In early 2016, the FA’s Director of Elite Development, Dan Ashworth, asked England women’s striker Eniola Aluko to contribute to a cultural review of all England teams. The result was an eight-page submission that comprised a “non-exhaustive” list of seven specific instances amounting to the “basis of a culture of bullying and harassment”. Aluko also claimed that “other England players, past and present [had endured] negative personal experiences”.
According to the Daily Mail, Aluko claimed that one coach, in video analysis from a match, had described her as “lazy as f***”. In replay analysis, said to have been available to all players, Aluko complained that a coach said “F**k off, Eni,” after she lost possession. Ten days later, The Guardian revealed Aluko’s complaint had alleged that head coach Mark Sampson had asked a mixed-race player how many times she had been in trouble with the police: “During a meeting with the midfielders’ unit of players, of which I was not present, MS used an analogy about pressing hard in midfield and getting a caution like a police caution,” read Aluko’s evidence. “MS then addressed the player individually and said in relation to being cautioned by police: ‘Haven’t you been arrested before? Four times isn’t it?’” [sic]
The submission triggered an internal FA review and an independent investigation – conducted by barrister Katharine Newton – found no wrong-doing by England manager Mark Sampson or his staff, and, in many ways, that could have been the end of that.
But the issues run deeper, and there were several questionable elements of the FA’s handling of the case – not least that Aluko was paid around £80,000 to sign an agreement that the FA claims was to “avoid disruption” ahead of Euro 2017 – that remain troubling.
The FA initially refused to comment on the details of the allegations but such silence quickly bred suspicion. Was Aluko really not interviewed as part of the process? (the report summary later revealed that she had “declined to participate in the investigation”.) Was the player at the centre of the police caution remark also not interviewed, as one of the Guardian’s sources alleges? And why, with Sampson cleared, was Aluko paid in the region of £80,000 to sign that agreement ahead of the Euros? Was it hush-money? Aluko’s lawyers believe the agreement prevents her from speaking about it. The FA said otherwise. Why was no one certain?
It was on August 6th that the Daily Mail ran the initial ‘FA pays £40,000 to striker bullied out of the England women’s squad’ article, and it rankles – especially given that the report concluded there was no case to answer, and therefore the FA had, in theory, little to hide – that the FA took ten days to release the (non-confidential) 15-page report summary, and even then only did so due to a growing pressure instigated by national newspapers. During that time, the unanswered questions had grown in volume and quantity. It is easy now, with the report summary available, to forget how many questions the FA’s initial reticence raised. It is difficult, too, from a common-sense perspective, to understand why the FA almost invited suspicion when Sampson was innocent.
What message does it send out is that the FA’s initial reaction was to seemingly thrust its head in the sand, ignore the early clamours for clarity and hope the storm would clear? Why did it take ten days of conjecture before the sport’s governing body chose to publish Aluko’s full list of grievances and shed real light on the decision-making process that led the barrister to conclude there was no wrongdoing? Why wait so long to offer full disclosure? Why not come out sooner? Why did it require so much media and public pressure before the FA raised the shutters?
And what of the £80,000 payout that, even now, looks strange? David Spencer, partner at insurance and risk law firm BLM, told BBC Sport:
“It’s difficult, if not impossible, to accurately predict how commonplace these types of settlements are, as they will likely have a confidentiality or non-disclosure clause. In this case, the confidentiality clause appears to have lapsed following the conclusion of the tournament, but it could be the case that precise details of the settlement terms will remain private.
“The commercial view might be that rather than ‘hush money’, the £80,000 payment is a commercially sensible preventative measure to compromise a potentially costly legal procedure.”
There might be some truth in that, and it would certainly run in tandem with the FA’s own line, in its first statement: namely, that the payout was “a mutual resolution so as to avoid disruption to the squad’s tournament preparations”, and “was not to prevent disclosure.” Latent in that, however – intentionally or otherwise – seems to be an understanding that Aluko kept this under wraps, to the extent that she was apparently surprised upon hearing she was not “precluded from speaking about the facts of that complaint”. It would be logical for there to be an understanding or implication that “avoiding disruption” involves, at least in part, keeping schtum.
Is it equally pressing that, since Aluko voiced her concerns, she has not played for England? Is there something to be said for the fact that Aluko, although still a centrally contracted player, has not figured for the Lionesses for 15 months – despite finishing 2016 as WSL 1’s top scorer? Is this a culture not open to challenge? Piara Powar, of Football Against Racism in Europe, told BBC Sport that the FA “has done the right thing in commissioning an independent investigation” but noted, “The more revelations that emerge publicly, the bigger the questions become.”
“As I see it, Eniola Aluko is a leader and an individual of principle,” he said. “She did the correct thing in raising her concerns. One of the questions I have is why a player raising legitimate issues has found her England career effectively ended and her voice gagged.”
It is at least pleasing that the FA’s statement noted, “The report recommended that a more detailed response to Eniola Aluko’s original complaints should be made and so The FA commissioned Ms Newton to write to Eniola Aluko to provide such a response, in order to ensure complete transparency and objectivity of the findings.” Overall, though, it has at times been difficult to escape the feeling that this is redolent of the FA’s broader issues with transparency. The Guardian revealed in May that eight professional football clubs had missed two deadlines for submitting information relating to football’s sexual abuse scandal, yet the FA did not name and shame the clubs involved despite repeatedly stressing the importance of transparency. The FA has history in ducking – at least holding back on – questions the people inside should be morally obliged to answer.
Simply put: the result of the enquiry aside, it’s not great, on the whole, and the maelstrom changed in tone again on Friday evening when former England midfielder Lianne Sanderson gave a troubling interview to the BBC.
“I think it’s a matter of everybody must conform,” she said, of the culture in the England camp. “It’s not a matter of being a rebel, but, for me, I’m the kind of player and person where if I see someone not treating my team mates the right way, whether that be a coach or a team mate, I’ll tell them.”
She continued, “I think there’s a bit of subconscious manipulation there, because whatever the coach treats you like is how everybody treats you… I think I’ve become kind of controversial, because I’m not a robot, and I’m not going to be told what I can and can’t say in interviews… For me, it’s an environment where you’re not allowed to have an opinion, and any kind of opinion is the wrong one.”
One of the more intriguing elements of Sanderson’s comments is that they run directly counter to those publicly voiced by many of the other Lionesses’. Prior to Euro 2017, Jill Scott painted a climate of mutual respect and affection – certainly not one of intimidation – when she said of Sampson:
“He’s done a lot of work with us off the pitch, in terms of making sure we’re a together team. We’ve done a lot of work in getting to know each other better: lots of meetings, finding out what really makes people tick, what people like, what they don’t like. I think that just makes you closer to your team-mates. It means you can have an impact on them on the pitch if you can have a better conversation with them off the pitch.”
More striking are the words of Nikita Parris, who made her tournament debut this summer: “I like his family vibe. I like how he treats everyone like he would his own family. We have great conversations and as a team we’ve been pushed to make sure we have honest conversations with each other.”
The overall public perception of the Lionesses has certainly been more aligned with the words of Scott and Parris over the last three years, but why do out of favour players – Aluko and Sanderson being just two – feel so vehemently ostracised? The FA’s reluctance to be transparent from the outset over the two Aluko investigations has now opened a can of worms that suggests a litany of other grievances.
The truth doesn’t panic.
— Eniola Aluko (@EniAlu) August 18, 2017
“The truth doesn’t panic,” tweeted Aluko on Friday. When another user asked if there was more to come, she simply replied, “Yes,” before retweeting the BBC’s interview with Sanderson. Weeks after an international tournament that should have been used to bolster the game’s profile in England, the FA finds itself amidst a PR disaster that looks unlikely to abate. Most gallingly of all, its handling of the case, rather than providing closure, has largely served to provide more difficult and uncomfortable questions.
By Katie Whyatt
Featured Images: Phil Cole/Getty Images Europe