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It has been dominating the headlines for months already, but for the next six weeks England's World Cup campaign will be at the forefront of the nation's consciousness. Behind the scenes and far away from the pitch (but perhaps not as far from the media's glare as they would like), a small team of lawyers has been working hard to ensure that the English game remains the envy of every other domestic league in the world.
Occupying a bright corner office within the Football Association's (FA) Soho Square headquarters in London sits director of governance Jonathan Hall. Hall is one of just a handful of professionals that has the ear of FA chief executive Brian Barwick and he is the man responsible for enforcing compliance and discipline with the game.
Hall is a solicitor by trade who cut his teeth at Baker & McKenzie before moving between the commercial and legal world, working as a sports agent for the IMG sports agency, before returning to law with the Rugby Football Union. When the FA came knocking in 2004, though, it was a no-brainer for him.
"This job isn't just football and it's not a complete step away from the law. A lot of the subject matter I have to deal with is very legal," emphasises Hall. "If you were in this position and not a lawyer, it would be very difficult to do your job effectively. Especially when you're looking at risk management - it really helps to have a set of legal eyes to look at particular issues."
Heading a team of 55 - a mixture of solicitors, barristers, former detectives, forensic accountants, regulators and administrators - Hall's remit covers everything from registrations and referees to player suspensions and financial irregularities.
When Newcastle United FC players Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer had their on-field fight during the team's match against Aston Villa FC in April 2005, it was Hall's compliance team that leapt into action, charging Bowyer with violent conduct, and the disciplinary commission that handed out the additional three-week ban and £30,000 fine.
"You need to have very careful Chinese walls," says Hall of the distinctions between compliance and discipline. "Discipline administers the judicial function, whereas compliance prosecutes, essentially making players defendants."
Compliance v legal
Hall does not, however, oversee the legal function at the FA. That responsibility falls to head of legal Alistair Maclean, who reports directly to company secretary and director of corporate affairs Simon Johnson.
Johnson, who sits down the corridor past a large print of the current England squad, was previously the head of legal at the FA Premier League, a separate entity to the FA itself, and he also previously held a senior legal position at ITV.
But Maclean, a fresh-faced 30-year-old who has been running the four-lawyer department for near on two years, claims to run a largely autonomous operation, although Johnson will pull rank from time to time.
"Largely [Johnson] leaves us to get on with the day-to-day operations of the legal function, but things such as the recruitment of the new England manager, he took on that," says Maclean.
Maclean, who got his first taste of life at the FA on secondment from Bird & Bird, has taken the bull by the horns with a ruthless approach to cost-cutting that has seen him halve the external legal spend since he took the reins.
Maclean will not be drawn on budget figures, but the cost-cutting is part of a company-wide strategy.
As revealed by The Lawyer (29 May), Maclean's former firm Bird & Bird has been the first to feel the pinch of the belt tightening, with the renewal of all of the FA's sponsorship contracts now being handled in-house. And more cost-cutting is on the horizon.
"There's a huge amount of work that would ordinarily have been outsourced if not for the team we've now got," says Maclean. "As we've grown we've been able to take on more and adapt, so there are now more competencies in-house."
Bird & Bird continues to be instructed, and advised the FA on its renewal of its agreement with Umbro in December. But all the firms on the FA's books, including Addleshaw Goddard, Charles Russell, DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary and Eversheds, which handles employment work (including advising on Steve McClaren's England management contract), are in line to feel the cuts.
From negotiations on the rights to England's official World Cup song, to bids to host the Uefa Champions League final, the majority of the FA's legal work is now being undertaken in-house. The FA's broadcast rights agreement is up for renewal in two years and Maclean hopes his team will have the expertise by then to handle that in-house too.
"It's probably the most satisfying achievement to have created a team that's well regarded within the organisation," enthuses Maclean. "It shows by the amount and level of work we now do. People are happy to just let us get on with multi-million pound sponsorship contracts."
The biggest challenges the FA faces often have Maclean and Hall working closely together. An Ofcom investigation into the sale of radio broadcasting rights for FA Cup matches to the BBC, as well as Wayne Rooney's agent Paul Stretford's Court of Appeal case, have brought Maclean's legal team into close alignment with Hall's compliance unit.
Stretford's appeal strikes at the very heart of Hall's governance division and at the FA's authority to govern those involved with the game. Stretford is appealing a High Court ruling in an attempt to get charges levelled by the FA against him heard in open court, and not by the FA's own disciplinary process.
"That's a fundamental challenge to the FA and its ability to regulate. It's crucial for the organisation to maintain the authority it has," says Maclean.
Hall adds: "Agents were always under Fifa regulations, but now they're under ours [since new regulations were introduced on 1 January 2006]. The key role of our compliance department is to monitor compliance with FA rules and regulations and take action against clubs, players, agents and managers for breaches."
The Ofcom investigation, launched in December 2004 following a complaint from a radio broadcaster unhappy at the BBC's allocation of FA Cup broadcasts, resulted in 10 months of heavy-duty work for Maclean's team. "It was a huge piece of work, just in terms of the volume it generated for us," says Maclean.
Ofcom finally dropped the investigation in September last year, deferring to a similar investigation by the European Commission into FA Premier League rights.
A scandalous sport
While both Maclean and Hall started shortly after the doping scandal surrounding Manchester United FC player Rio Ferdinand, both men lived through the furore generated over revelations that FA secretary Faria Alam had been having an affair with England team manager Sven Goran Eriksson. For Maclean, it was a living nightmare.
"Faria was a long and challenging part of my life here," says Maclean. The scandal broke just after he was appointed head of legal.
Maclean worked initially with Addleshaws as the story broke, then with both Eversheds and Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw (MBR&M) on internal investigations and at an employment tribunal.
Addleshaws worked with the FA on initial statements denying any affair between Alam and Eriksson, resulting in Eversheds employment partner Peter Norbury being called in to conduct an investigation into how those erroneous statements were released.
MBR&M senior partner Paul Maher and employment partner Nick Robertson were called in as a one-off to advise the FA board on Norbury's findings. Addleshaws, meanwhile, was appointed by the FA on behalf of Alam, who was still an employee at the time.
Alam subsequently appointed Barker Gillette partners Steven Barker and Nigel Buxton Forsyth, while Eriksson appointed McGrigors corporate partner Paul Davidson and employment partner Stuart Neilson.
The then FA chief executive Mark Palios, who was also embroiled in the scandal after it emerged that he had also had an affair with Alam, was advised by Fox Williams head of employment Jane Mann.
Russell Jones & Walker employment partner Clive Howard represented the FA's then-director of communications Colin Gibson, who also resigned. All in all, it represented an army of lawyers and one almighty headache for a new head of legal.
"When it all happened, that was a very intense three-week period for everyone," says Maclean. "[Personally] being a part of the employment tribunal and having to give evidence was a very challenging time."
The one thing both Maclean and Hall say they could live without in their duties is the media glare.
"It's frustrating dealing with the media," says Hall. "One thing I really want to do is to try and improve the football media's understanding of what we do and why."
Maclean says: "The FA is high profile, so it's going to attract that attention, but there are a lot of instances where you know the reporting is wide of the mark."
But some things are unavoidable and, regardless of England's result in the World Cup, that media spotlight will never fade from the beautiful game.
January 2004: Alistair Maclean joins the Football Association's (FA) legal team from Bird & Bird as a corporate lawyer with one year's post-qualification experience.
July 2004: Maclean appointed as the FA's head of legal and business affairs.
July-September 2004: FA secretary Faria Alam is exposed as having had an affair with both England manager Sven Goran Eriksson and FA chief executive Mark Palios. An inquiry and employment tribunal follows.
September 2004: Jonathan Hall is appointed as the FA's director of governance, joining from the Rugby Football Union, where he was head of legal.
December 2004: Ofcom investigation into the sale of national broadcast rights of FA Cup matches launched.
June 2005: The FA charges agent Paul Stretford over taking up Wayne Rooney's representation. The charges are denied.
August 2005: Lord Terry Burns returns the findings of his structural review of The FA's operations, which call for changes to the way the governance department operates.
October 2005: Ofcom investigation dropped.
1 January 2006: New regulations are brought in governing agents after two years of work by Hall's governance unit.
January 2006: Eriksson hits the front pages after various comments to a 'fake sheikh'. While privately he is suing for defamation, he is under an ongoing investigation by the FA's governance department. Meanwhile, Luton manager Mike Newell is called in by the FA to assist with investigations into agents making 'bung' payments to managers for player transfers.
March 2006: Stretford fails in a High Court bid to have the charges levelled by the FA heard in a public court and not by the FA's internal disciplinary commission. The case is awaiting a Court of Appeal hearing.