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The FA's Counting On Crean

Thu 12th Dec 2013 | Money & Finance

Mention the Football Association to your average fan and what you invariably get back is the England team, Roy Hodgson and the FA Cup. Behind the scenes, how The FA spends its money is rarely noticed.

Andrew Crean is anything but a publicity seeker but his role as Group Chief Financial Officer – in other words pulling the purse strings and looking after the support services - is one of the most important at The FA’s Wembley headquarters in terms of ensuring a healthy future.

The FA may not always enjoy a positive press but Crean believes the organisation is often misunderstood.

Only in the job since April, he is already relishing the position. Recruited by former FA Chairman David Bernstein, he insists he has been left alone to get on with the job by Bernstein’s successor, the more colourful Greg Dyke.

“The strategic plan which runs until 2015 remains unchanged,” says Crean. “Obviously Greg has his priorities, such as the commission he set up, but he’s comfortable with the current strategy. I’m sure when we refresh it the chairman will contribute to that.”

Crean chuckles when I compare the monster that is The FA to the Quatermass science fiction story. But he understands the point. “A couple of things have surprised me since I came into the role, probably first among which is the length and depth of the organisation itself, who it touches etc. I have a great passion for football but I didn’t really grasp the detail when I arrived in terms of what is involved.”

He is quick to negate what he says is a false image of The FA as a staid, unwieldy organisation that makes decisions by countless commi®ee meetings. “The perception around The FA among people who don’t deal with the organisation on a day to day basis is that it is perhaps too cumbersome a body, too slow-moving, too bureaucratic. In reality the people I work with are dynamic and want to do their best for English football.

“The general public probably equate The FA to the England senior team and probably the FA Cup. Whilst they are two very big brands, the England senior team for instance is one of only 24 national teams if you include women’s and disability teams. People only see the investment we are making – circa £100m a year – subliminally. To see it explicitly is fantastic.”

Hired from the Jockey Club where he was Group Finance Director, responsible for the delivery of property, legal and information technology services across the group in addition to all matters of financial planning and control, Crean has also held senior finance and commercial positions across a number of companies including more recently Compass Group plc and Granada Group plc. With such experience, he brings a number of varied skills to the table, not least robust financial planning.

“There are actually a lot of parallels between the Jockey Club and The FA,” he explains, sitting in an open-necked striped shirt in one of the many plush executive boxes overlooking the pitch at Wembley stadium. “The ethos of both organisations is about re-investment back into their respective sports. During my career I’ve been very keen to add value outside the finance arena and looking to maximise the returns from the assets we’ve got.”

When he sees how much more money the Premier League generates than the national body, does he breathe a sigh of frustration? “Not at all. The revenues are generated in an open market place and it’s the quality of the product that determines those revenues. The key for me is to work closely with the whole football family to ensure we make investments for long-term stability.”

I put the question again since England is one of the only major footballing countries where the tail wags the dog. I suggest that Crean must be aware of all the criticism: that The FA is too weak compared with the country’s top-flight league. Again he skirts round it, eager to avoid any hint of controversy. “Look, I had a relationship with the CFO at the Premier League even before I came here and we continue that relationship. My viewpoint is about the good of the game. If the Premier League continues to generate revenue for football and we continue together to make the appropriate investments then that can only be a good thing.”

Except that The FA is a not-for-profit organisation. “It’s not about retaining profit for its own sake,” argues Crean who then gets as close as he ever does in 40 minutes to becoming irritated.

“I don’t think the public is sufficiently aware of some of the work we do.”

Should they be? “Absolutely. It’s interesting that only around the narrative of our 150th anniversary have we actually gained more traction about quite how The FA invests and supports the game, whether through facilities or coaching. Those messages are now gradually getting across.”

While some might view Crean’s role as scarily difficult, he sees it as a necessary challenge and has plans to grow the revenues still further in the next four-year cycle 2015-18. As announced already in the summer, the

BBC and BT Sport will become official broadcast partners for the FA Cup as from next year (pictured above), while ITV will have exclusive rights for all England internationals.

The deal sees the world’s oldest domestic knockout competition return to free-to-view TV but there are other TV marketing deals that impact on The FA just as strongly, not least Uefa’s central marketing arrangement which national associations agreed to in 2011 and under which Uefa is taking central control of TV rights for competitive qualifying matches of all its member nations, promising large underwritten guarantees to the biggest countries. Good news for The FA? “The revenues are broadly similar to what we had before,” says Crean. “I suppose what they DO give is that greater certainty.”

As a fan, Crean makes no apologies for supporting Manchester United and laughs in anticipation of me ribbing him about being brought up as a Red Devils fan living around the leafy Surrey-Berkshire borders. He has a so¸ spot too for Reading and Aldershot Town. In fact, he had trials with Chelsea and Aldershot but was never going to make it so did the “next best thing” by getting a job inside.

Dealing with figures – big figures -- almost every day of his working life by deciding how best to invest The FA’s money may appear daunting but Crean loves it. “It’s incredibly exciting. I wake up every morning and when I see the arc of Wembley realise there are a hell of lot worse places to work.”

Investment can mean everything from existing assets such as Wembley and St. George’s Park to coaching strategies to a recently established anti-discrimination programme. Prioritising spending comes relatively easily.

“We have a strategic plan and in essence there are three pillars: governing the game effectively, football for everyone and building winning teams. The first question I ask myself is whether a particular investment sits comfortably alongside our strategic plan. What are the appropriate investments to be made on behalf of football? It’s all about supporting the game.”

Crean says he can’t afford to take much notice of the negative headlines The FA gets such as it being too rooted in the past with two separate boards of the Professional Game and the National Game. “It would be easy to get frustrated by some of the comments but as a senior management team we are comfortable with the strategic direction we are going in and the breadth and quality of investment we are making. The Chairman and Chief Executive are very good at allowing the executive to get on with managing the business so that we are not distracted.”

Crean has three sons and a daughter, all of whom have been involved with the game in some shape or form. The Sunday morning park analogy of thousands of part-time players enjoying their weekly game rings true with him. “I freely admit that until I joined The FA, I didn’t join up all the dots around what The FA actually does and what I see on a day to day level, be it facilities or quality and number of coaches, or community programmes.”

Speaking of facilities, does Crean ever have sleepless nights in terms of how much money has gone into St. George’s Park? “The money is relative. It’s about having better quality coaches and providing a base for all the England teams and world-class training venue. The investment is investment in the game as a whole. We are very keen to make sure that it’s a facility that is used by the whole game – not just England.”

Switching to broadcasting, five years after Setanta went bust – it feels like 25 – has The FA recovered from the fallout?

“Our latest financial results suggest it has,” says Crean. “The important thing looking forward is all about the process of due diligence, the way that we contract, putting contingencies in place. But of course you can’t plan against every eventuality.”

With a £25m increase in cash reserves, Crean says that acts as a buffer against any future Setanta-style crash but is anxious to accentuate the positive. The FA Cup, for instance, remains a crucial part of future investment even though many clubs continue to treat the early rounds with far less importance than in the past.

“The FA Cup is one of The FA’s two key brands, England being the other one. We are very focussed on ensuring the competition maintains its pre-eminent status in the calendar. Broadcast-wise we are working now with the BBC and BT Sport which can only be a good thing. There is a view that the tradition and history of the FA Cup, and the values the BBC stands for, makes us quite good bedfellows. I would agree with that. I know the BBC are keen to maximise the exposure of the competition.”

Uefa’s financial fair play rules may not be directly within Crean’s remit but the business model conceived by Michel Platini and his team of experts, says Crean, “sounds very sensible” – up to a point.

“I think what will happen is that the details sitting behind FFP will evolve over time, particularly if there is a view that clubs are hindered from progressing up the pyramid.”

With The FA having just celebrated its 150th anniversary, Crean believes the future will be one trying to get the relevant message across.

“For me, it’s all about providing more opportunities for people to take part in the game. I guess what determines if I succeed is whether the support services me and my team deliver to the business are of the highest quality. Having said that, I’m not overly concerned about what people say about me, or even know what I do. Good news stories find it hard to get traction but I believe Greg (Dyke) coming in will give us a platform to be more pro-active. We probably do need to be more visible because it’s about getting across the message about some of the great things we do.”

By Andrew Warshaw. Taken from fcbusiness issue 73

Posted by: Aaron Gourley

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