PROFILE – How an FD shot to the top of theleague

[10 Nov 1999]

Michael Cunnah

Which organisation finds its sphere of responsibility filling more newspaper column inches than any other? Number Ten? Maybe. Buckingham Palace? Sometimes. But for the most regular source of Fleet Street stories try Lancaster Gate, the London home of the Football Association.

As money and interest in the sport multiplies, football finds itself ceaselessly under the fierce glare of publicity, and never more so than this week. The hopes of two nations are riding on the outcome of the games on Saturday and Wednesday between England and Scotland. For the FA – which is charged with the promotion of the game across England – there is a lot more than just the result at stake. Put in simple terms: if England does not qualify for the finals in Belgium and Holland next summer, the development of the game at home – the FA’s raison d’etre – will suffer.

As the game’s regulator, the FA is also never far from the spotlight. It disciplines players (remember Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick and subsequent ban), arranges international fixtures – 66 last year for the senior and junior men’s squads as well as women’s football – and manages the funding of the game at grass-roots level. And with scandals like the ‘bung’ that ended the tenure of George Graham as Arsenal manager a few years ago, and the cash-for-votes scandal that led to the resignation of FA chief executive Graham Kelly, the FA’s finances are now under more scrutiny than ever.

Stewardship of those finances – and much else besides – are now under the control of Michael Cunnah, the FA’s finance director. For more than half of his time as FD, 41-year-old Cunnah has had additional responsibilities. Alongside executive director David Davies and legal director Nic Coward, he has been one of three senior directors of the organisation that has been running the game since Kelly’s resignation. All that will change in January when a new chief executive – the 35-year-old head of advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, Adam Crozier – joins the FA. The appointment will see Cunnah retreat to the finance department – still very much a full-time job at an organisation with a £66m annual turnover. Life, however, is unlikely to be much quieter. Sipping tea from a Sunderland mug, Cunnah, a passionate fan and native of the North East, cuts a calm and collected figure. But life at the FA is very different to all that he has known.

‘If there really is one difference between life in business and life at the FA it is the profile,’ he says. ‘We probably fill more column inches everyday than Number Ten or Buckingham Palace, we are certainly at that level. And it can be very difficult.’ He could not have anticipated the level of press interest in the FA, he says now. As the body at the top of the football pyramid it is put in the firing line not just when something is seen to have gone wrong at the FA itself, but whenever something goes wrong in football. Cunnah joined the FA 18 months ago from Coca-Cola Schweppes where he was corporate finance director. Before that he spent nine years at Guinness in various roles including managing the acquisition of the Jamaican beer Red Stripe. The deal took him to the Caribbean for a couple of years.

It was there that Cunnah, a management accountant by training, learned through Red Stripe’s sponsorship of local sport – especially cricket – how he could combine his business skills with his knowledge of, and interest in, sport. It’s what led him to apply for the job. ‘The difference between my previous jobs and this one is that when you are working for a company, you are managing that company,’ he says. ‘When you are at the FA there is a company in its own right, but then it is the governing body of the sport. So it’s like regulating an industry as well. ‘That’s where the role gets bigger and that’s where you do get into influencing the things that are happening in the sport and the strategy for the governing body. That is not only about the business – the FA – but the sport as well.’

The FA has an image that it is struggling to shake off. To its detractors, it is a staid, backward-looking organisation stuffed with old men in blazers. Much of that, it should be said, is true. But in recent months, Cunnah and his fellow directors have been working on a plan to change the structure of the FA and its relationship with other bodies, changes designed to make it a more forward-looking, business-like organisation. ‘What we have been trying to do is come up to date and create a main board of directors who can take the business and commercial decisions,’ he explains. Currently there is a council made up of 92 representatives of the county football associations, an unwieldy board of directors if ever there was one. Under the new proposals, a main board will take business decisions with the council continuing as the guardian of the game.

The professional game – through the Premier League and the Football League – has reinvented itself in recent years. The FA, which represents the 43,000 football clubs at the lower levels of the game, does not want to be left behind. ‘It’s a huge, huge task coordinating how they operate,’ acknowledges Cunnah. ‘We have been good at the administration of the game. The bigger challenge is developing the game when there are 43,000 teams involved or 43 different county FAs involved.’

Cunnah hopes the restructuring will allow the FA to persuade other funding partners to support growth at the lower levels of the game. In this sense the FA is very much in tune with the times. With the government hoping to use sport to tackle social exclusion, football is, to adapt a famous quote, as important as life and death. In his role, Cunnah enjoys all the normal FD’s responsibilities – stewardship and cash management and so on. But there are others too. ‘The differences then start to come because we are non-profit-making. So we then get the other side of the coin because we have got this money and what are we going to do with it?’ he says. ‘We then have to analyse the proposals that come up from the lower levels of football for investment in their facilities.’ Cunnah is also involved in governance. ‘We have to work with people in the game to make sure we are setting the climate and standards which are appropriate – not least of which are issues like financial compliance, just to make sure football does have financial integrity.’

But his biggest achievement to date has been this year’s £103m purchase of Wembley Stadium for the FA. A year of negotiations – and much to-ing and fro-ing before that – were concluded in March. Cunnah now acts as group FD and is confident that once the funding is in place and there is a new Wembley Stadium on the site, it will bring in a steady stream of profit for the FA – profit it can use to support grass-roots football. Walking around Lancaster Gate, you can see the FA wears its heritage on its sleeve. Staff are encouraged to participate in the sport they serve. Trophies and pictures line the walls: those outside Cunnah’s office are given over to Manchester United, his secretary’s team, those inside are devoted to Sunderland, his own. A TV in his office stays on with the Ceefax football home page always on display. Cunnah answers questions cautiously. He is acutely aware that any slip of the tongue may lead to ‘FA finance director says …’ scare headlines on the back – or even the front pages. He is reluctant to comment on the George Graham and Graham Kelly financial scandals, but points out that the FA’s internal procedures did pick up the payment agreed by Kelly for the Welsh FA – apparently in return for Welsh support for an FA candidate on the governing body of international body FIFA. If anything, he says, it proves governance of the game’s finances is about right. ‘Football, as a business, as a collection of businesses, is getting ever more sophisticated and is attracting people who have had business careers and now see football as part of a sensible business career strategy,’ he says. ‘And I think that suggests it has come an awful long way in the last five or ten years in terms of professionalism. Next week’s games are crucial to the future of English football in the sense that ‘success breeds success’ in attracting people to play and watch the game, says Cunnah. Financially it is less significant.

Cunnah will finalise the FA’s 2000 budget after the qualifiers, though the two are not connected. There is not one budget for a win and one for a defeat. Imagine if there were: the press would have a field day.


Founded in 1863, the FA’s role is to maximise participation in the game, protect its integrity and promote the England team’s success on the field. ‘Commercial success would never be a primary objective of the FA; it would just help fund the investment in facilities that we need,’ says Cunnah. As a non-profit making body it uses its surpluses to invest in grass roots football. It also has to work with a myriad of other organisations: the Premier League, the Football League, Sport England (formerly the Sports Council) and the government. It makes its money principally from the FA Cup and the senior England men’s team – under-21 and youth-team games are usually staged at a loss. And it sits at the top of the pyramid of football administration.

‘The great dream is that anybody in that pyramid – whether they are in the Ryman league or something like – could rise all the way up to the Premier League like a latter-day Wimbledon,’ says Cunnah. ‘We sit at the top as the governing body.’ The 20-club Premier League and the 72-club Football League are constituted to look after the teams in their competition. The competitions themselves are sanctioned by the Football Association which also runs the FA Cup and the FA Vase and Trophy competitions for smaller competitors.

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