across the world, investigative journalists are critical to exposing corruption and holding public figures to account. It’s always tempting to shoot the messenger, but the Telegraph has acted in the public interest.

  1. It is not obvious what to do next

The allegations against the club managers could be the tip of the iceberg of corruption permeating all levels of English football. It’s not clear what the FA or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) should do next. Here are three suggestions:

a) make sure that sport is included in the Government’s new Anti-Corruption Strategy, due to be launched later this year

b) the DCMS should take ownership of the problem – it is not simply the FA’s problem

c) the FA, with the support of DCMS, should set up an independent and wide-ranging investigation or review into corruption in domestic football, and plan how to eradicate it.

If the FA takes action now, it will be the work of a decade to eradicate (or more realistically, reduce to a minimum) the problem. Better get started.

This piece was originally published in The Telegraph on 29/02/2016