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Roker Report meets... former FA Chief Executive (and father of Duncan) Ian Watmore!

During yet another break in our schedule we had the privilege of catching up with Mr. Ian Watmore, former FA Chief Executive and father of Roadrunner Duncan, talking about his love of football, his time at the top and what the future might hold for Sunderland. 

England Training & Press Conference Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

RR: Ian! You're a busy man so let me start by saying we appreciate you taking the time to let us pick your brains. So. Let's start with the basics: how did you come to fall in love with Football, who do you support (other than Sunderland, of course!) and what’s your fondest match memory?

IW: My Dad was a junior medic at Highbury and took me to my first Arsenal game, away to then fourth division Peterborough in the FA Cup 4th round in early 1965 - and Arsenal lost 2-1! It was apparently the day Winston Churchill was buried - they didn’t cancel the football for some reason - so tickets were readily available. So, I'm afraid to say that I am a lifelong Gooner.

I moved to the Manchester area in the 1990’s and adopted Altrincham as my local team, whilst securing an away season ticket for Arsenal. Little did I know that Duncan would play for Alty… Now, of course, I add Sunderland to the list.

Football highlights include... being at the 1973 FA Cup Final aged 14 - I had hoped to see the Arse there but a certain team from the North East knocked them out in the semis; being at Wembley for the 1996 Euro semi against Germany; being in the away end at Old Trafford to see Arsenal win the Double in 2002 - I was also at the FA Cup Final versus Chelsea the previous Saturday as it was World Cup year; and being at the Champions League Final in Paris when Arsenal lost to Barca 2-1 with ten men.

And also, being there in the crowd to see Duncan score his first goals for Altrincham, Sunderland U21s, Hibernian, Sunderland, England U20s and the England U21s. I was also in the Stadium of Light to see the Chelsea and Everton wins which kept Sunderland up last season.

RR: As some of our readers may know, in June 2009 you took the post of Chief Executive of The Football Association: was this a role that you actively pursued and aspired to over the years?

IW: No, it was a surprise to me as much as anyone else to be appointed. But I was delighted to get it, I felt qualified to do it, I think I did it well but the corruption at FIFA and the broken governance on the FA Board meant I left early. I have no regrets in taking it, no regrets in leaving it, but many regrets that it remains an unsolved problem to this day.

RR: Tell us a little about a day in the life of the FA's Chief Executive - for a sport that attracts wealth and glamour in equal measure is it fair to say that by contrast it's more about boardrooms than boxes? Is it easy to stay a fan when you’re so far removed from the terraces?

IW: Every day at the FA was a long one - and I sometimes worked seven days a week. There are such diverse issues to deal with. Setanta went bust on my first day there and the FA was in deep financial trouble as a result. A lot of cost cutting and negotiating new TV and sponsorship deals then followed over the next six months to put it back on an even keel.

On my second day Bob Crow called a Tube strike to target the England Andorra game two weeks later and I spent a frantic fortnight trying to get the game to go ahead with fans allowed in the stadium - initially the authorities wouldn’t grant a safety certificate. I was determined not to be the first CEO to preside over England World Cup qualifier behind closed doors. Fortunately we got there and 56,000 England fans turned out - it was a brilliant effort by them.

England Training & Press Conference Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

I had to overcome misogyny to get the Women’s Super League started. I started FATV, the digital channel, and we actually broadcast free-to-air games legally on the internet that season - sadly discontinued when I left.

I had to withstand a press onslaught to intervene over whether John Terry should stay as England captain after the Wayne Bridge affair, holding my ground that it was a decision for Fabio Capello and not FA 'suits' like me. I went on tour to Sweden and Finland with the England U21s and Women’s team for their Euros that year - both teams got to the Final, and both were thrashed by Germany. I attended the annual Army vs Navy match at Aldershot (refereed by the RAF), particularly poignant at that time because of Afghanistan and Iraq. I went to countless grass roots games across the country, visiting most of the Counties along the way. I had one-on-ones with many of the games big managers like Fabio, Sir Alex, Arsene, Big Sam… I worked with Sir Trevor Brooking to design a new approach to skills development and with David Sheepshanks to get St. George’s Park launched as a project. I had to tackle the awful pitch problem at Wembley as well as the huge debt that Wembley has on the FA, as well as working the Premier League and Football League on football calendar issues.

I met Sepp Blatter and his corrupt gang at FIFA, and Michel Platini and Gianni Infantino at UEFA, plus attended loads and loads of FA Board and Committee meetings. I didn’t have responsibility for the World Cup 2018 bid, but I did have to help the Bid team from time to time.

I could go on…. As for remaining a fan, its easy to carry on with supporting all the England teams, but impossible to support a Club. I remember that most starkly when I went as Man City’s guest to watch the Arsenal game when Adebayor went nuts in front of the Arsenal fans and kicked RVP in the head, for which he was later banned. I was on the BBC radio 5 Sportsweek the next day and was bombarded with Questions about Adebayor, which I could only evade as anything I said would be judged as partisan. I also really missed going to games in the away end at Arsenal or down with the fans at Wembley, and became very bored of the prawn sandwich watching of football in Director's boxes and so on.

RR: We recently witnessed Manchester United lift the League Cup in a game which saw Southampton have a goal disallowed and, as expected, such a contentious decision has reinforced the call from supporters for the use of video technology, particularly in high profile tournaments such as that: where do you stand?

IW: I am totally in favour of bringing in technology to support referees, like in rugby or cricket. I had major rows with Blatter and Platini over Goal line tech - the only reason we have that is because of Frank Lampard’s 'goal' at the South Africa World Cup - even “Blattini” (as I thought of them) had to give in then. Now look at how it has improved football generally.

Video reffing is harder and needs trialing and tuning in the light of experience, but the disallowed Manolo Gabbiadini goal in that cup final is a great example of how quickly that could have been sorted and how quickly the correct decision could have been given. Others will be more complex but we should do it - I think Infantino is much more modern on this and we will now get there.

RR: Regularly, changes are made to the rules of the game by the Football Association, leading many to question the necessity for such seemingly - constant tweaking of what has always been described as the beautiful game. Do you believe such changes are necessary? Is it done purely for the benefit of the fans or are there other factors here?

IW: I sat on IFAB - the Board that makes the decisions - and the overwhelming instinct is to leave things alone. But the game changes - speed, technology etc - and these have to be reflected. And coaches and players learn how to “game” or “cheat” the system and it has to be addressed. But that in turn can create unintended consequences, like the recently amended automatic red card for penalties. Offside is complicated but it is better today than in days gone by when it was simpler but more unfair. But overwhelmingly the basic rules remain the same, unlike, say, rugby where the rules are regularly changing in a big way.

RR: As Football continues to spread like a virus around the globe and more and more money is thrown into it by individuals and nations to get the edge over each other, do you believe the future is bright for the game? Is there a genuine reason to worry as we see more and more talented players attract the interest of the mega-rich and go farther abroad for a bigger pay-cheque?

IW: This is a hard one because as the money continues to grow, so will the globalisation of football. At the moment that money largely flows into the Premier League, with many benefits and some challenges (e.g to the England team and grass roots investment) to our game. The Premier League has no God-given right to continue to receive this money - it could flood out to China or elsewhere - and then we’d see an outflow of talent from our game on a huge scale.

There are signs of pay-tv fatigue domestically which means that we have to be careful about bursting the Premier League bubble. That is why the League is so worried about illegal streaming and pirate boxes. I like the Premier League, but believe it cannot be left indefinitely outside the governance of a reformed FA as it has been for the last 25 years, because one day that bubble might burst and then the whole game in England will suffer from the crash.

RR: Finally - Sunderland. Give us your thoughts on the club. Is it in the right hands? Is it going in the right direction (even if that direction may be down)? Do you see a place in the spotlight for such a passionately supported, historic club in the future?

IW: As someone who went to the 1973 Cup Final and saw grown men from the North East in floods of tears as Bob Stokoe raced across the pitch, and then someone who watched the “cheer up Peter Reid” team of the 1990s when I worked for four years in the North East, I have always liked Sunderland as a club.

Sunderland v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

The core of the club is the passionate local fans to whom football is disproportionately important. A succession of sound off the field investments has left the club well served with stadium, training, sports science and technology facilities which are as good as anyones. And the behind the scenes the club staff are simply magnificent; these are great assets on which to build and the reason why Duncan chose to join the club.

However, the current manager and CEO are weighed down by the wage and transfer legacy of prior years, and there is no quick fix to that. Also, for reasons I don’t really understand, players seem to want a premium to come to the North East.

So, I personally buy into what David Moyes is trying to do by building a team for tomorrow with young players, whilst somehow attempting to preserve Sunderland's Premier League status this year with experienced players already at the Club or who he knows from his own past. If the great escape can be performed this year again then I really think the cycle will have been broken, as much of the past financial legacy can be cleansed and the young players will move closer to peak age. If it can’t, then there is going to be a squad rebuild job required to supplement the young players at affordable wages and that might make a bounce back at the first attempt really hard. But it should ensure that further descent stops and a return to the Premier League will be likely in the medium term.

In all scenarios I would stick with the current management team, let them stabilise the finances, rebuild the squad (hopefully in the Premier League) and grow a team that makes the fans proud. And if ever a set of fans deserved a team to be proud of it is the Sunderland supporters.

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