Friday, 9 March 2012

FA director Heather Rabbatts interviewed for Telegraph - “Liverpool found themselves a lone voice"

John Terry had to be removed as England captain, says FA director Heather Rabbatts

Heather Rabbatts’s introduction to the Football Association board has not been a gentle one. At her first board meeting, the first woman to take a seat round the Wembley table found the toxic issue of John Terry’s England captaincy top of the agenda.

Heather Rabbatts - John Terry had to be removed as England captain, says FA director Heather Rabbatts
View from the top: Heather Rabbatts is the first woman to be appointed to the FA board Photo: GEOFF PUGH

(First published at:
Even for a businesswoman with Rabbatts’s breadth of experience it was a challenging start to a new role.

Having been appointed as one of two independent non-executive directors — businessman Roger Devlin is the other — she might have anticipated a quieter initiation. But where some might have taken a softly-softly approach while they got their feet under the table, Rabbatts had no hesitation.

Once Terry’s trial on charges of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand was adjourned until after Euro 2012, in her mind the FA’s course was obvious. Informed by her heritage — she is of mixed race, born to a Jamaican mother — and her diverse business background, she argued that Terry’s captaincy was untenable.

If chairman David Bernstein had any doubts about standing Terry down, Rabbatts’s counsel would have helped ease it.

As a result she is associated with the most contentious decision the FA has taken in some time, but there are no regrets. It was, she says, a matter of leadership.

“It is not rocket science, given who I am, that this was an issue that I would feel strongly about,” she says, in her first extensive interview since taking the FA role."

“The principle of innocent until proven guilty is absolutely paramount. But in other walks of life, if an employee who carries additional reputational responsibilities is subject to charges, they are suspended."

“Given the FA’s policies and priorities, and given the reputation that the England captain absolutely has to stand by, it was not appropriate for him to be captain. I think the board and in particular the chairman showed leadership. It is a decision the board can stand by.”

Leadership is a theme of conversation with Rabbatts, who has wide experience from a diverse career.

Her CV includes spells as chief executive of Lambeth Council, deputy chairman of Millwall, and directorships at the BBC, the Bank of England, the Royal Opera House, Crossrail and her own media company Shed Media.

This mix of experience, and a lifetime’s interest in football from grass-roots to the professional game, including a long commitment to anti-racism campaign Kick It Out, led the FA to appoint her.

“English football is a pretty heady cocktail. It comprises business dynamics, it is a massive entertainment industry, it is a national passion and it is political. I am strange in that I have worked in all those different sectors."  

“I felt I brought a pretty unique skill-set in terms of what the FA is trying to achieve. I am also a woman and I am mixed race. So I think I bring an additional lens.”

Inevitably in a season scarred by racist incidents, her perspective on the issue is informative. She is encouraged by the progress the English game has made, but says more has to be done.
Liverpool’s at times blind support for Luis Suárez dismayed her, though diplomacy restricts her to a limited comment.

“Liverpool found themselves a lone voice, and the fact they found themselves a lone voice says it all. But the reaction to Suárez and other incidents demonstrates how committed many millions of fans are to stamp this out.”
She identifies the double-edged sword of social media as an area of concern:

“Social media is a fantastic way of connecting to people, but some black players are being racially abused because people think they are anonymous on Twitter. The chants on the terraces are not replaced by abuse on social media, but it is creeping in. You can’t stop moving [on racism] because it changes.”

Increasing diversity at the top of English football, particularly among the next generation of coaches, will be a priority. Her logic for broadening the talent pool is not ideological but practical.

“There was a time when great English managers managed European clubs. Jose Mourinho learned his trade under a great English manager [Sir Bobby Robson]. It is almost impossible to imagine that happening today.

One of my objectives is to ensure that we have the calibre of coaches and future managers who are in demand. To do that you have to have the best of talent, and that talent comes from all different parts of this country.

There are precious few candidates that one talks about for very senior high-profile jobs. Wouldn’t it be nice in future to say we have the choice of five or 10 candidates for those roles?”

Selecting the next occupant of the highest profile job of all, England manager, is the next major decision for the FA board. Rabbatts is clear that whoever it is should be English, or at least appreciate the particular dynamics of the English game.

“It is preferable [to have an English manager] though we don’t rule out someone who isn’t. But it is important that it is someone who understands the English DNA of the game. Each country has its own culture. We have ours, and it’s a massive part of this country’s psyche, so you do have to get it.”

Of course there would have been no appointment to make had the board, influenced in part by Rabbatts, not taken such decisive action over Terry, prompting Fabio Capello to walk. Despite the unintended consequences, she stands by it.

“You make the right decisions for the right reasons. Ultimately what it comes back to is leadership, and the chairman and this board making the right decisions for the good of the game. We stand by it, and we move forward.”