Life & Culture

David Bernstein: It’s been a game of two halves

The former Football Association chairman reflects on England’s prospects, fighting racism within the game and the impact of visits by star players to Holocaust memorials


For England football fans, there were two memorable images from last year’s European championships.

The first was the sight of the England squad deep in contemplation as they toured the Auschwitz death camp site.

The second was the players looking deeply confused in the quarter-finals of the tournament as the Italian team gave them a masterclass in ball retention.

In a way, these two scenes sum up the tenure of David Bernstein as chairman of the Football Association. Bernstein — who stood down last month after two years at the FA’s helm — has faced a number of challenges.

But aside from the fortunes of the England team, much of his focus has been on kicking out racism and discrimination from the game. On the latter, he has achieved much and is positive about the future. About the former, he is less optimistic.

Over coffee at his north London home, Bernstein, looking fit and relaxed at 70, recalls the moment he led manager Roy Hodgson and the England players into Auschwitz as “a real highlight for me. I’d never been to Auschwitz before and to go with the England team was a proud moment.

"We were able to use it to educate and to broaden knowledge of the Holocaust and then to follow it up with a visit to Yad Vashem this year with the under-21 team in Israel. It has had real impact. For better or worse, football has the ability to make people aware of things they wouldn’t be aware of otherwise.”

To this end, the FA has produced a related DVD, in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, which has been sent out to schools around the country. Bernstein is aware of the responsibility — and also the opportunity — for football to make a real difference.

He has further made strenuous efforts to bring the Muslim communities into the football mainstream.” At the last Asian football awards I was described by [veteran sports writer] Mihir Bose as ‘an honorary Asian’. I was rather pleased about that.”

However, all this good work was undermined by what Bernstein describes as “the Terry thing”. Certainly, it could not have helped the promotion of equal opportunities and anti-discrimination in football when England’s then captain was accused of racially insulting QPR’s Anton Ferdinand [He was found guilty of racial abuse by the FA, having been cleared by a court].

The ensuing fall-out was a massive headache for Bernstein and the FA and ultimately led to the departure of Fabio Capello as England manager and his replacement by Hodgson. Although Bernstein does not want to go into detail about the events, which interrupted England’s build-up to Euro 2012, he is pleased with the way he handled things.

“I’m a great believer in the adage: ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.’ I’m quite good under pressure as long as I have a unified team behind me. I’ve been very lucky with my wife and family — we have always had that solidity — and I also had a great team at the FA. Some of the big things that happened at the FA... I actually quite enjoyed dealing with them.”

Given Bernstein’s successful business career — he has interests in a number of companies — he had no need to get involved in football administration. He did so mainly because of his love for Manchester City.

He was born in St Helens, in the north-west, and although his family moved down to London when he was very young, Bernstein retained an emotional attachment with the north which influenced his choice of team. “Firstly, Manchester City was a north-west club,” he recalls.

“I think it was possible that the sky blue shirt had a resonance with Israel for me. I was also very impressed with the size of their stadium, and that Man City had the record crowd for a club match, 84,569, in 1934.”

There was another Jewish connection. Manchester City played in the FA Cup Final on May 5, 1956, which also happened to be the day of Bernstein’s barmitzvah. It turned out to be a happy one for all concerned.

“The rabbi mentioned the match in his sermon. In the afternoon at home we had a celebration and my parents allowed me to watch the match on television. City won and it reinforced my support because I had this idea the whole thing was fated.”

By the early 1990s, Bernstein had left a successful accountancy practice to work for the Pentland group. A client asked him whether he would like to meet former City and England star Francis Lee, who had plans to take over as City chairman. Within a year, Bernstein found himself on the City board and after Lee’s departure, was made chairman in 1998.

It was not an auspicious time in the club’s history. City were relegated to the third flight in English football within months of Bernstein taking over and he recalls the administration of the club as “like something from the 19th century”.

He transformed the club over the next six years. “In a short time we moved forward 100 years. We didn’t have a store to speak of and the training ground was terrible. We developed offices, a new training ground at Carrington and a proper store.

"Above all, we began to build up a good management team and negotiated this amazing deal at the City of Manchester Stadium for next to nothing. That was the foundation for what happened subsequently.”

He had a stubborn streak as well. Despite his love for the club, there were disagreements over the budgetary demands of manager Kevin Keegan and Bernstein was particularly opposed to the signing of Robbie Fowler. So in 2004 he decided to resign.

He experienced success as chairman of Wembley Stadium Ltd and his achievements were duly noted at the FA. And when Lord Triesman vacated the FA hot-seat, he was appointed chairman.

If the task at City was to bring the club into the 21st century, in a way his main assignment at the FA was even more demanding — to lay the groundwork for a successful national team.

As many have discovered, this is a job fraught with difficulties. But the basic objective is a simple one, according to Bernstein. “At the end of the day we need better players. A lot of work has been done in developing a much better infrastructure. There is now a more sophisticated, progressive way of developing young players. There’s a youth development programme based on skill and on enjoyment.

"We now have the academy system through Football League and Premier League which should enable young players to move through the system. The National Football Centre is the pinnacle of all that.”

But he cautions: “If we don’t manage to get more top players playing at the highest levels of English football, we’re always going to have a problem. The fact is that we have 30 per cent of English players in the Premier league whereas the Spanish have 50 per cent [of domestic players] in their league and the Germans have between 40 and 50 per cent. And how many of that 30 per cent actually start matches?”

Of those coming through the ranks, he highlights the Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere — “a great young player but we can’t put everything on his shoulders. We need to produce a few more like him.”

The talent of young players is one thing but Bernstein is also worried about a “cultural problem”. He feels English players are sometimes reluctant to play for the development teams. He points out with a bitter chuckle that the England under-21s lost to Israel this summer — and the under-20s succumbed to Egypt.

He adds that “more and more countries play football to a high level. The smallest countries have decent coaching and know how to defend. Playing against so-called small countries is increasingly difficult. Sides come to Wembley, they know how to defend, England don’t score, the crowd get edgy and put pressure on players. It’s a vicious circle but we need to turn it into a virtuous circle where the fans are inspired by the players and create an atmosphere for them to succeed.”

Perhaps England’s young players should take their lead from Bernstein, whose attitude and expertise has won the respect of administrators the world over. He has been invited on to the Fifa anti-discrimination task force and has his own project to bring together Arabs and Jews in Israel through football.

“Football has always been a passion and to be able to look back and see what I have been involved in both at City and with the FA gives me a great thrill,” he says.

Less of a thrill is England’s continuing wait to stage its first World Cup since 1966. On the failed attempt to secure the 2018 tournament, Bernstein reflects diplomatically: “The technical quality of our bid was first class but I understand why they might have wanted to award the finals to Russia as it is such a massive country.”

The controversial choice of Qatar for 2022 “was a strange decision but I’m sure they looked into the feasibility of holding it there. If they decide that it can’t be held there in summer I think that rather than holding it in winter, which would cause massive problems, they should re-bid.”

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