Greg Clarke began 2020 as a Football Association chairman manoeuvring for modern leadership of the sport, but is ending it having ejected himself from the job for a series of excruciating remarks made in a stale echo of the 1970s.
His resignation for those comments follows him misleading the FA council about his central involvement in the Project Big Picture proposals to reshape football, which he initiated in January then completely disowned after they were leaked and widely criticised. Some unease had grown within the FA about the accounts the chairman had given, and questions were beginning to be asked of him, but in his session with the MPs on the culture, media, sport and digital select committee, he had been defending himself before he strayed off-track into job-termination territory.
As Clarke rummaged through his thoughts, giving answers to questions nobody had really asked, the football writer Daniel Storey put it neatly, saying the FA chairman “ticked off his bingo card for out-of-date stereotypes”.
Black players, after all they have been through for generations to fight discrimination, and in this year of all years, in which all teams continue to take the knee before matches, Clarke referred to as “coloured”. There was a dreadful, discriminatory remark about the ethnic makeup of the FA’s IT department, which was never going to add anything anyway to any of the subjects at hand. Being gay was apparently a “life choice”. And then, in the context of all the efforts to build, encourage and promote women’s football, he shared the view that girls don’t like the ball being hit at them hard. Bingo.
There were levels of pain and casual offence in all this, but institutionally for the FA the deepest was that the chairman coughed it all up just days after his organisation had sought to lead the way on anti-discrimination, introducing a new diversity code to kick-off the 2020s. It is said to be a starting point, aimed at making a proper difference: requiring 15% of new recruits for senior leadership roles to be black, Asian or of mixed heritage, with 30% to be female. In coaching in men’s professional football, the requirement is for 25% of recruits to be black, Asian or of mixed heritage, dropping to 10% in senior coaching roles.
The FA’s own national teams are now committed to it, along with 19 of the 20 Premier League clubs – Southampton were the exception although they said they agreed with it in principle – and 22 further clubs, including three from the Women’s Championship.
Although some cautionary voices have rightly warned that actions need to follow, the FA has produced a landmark, particularly if viewed with the longer perspective of football back in the 1970s and 80s, with foul racism overt in the faces of black players and hurled down from the stands. The journey of Paul Elliott, from star centre-half for Charlton, Luton, Chelsea and others in some of those bad old days, to chair of the FA’s inclusion advisory board steering the diversity code in, marks out the kind of progress he is trying to ease for others.
When the Guardian was scrutinising Clarke’s true involvement in Project Big Picture compared to his limited portrayal of it to the FA council, in which he stated that he only “participated in the early stages of discussions”, one exasperated FA figure pointed to the diversity code as a shining example of the modern FA’s work. They lamented that people still have a view of the organisation as the stuffy, hidebound blazer stronghold of the past, when it has many good, professional people working for it who love football and want to see it run the right way. Now Clarke, in his live-streamed series of howlers, has gone with both feet into even that recent achievement.
For some there was a sadness to the manner of his going, partly because these live select committee hearings are an unforgiving arena. Clarke’s generally rambling answers had already made a glaring contrast to the professional focus of the other “witnesses”, Richard Masters, Premier League chief executive, and Rick Parry, the EFL chairman.
It is hard at times to know what the hearings are for, as a select committee’s job is classically to hold the government to account, which would be a worthwhile exercise given the culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s ineffectiveness during football’s current crisis. Instead, among the earnest questions from the MPs seeking to hold the Premier League to its promise of supporting EFL clubs, were challenges about the three substitutes decision, which is important to the latter stages of football matches but somewhat stretches the boundaries of parliamentary responsibility.
These hearings have become a part of the sports administration landscape generally more attuned to headline-generation than prompting any real change, and Clarke duly generated some news and a consequent change in his own job status.
Partly, too, there was some sadness because people around the FA say Clarke did support the diversity efforts, although his arcane remarks, described as “staggering” by Kick It Out, will now always throw some doubt on that.
One senior football figure who knows Clarke well said he is a decent man, but unsuited to a high-profile public role, and was always nervous of the media attention which is an integral element of such a leadership position. Now he is gone, ignominiously, and after starting the year ambitious to lead major reform, he has sunk the FA into another crisis.