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Sampson debacle the latest in an unfit organisation’s history of incompetence

Mark Sampson’s sacking as England women’s manager was – to put it mildly – entirely predictable. The exact reasons behind it are anyone’s guess, with the FA stopping short of complete transparency. What is clear, however, is that the time for reform has never been more urgent, after another calamitous year for the national game’s governing body. Nick Friend looks at how it came to this.

Imagine being sacked by the FA for lacking professionalism. Like being told that you can’t sing by Louis Walsh, irony reigns supreme over St George’s Park, Wembley and any other establishment stained by the stench of these hypocritical bigwigs. Even the Grove Hotel loos are tarnished by the presence of these professional deflectors of culpability. Indeed, the only surprise to come from this latest mess was that the organisation’s senior ‘authority’ – a word used loosely – finally sacked Mark Sampson after more than a year of desperate denial. New allegation followed new allegation but, like the most patient skydiving instructor, nothing would tempt the FA to push their man over the edge.

Nothing, of course, until evidence of yet another damning report into Sampson’s behaviour was brought to the attention of chief executive Martin Glenn by Bristol City Women (Bristol Academy when the incident is said to have taken place). Surprisingly – or otherwise – depending on the amount of faith you misplace in the country’s football association, this dossier on Sampson’s inappropriate conduct while Bristol manager was first in FA hands in 2015, while there were safeguarding rumblings about the Welshman even before he was given the job in 2013.

Since being relieved of his duties, many observers have accused the FA of making something of a pig’s ear of the situation, in doing so, disrespecting both pigs and their harmless floppy pink ears. When is a debacle no longer a pig’s ear? For what it’s worth, I’d argue that the cut-off point directly coincides with the realisation that you’ve defended the reputation of a manager for twelve months, despite having had swathes of compromising information about his unacceptable behaviour sat on your desk for more than three years.

Only last month did the England men’s team manager, Gareth Southgate, wax lyrical about Sampson, describing him as a man of “excellent character.” Of course, Southgate himself is only leading the men’s side because Glenn’s previous appointment – that of Sam Allardyce – went south faster than Jack and Jill down the steepest of hills. The only England manager to win every game, Allardyce was also the only one to reveal how to break laws set out by his employers to a stranger over a pint of Pinot Grigio.

Incidentally, Glenn was equally complimentary about Sampson, praising his interview for the role as the greatest job audition he’d ever sat in on. And on the pitch Sampson excelled, taking England from eleventh to third in the world and reaching successive major semi-finals. However, having offended, alienated and angered a whole host of former squad members, the warning signals couldn’t have been much more visible had they beamed them off Wembley’s arch. Even if he did survive two independent investigations into his actions, most notably accusations of bullying and discrimination from Eni Aluko, the constant rumours and accusations hinted at something sinister.

And so, in the space of 357 days, both Allardyce and Sampson have gone, both guilty of acting unacceptably and unprofessionally in their respective roles – a no-go zone for managers but seemingly a crucial part of the job specification for those that rule the roost. Yet, should this provoke even the slightest jot of surprise?

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This is an organisation that attempted to silence Aluko’s claims with an £80,000 payment; that took no action against former Cardiff manager Malky Mackay despite a string of deeply offensive racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic messages; that took no action against Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore and his own thread of sexist emails.

When England’s Lionesses did their nation proud, taking third place at the 2015 World Cup, the brain’s trust in charge of the FA’s social media congratulated the players by declaring that they would now “go back to being mothers, partners and daughters.” Would they learn their lesson? Of course not. A document leaked on the Sussex FA website last year suggested that participation would increase in women’s football if referees “incorporated a Twitter break”, while recommending time for phone-checking, as well as offering mirrors and pink gloves to players. While all this was going on, Jose Mourinho faced no action for his sexist slur aimed at Chelsea physio Eva Carneiro, scolded for doing her job correctly.

Meanwhile in October 2016, while sport continued to make strides in stamping out homophobia, FA chairman Greg Clarke discouraged gay players from coming out. Earlier this year, Clarke also refused to cooperate with transparency in the investigation into historical sexual abuse, while Harry Redknapp criticised the organisation for failing to heed his warnings on the actions of youth coach Bob Higgins, who now awaits trial charged with 65 counts of indecent assault.

On top of all this, who could forget the great wails of the squeaky-clean FA when Russia and Qatar were handed the 2018 and 2022 World Cups? With English football crying foul play, it was revealed that the FA had spent years financially schmoozing CONCACAF’s Jack Warner, desperate for his vote.

In 2011, one year after Russia had been handed the hosting rights amid criticism over the nation’s racism and hooliganism record, the FA handed England and Chelsea captain and role-model John Terry a four-match ban for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand in an incident caught live on camera. Andre Gray received the same ban after a selection of four-year-old tweets were uncovered last year. Ashley Cole was fined £90,000 for describing the FA as “a bunch of t****.” Meanwhile, Jamie Vardy faced no action after being caught on camera racially abusing a Japanese man in a casino.

And despite holding a £4m per year deal with Ladbrokes until cancelling the contract in June of this year, the association still found time to ban Joey Barton for eighteen months and former Sutton United goalkeeper Wayne Shaw (for eating a pie on camera) for misdemeanours related to gambling, all the while allowing clubs nationwide to parade betting companies on their playing shirts. Terry meanwhile, whose scripted and self-fulfilling 26th minute Chelsea swansong earned punters multiple thousands of pounds in a move akin to spot-fixing, was not charged with any offence.

In short, the Mark Sampson debacle is a mess – the result of a shoddy lack of discipline that has ravaged the organisation for far longer than Martin Glenn’s reign. Greg Dyke’s resignation came alongside the admission that proposed reform had been hindered by self-serving egotists in the background.

Chuck in a Euro 2016 campaign that so beautifully mirrored the general air of incompetence surrounding the governance of the national sport and it’s hard to be even remotely flummoxed by anything anymore. Based on the last decade, the next farcical episode cannot be far away.

Featured photograph: Wikimedia Commons


  • Nick Friend

    Seeing off 500 entries along the way, Nick was the runner-up in the David Welch Student Sportswriter Competition for 2018, culminating in a night a the SJA Awards dinner alongside the very best in the industry. He has spent most of his twenty-three years involved in sport in one way or another. He graduated from Durham University with a degree in Modern Languages, having spent six months working as a coach for Cricket Argentina as part of his year abroad. The 23-year-old gained much of his experience in journalism as sport editor of the University’s student newspaper, Palatinate. During his two years in the role, he sourced and ran a host of high-profile exclusive interviews, three of which rank among the most-read pieces in the website’s history. He won the university’s Hunter Davies Prize for Journalism in 2015. Since leaving Durham, he has written for the iPaper, while contributing weekly to Sport500 – a website focused on creating concise sport opinion content. When not writing, Nick can often be heard bemoaning the fortunes of Queens Park Rangers. Beyond the Rs, he is an ICC and ECB-qualified cricket coach and umpire, while in more delusional times, had set his sights on a career in professional cricket. He counts darts, ski jumping and snooker among his passions, with an unnecessary knowledge of all three.