The Disgraceful End to a Disgraceful Tenure for the FA's Now Ex-Chairman

What was supposed to be a talk about the pandemic's impact on the sport devolved into an unprompted array of stereotypes. Greg Clarke's bumbling address to a parliamentary committee was the final straw for him and a wake-up call to England's FA leadership.
Publish date:

The only surprise about Greg Clarke’s resignation as chairman of England's Football Association on Tuesday is that it had taken so long to get to this point. Even by the lowly standards of the position, he has been a disaster. In his four years in the job, scandal has followed scandal and gaffe has followed gaffe. He has given no indication at all of understanding football, leadership, people or the modern world. Pity his poor communications team, which must have watched his every public appearance through its fingers, dreading the next slip. 

Finally, on Tuesday, came his appearance at a House of Commons Select Committee, which was supposed to be an investigation into football’s response to the pandemic and the economic crisis that has left perhaps as many as a third of the 92 League clubs on the brink of extinction. But in his testimony, Clarke went on a spectacular spree of offensiveness. 

He used the word “colored” to refer to Black players. He suggested the lack of British footballers of South Asian background was to do with “different career interests” and was offset by the fact that “if you go to the IT department of the FA, there’s a lot more South Asians than there are Afro-Caribbeans.” He explained away a dearth of female goalkeepers by saying that girls “don’t like the ball kicked at them hard." And he seemed to suggest that being gay is a lifestyle choice. 

As Lord Triesman, one of his predecessors in the role, pointed out, Clarke has become the embodiment of the failure of the FA to reform. And this was just days after the FA instituted a diversity code that required 15% of new recruits in senior leadership roles to be Black, Asian or of mixed heritage and 30% to be female, and 25% of coaching appointments (and 10% of senior coaching appointments) in men’s professional football to Black, Asian or of mixed heritage. Rarely can a bumbling leader have so rapidly undermined what at least on the surface appears to be a radical policy. 

As long ago as 2017, Clarke had dismissed suggestions the FA is institutionally racist as “fluff.” He apologized for that, as he apologized on Tuesday for his use of the term “colored” with the bizarre explanation that while working in the U.S. he had become used to using the term “people of color” and “sometimes I trip over my words.” Sometimes people do trip over their words, but rarely as often as Clarke, and rarely in such predictable ways. And this is a man who is the public face of the body running the biggest sport in the country: Not tripping over his words in an offensive way is part of his job. 

FA chairman Greg Clarke has resigned in disgrace

But he’s been incompetent at pretty much every other aspect as well. Clarke took the job in September 2016, and, three weeks later, forced Sam Allardyce to resign as England manager after one game in charge following a sting operation by the Daily Telegraph that generated a furor but turned up nothing of any substance beyond the fact that Allardyce likes a drink and is happy to discuss being paid to give speeches. 

Immediately, he revealed himself to be weak in a crisis, unable to think clearly and craven in the face of media pressure. Then there was the Mark Sampson affair. The England women’s coach was twice cleared of making racially offensive comments to two players, before a third investigation decided there was evidence of discrimination. Sampson had been ousted a month earlier for “inappropriate and unacceptable behavior” while coach at Bristol City, before he’d taken the England job. In January 2019, he was paid an out-of-court settlement for unfair dismissal. The exact truth of the case remains to be publicly revealed, but the impression was of a panicked leadership reacting to events and engaging in a series of botched cover-ups. 

Even this year, Clarke’s role in Project Big Picture has provoked consternation. He said he backed away as soon as it became apparent to him it was a power grab by the Big Six (although if that took more than 30 seconds, his judgment would have to be called into question, anyway), but a series of revelations in The Guardian have suggested he was far more central to the plans than had initially been claimed. 

At a time when football desperately needed leadership, Clarke has been a disgrace. He lacked the subtlety to play political games, allowed himself to drift on the tides of tabloid opinion and was devoid of any moral authority. That in little more than an hour he was able to bumble through a checklist of almost every outmoded stereotype before a parliamentary committee was only the final straw.