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Former FA chief leads calls for radical reform of English game



Former English FA chairman David Bernstein

Former English FA chairman David Bernstein

Former English FA chairman David Bernstein

Football in England is facing calls for an independent regulator and a unified licensing system to radically overhaul structures that have been "exposed" by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to former English FA chairman David Bernstein the crisis has underlined a need for a government-backed regulator with statutory powers that would rebalance the entire game in the country.

A senior current football administrator separately said that the UK government should introduce a single club licensing structure, similar to in the NFL in the United States, with regulatory power to set common rules on investment, ownership and wage-to-revenue spending.

It is less than five weeks since English professional football began postponing fixtures because of the coronavirus, and there are concerns over the future of some clubs. Numerous amateur and community teams also fear they could fold.

Agreement on the best response - player wage deferrals or cuts, using the government furlough scheme, redistributing funds down the pyramid, or even how and when matches could resume - has been absent so far. The lack of an overarching crisis strategy across such a fragmented industry has also been apparent.

"The game is lacking leadership," Bernstein said. "I don't believe we are seeing leadership from the FA that we should. I think the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) has failed miserably to get its constituency together. The Premier League for the first time is under some pressure itself.

"A number of clubs are in potentially serious situations. Football League clubs were in many cases already under stress and over-traded. When you are then hit with a huge issue like this, it is a recipe for catastrophe.

"There is a real crisis. No one saw this particular tragedy emerging, but the component parts have been building up now in football for a long while. Large parts of that industry are just not in a healthy state.

"For all those reasons, I do feel the game needs a regulator backed by the government. It's got to be someone with genuine authority and statutory powers to look at this and make serious changes, to get some degree of balance back into the game."

Bernstein, who has been working on the response to the coronavirus as part of his role as chair of the British Red Cross, said he had encountered "brick walls and defensiveness" whenever he tried to implement governance reform when he was FA chairman from 2011 to 2013.

A former chairman of Manchester City and Wembley Stadium Ltd, Bernstein has long advocated a Premier League levy so that the FA could distribute more funds down to the "neglected grass roots".

A senior current football administrator echoed Bernstein's call for change and specifically argued for the formal licensing system that was recommended last year by a parliamentary committee of MPs who reported evidence of "failings at every level of football governance" following its inquiry.

"You would have one overall structure," the administrator said. "You would get the government and a task force to write a new licence of how the clubs should operate. That licence would be given to the FA and they would administer that like the NFL. So all the things we are talking about - on the pitch, wellness, governance, finance, possible conflicts of interest - you would put that into a licence. And that would flow from Shrewsbury Town to Manchester City. At the moment you have the boards of all the individual leagues controlling it and some of them are not fit for purpose."

Bernstein said the Premier League was "a wonderful English institution", and expressed admiration for the negotiating skills of former chief executive Richard Scudamore, but said the balance of power in its relationship with the FA was "completely out of kilter".

He is sceptical about the possibility of football accepting serious change without government intervention.

"Football is desperate to stay independent," Bernstein said. "Individuals privately would say that a regulator is a very good idea but very few people would say it publicly. It was not a way to make yourself popular in football. I have discussed it with government ministers, ex-ministers and they are quite supportive in private and maybe this situation, which is an unparalleled challenge, will concentrate minds. Maybe it is the moment of truth."

The PFA has said that it sought "a structured and unified approach to ensure a fair response across the leagues" and would not oppose all player wage deferrals, while senior FA staff have agreed temporary wage cuts to help mitigate expected losses of more than £100m (€115m). (© Daily Telegraph, London)