For a brief moment, as England beat Russia 6-0 in a World Cup qualifier on Tuesday and the players celebrated in a calculated show of unity with their manager Mark Sampson, it seemed he might survive as the national women’s coach. But the following day, the storm that has been brewing broke and he was sacked, not over racist remarks he is alleged to have made but over questionable behavior while manager of Bristol Academy between 2009 and 2013.
And so, for the second time in a year, the Football Association has lost a national manager one game into a World Cup qualifying series over something other than results. The Sampson affair is about more than one man and the appropriateness or otherwise of his behavior; it is the latest in a series of embarrassments for the FA, which has once again been exposed as a craven and dysfunctional body more concerned by image than reality. Its leaders will face a House of Commons select committee to explain its failures next month.
Last September, Sam Allardyce was forced into resignation after a sting operation by the Daily Telegraph. With hindsight, it becomes increasingly hard to understand what Allardyce did wrong. Offered vast sums by what he believed to be a businessman for speaking engagements in Singapore and Hong Kong, he said he would have to check with his employer. Asked about the difficulties of reconciling third-party ownership with Premier League regulations, he said he could provide advice.
The Telegraph spun that to suggest Allardyce was somehow planning to help with the duping of his employers and promised further revelations from a thorough investigation into corruption in the English game. The FA, panicking as it always does before the big beasts of the British media, gave Allardyce up as a sacrificial victim, to make it seem it was doing something, only for the Telegraph inquiry to yield just one act of wrong-doing, and that from a Barnsley assistant coach.
That has always been its way of operating, from the days when it offered up details of an affair Sven-Goran Eriksson, then the England manager, had with FA secretary Faria Alam (he had, you may recall, supposedly had a thing for loading the dishwasher prior to sex) to try to cover up the fact its chief executive Mark Palios had a relationship with the same woman.
If anything, what has happened with Sampson is even more disturbing. A year ago, during a routine review, the England forward Eniola Aluko made a number of complaints about Sampson and his staff, the most significant of which was a comment he is alleged to have made to Drew Spence that had racist undertones. Mystifyingly, although Sampson's words were investigated, Spence was never interviewed (the FA has claimed it didn’t know who the player was, despite Aluko making clear the alleged recipient was a mixed-race player from south London, a description that could only have fit Spence in that squad, and despite its investigating lawyer having watched a video of the meeting at which the remark is supposed to have been made).
Aluko, who was born in Nigeria, also claims that Sampson made an inappropriate remark about her family and Ebola during an outbreak of the virus in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Sampson denies the remark, which was never formally investigated despite a complaint from the Professional Footballers Association.
Aluko, having been told the review was confidential, was visited by Sampson a week later at Chelsea’s training ground and told that, despite her 102 caps, she had been dropped for “un-Lioness behavior.” She went on to be top scorer in the Super League last season. When Aluko lodged a claim for an employment tribunal, she was paid £80,000 by the FA, seemingly to avoid damaging controversy in the run-up to the summer’s European Championship in which England lost in the semifinal. Justifying that payment, the desire to present an image of calm rather than probe serious claims, will be a key part of next month’s select committee hearings.
But what did Sampson in has, perhaps a little too conveniently, nothing to do with race. Full details of what happened at Bristol have yet to emerge, but it seems safe to assume they are related to the reports of boisterous team trips.
“No law was broken but we felt that, during his time at Bristol, Mark had overstepped the professional boundaries between player and coach,” said the FA’s chief executive Martin Glenn.
Glenn revealed that “a couple of months” after the appointment of Sampson in 2013, anonymous accusations were made about his conduct at Bristol. After an investigation lasting over a year, a review panel concluded that with “some training and mentoring, he wasn’t a safeguarding risk.”
World Cup 2018 Qualification: Who is Going to Russia?
Other than the media and public finding out about it, and Sampson becoming suddenly expendable, what has changed? Yet again, the FA appears to be covering its own back without much consideration for the truth. This is a body that was so in thrall to the British media that for a long time it banned questions at press conferences in languages other than English. That such disregard infuriated journalists from Poland or Croatia or Turkey or whoever England was playing and led to–justified–accusations of arrogance and insularity. It perhaps even contributed to a stile atmosphere in away games and mattered less than appeasing those whose back pages shaped the FA’s public image.
For two decades, it seems, no lessons have been learned. The FA is still a body whose first reaction to a problem is to cover it up. The exit of Allardyce and the Sampson scandal are just the latest results of an instinctive culture of spin and avoidance.