PROFILE: Philip French, FA Premier League, French tipped to take DCMS plum position

Football policy and PR expert Philip French is no stranger to dream jobs

objecting to being typecast as a sports specialist with only a limited interest in the world beyond the football pitch, Philip French seems relaxed to have been pigeon-holed as one of the leading policy wonks on sport. Which is just as well, since his every job has focused on sport and the one he is being widely tipped for at the moment will have the communication of sports policy at its heart.

The head of media for the FA Premier League, already mired in the busiest part of the working year since the football season got underway last month, is at the centre of speculation that he will take the role of special adviser to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell.

This speculation has led to some embarrassing media comment for French, since his CEO was on holiday and unaware his right-hand PR man was being tipped to desert for Whitehall. Early attempts by PRWeek to follow up the story were rebuffed by an astonishing outpouring of aggression. Typical new Labour PR tactics were employed, including a volley of comments that could easily be described as threats. In retrospect, it is easy to see how French thought of being rumbled early by his chief exec and, apparently for the first time in a ten-year career, saw red. 'The timing of the speculation was a cause of embarassment to both the Premier League and the DCMS,' he says. 'This prompted what I consider an out of character outburst.'

Media relations will be outside his brief at the DCMS, though with a PR background, it may prove irresistible to have his say on media strategy.

In other respects, his career history suggests he is a shrewd choice for Jowell. After a spell as a researcher to the then Shadow sports minister Tom Pendry in the early 1990s, French became head of press for the Football Trust, where he was tasked with communicating the work of the independent body to oversee the implementation of the Taylor Report, commissioned after the Hillsborough disaster.

He moved from there to the then newly-formed Football Foundation, a Government and industry partnership designed to increase investment in grassroots football. The lifelong Labour supporter speaks with passion about the ability of soccer to lift people's horizons. 'Utilising the power of football for public good is the ultimate vision,' he says.

Then two years ago, he took the top PR role at the Premier League. It has been a period of massive change for the sector, symbolised at one end by the vast amounts paid for top notch TV rights and at the other by the undignified legal battle that followed the collapse of ITV Digital.

In the decade since the Premier League was launched, there have been highs and lows, both of which have required the mix of media and political nous which close associates in PR say define French. 'He is sensible, courteous and self-effacing. He is aware of every political nuance and always gives the impression of being interested in others' views,' says one who knows him well.

The high point of his most recent job is surely the success of the League in fighting off European Commission attempts to revamp the transfer system.

There was a sense in the EC that the system - by which players could only break contracts of employment if their new master paid a fee to their current one - was unfair and out of step with the rest of employment law. 'There was infighting among the football organisations and though the UK government was on our side, European commissioners have limited pressure points,' he recalls. 'We had no direct contact with (commissioners Mario) Monti or (Romano) Prodi, but we did know they read the papers. So it was a combination of lobbying and PR.'

If this was the high, the low followed swiftly, when the Professional Footballers' Association called a strike over the amount of TV money it received to support poor players in lower leagues. After a vitriolic media war between the PFA and the League, a deal was struck that enabled face to be saved by both sides. 'Our no comment strategy - designed to entrench the opposition and leave us room to manoeuvre, meant we had to sit on our hands for six weeks while the PFA was beating us every day in the papers,' he says.

This does not sound like much fun, but it is the sort of PR challenge French will have to get used to if he takes the DCMS job. And yet it is thought his doubts about taking the job are less to do with fear of conflict than of failure. French is thought to have his sights set on a political career, though he plays down the suggestion that he is to follow former Labour hacks and soccer team mates James Purnell and Andy Burnham into Parliament.

If he takes the DCMS role - and can retain a clear focus on sport without getting caught up in culture and media issues - there is no reason to assume French cannot excel at it.

HIGHLIGHTS

1992: Researcher to Shadow sports minister

1994: Head of press and PA, Football Trust

1998: Head of policy and comms, Football Foundation

2000: Head of comms and public policy, FA Premier League

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