26 October 1863 was when the great and the good of 19th Century English Football gathered at the Freemasons' Arms in Covent Garden to codify their sport. The rest is history, as will be frequently pointed out over the next 12 months as the organisation founded in this Central London pub, The Football Association, loudly celebrates its 150th anniversary year. Particularly in the high-profile Wembley friendlies against Brazil, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. Not that there's anything resembling friendliness in any footballing encounter with the latter.
Following England's most recent hapless exit from a World Cup in 2010 it was pointed out by Matt Scott here that in Germany at the time there were 34,790 Uefa B, A and Pro qualified coaches, in Spain 23,995 and Italy 29,420. England? In comparison a paltry 2769. The figures tell us all that we should need to know about the FA's inability to act as a governing body, indeed arguably the FA as it celebrates its longevity will also be revealing itself as the sole FA in the world incapable of governing its own sport.
The FA effectively abdicated that role, its reason for existence, when it sub-let the top division to become first the FA Premiership, and subsequently lost even the fig-leaf of that prefix, sold off to the highest bidder, under the control of the big clubs' moneymen. The one major competition it still runs, the FA Cup, has become an also-ran as the top Premiership clubs ruthlessly prioritise Champions League qualification over the silverware of the Cup while in the Championship reaching the moneyed uplands of the Premiership easily outweighs the appeal of the Cup. With few exceptions FA Cup attendances have progressively fallen. A training ground for second elevens and youth players doesn't have the appeal that this self-proclaimed 'greatest cup competition in the world' could once boast.
The FA's decline and fall is what has characterised at least the last 20 years of its existence, the game compared to 1963, its centenary year, is almost unrecognisable. Not entirely for the worse of course, but not as much for the better as the FA would like to claim either. At Philosophy Football we have a neat way of putting this, on a T-shirt of course, Against Mod£rn Football.
By accident in the early noughties the FA did discover some kind of role. With the old Wembley closed for rebuilding from 2000 -2007 England Internationals were taken 'on the road'. Not just to the big grounds, Old Trafford, St James' Park and Anfield but also the likes of Southampton's St Marys, Ipswich's Portman Road and Derby County's Pride Park. For seven years the FA became the cheerleaders for the greatest, and hugely popular, experiment in devolution in English sporting history. For the first time an England international became a local match for large parts of the country outside London and the south-east. And then at a cost of over £750 million the 'new' Wembley was completed and opened to great fanfare. All England internationals for the first 30 years are contracted to be played here. Plus FA Cup semi-finals, in a single money-making blow destroying any remaining 'magic' of the FA Cup Final. An unholy contest between the capital's four 60,000 plus capacity stadiums has also ensued to host the concerts, the NFL and other huge stadium shows which keep these arenas financially viable. Meanwhile virtually no England internationals are played on a family and travel friendly Saturday afternoon, weekday evenings only.
Of course the FA does some good work, and has some kind of role but the 150th Anniversary instead of being a cause for great self-congratulatory backslapping should initiate a serious and creative consideration of how it might affect the game it is supposed to govern. In Scotland a recently published book, Saving Scottish Football, has set out some far-reaching and well-resesearched ideas for the future of the game North of the Border. All fans of the game in England should forget the old rivalries and easy pot-shots and give this excellent book a good read. The book is full of practical suggestions, here are my three New Year ideas to help set a similar process in motion for English football.
First, now the FA is lumbered with the New Wembley use it as a platform to promote a sport that is both participative and inclusive. When I was a teenager the annual England vs Scotland schoolboys international was a major event. Schools up and own the country would fill coaches for what was a great day out. What better way to fill Wembley, at next-to-nothing ticket prices, with the fans of tomorrow. With the greatest respect to Scotland, how about an ambitious programme of opponents with the likes of Brazil and Argentina's schoolkids, the Germans and Dutch, and others. Make a day of it with a double-header, combining Schoolboy and Schoolgirls' internationals.
Secondly, Football's Governing Body should be the first to treat the Womens' game on an equal basis with the Mens'. The huge success of the Olympic Women's Football tournament is testament to the potential. Nothing sums up the FA's chauvinism better tha the fact the England Women's team are yet to be 'allowed' to play a game at Wembley. But it isn't just on an equal opportunities basis that the FA should be prioritising the women's game. It makes good political sense too. This is one half of the game they still have some material influence over, compared to their marginalisation from the mens' game. And their number one objective should be to bid to host the 2019 Women's World Cup. The continuing lack of any such bid remains an absolute scandal.
Thirdly, a huge investment in coaching. The newly opened St George's Park centre is a start but it isn't so much the resources that are the problem it is a wholesale culture of neglect. How on earth did we end up in a situation where Germany has ten times the number of qualified coaches compared to England? Every German town of a reasonable size has a centre of excellence, with facilities match, those coaches working with children from the earliest age. The FA would have to change its focus almost entirely and plan long-term, not something it has proved particularly good at to date.
England likes to boast the 'best league in the world'. No doubt this will be the centrepiece of 2013's celebrations, after all celebrating the achievements of a grossly underpeforming England team would only spoil the party atmosphere. But what has the FA's abdication from governing its top division amounted to? Compare Premiership ticket prices to the German Bundesliga where you can watch a top flight game for less than a tenner. Football in Germany doesn't get everything right but broadly speaking the German FA governs the game to protect the traditions of access, locality and competition that we might have expected the FA to defend, David Conn has expertly set out the German alternative here.
We now have a deeply uncompetitive race for the Premiership title with only three or four of the same serious contenders in the mix season, after season. It used to be easy to poke fun at Scottish football, absolutely dominated by two clubs from the same city. Now English football is perilouly close to the self-same situation. The top English Clubs owned for the most part by foreign oligarchs and multibillionaires. 'Home' ownership isn't necessarily much better. The local butcher, baker and candle-stick maker could be just as crooked but at least they tended to have some kinds of roots in the localities the clubs are named after, more than anything else it was this localism that shaped the character of the Englisgh game. Abandoned almost wholesale under the FA's watch, with none of the regulatory powers a governing body worth its name would fiercely insist upon. This has also resulted in a game in which the national team is anything but the pinnacle of the sport's achievements, unlike any other footballing power which regardless of their clubs' successes ensures and insists that their FA gives the priority to the national team it deserves.
This is a sorry list, and unlikely to get much better in 2013. Sorry to spoil the party but after 150 years isn't it time football had a governing body that governs?