Paul Bickerton: Ensuring a Bright Future for London’s Football Association

Published by Gary Ellis on June 14th 2024, 11:11am

Paul Bickerton, the Chief Executive Officer of the London Football Association (FA), is a man of many cultures. Born and raised in Glasgow to a French mother and an English father, he describes himself as a “bit of a European melting pot.” Having lived in Scotland, France, and England, Paul absorbed the broad experiences each culture had to offer.

Although Paul comes from an academic family, he was bitten by the sports bug at a young age. “I started playing a lot of football at a young age and have played the sport all the way through my life,” he recalls. His passion for sports was nurtured by a supportive Physical Education department at his school in Scotland, which allowed him to recognise the connection he had with football.

After university, Bickerton spent a year in America coaching football, an experience that would prove pivotal in shaping his career trajectory. “It made me realise I wasn’t always going to want to be a coach or a teacher full time,” he reflects. Upon his return to the UK, he was fortunate to find that the sports development profession was emerging. He started as a sports development officer at the County Council in Hampshire, which involved a move to Winchester, where he now resides.

Driving Bickerton’s journey through the world of sport is a fundamental principle: being drawn to something that you really care about. “Spending a significant proportion of your time dedicated to something you don’t fundamentally care that much about feels like a big problem for me. So sport became a natural choice,” he explains. This passion led him to leadership roles where he could influence things on a large scale by putting policies, programmes, and strategies in place for significant areas.

Reflecting on that leadership journey, Paul believes that being a leader is not an inherent trait but a conscious choice. This choice, he explains, involves stepping into situations where one will be significantly challenged, make difficult choices, and face the reality of not always being popular.

Once in a leadership position, Paul emphasises the importance of having a clear vision. “You need to have a clear perspective of where you’re trying to guide something,” he explains. This vision, he believes, should be clearly etched in one’s mind. However, he also recognises that achieving this vision is not a solitary endeavour. “You also have to recognise that you can only do and achieve that through other people,” he states.

Paul’s approach to leadership is a departure from the traditional autocratic style. He believes that the old style of leadership, which is dictatorial and tough, is shifting enormously amidst wider changes, “younger generations don’t respond well to an autocratic environment,” he points out, “and that’s a good thing.”

Instead, Paul advocates for a leadership style that is rooted in respect, empathy, and sensitivity. “You have to be able to make tough decisions, but fundamentally, you’ve got to have your team’s best interests at heart as much as possible,” he advises.

The Role of London FA and Its Impact

Moving on, Paul provides a comprehensive overview of the unique structure of football in England and the role of the London FA within this framework. He explains that the national governing body, the Football Association, sets the rules and regulations and runs the game in England. However, the development and administration of the game at a local level are devolved to 50 County FAs, including the London FA.

The London FA’s role is to develop and manage the grassroots game in London. “Everything from what we call step 7 and below is grassroots football, Saturday, Sunday football, women and girls football, youth, disability football, and more,” Paul explains. The London FA ensures that the game runs safely and smoothly, handling everything from investigating misbehaviour on the pitch to conducting safeguarding checks and managing affiliations and registrations.

Paul emphasises the developmental aspect of the London FA’s work, stating, “It’s fundamentally about more people playing football.” He draws attention to the importance of football in fostering community and positively impacting people’s lives.

The London FA aims to get more people involved in the game, with targeted work at specific groups such as women and girls, disability groups, and underrepresented racially minoritised groups. On these social aspects, Paul describes football as one of the most meritocratic activities, stating, “If you’re good enough, generally you’ll work your way through the system in some capacity.”

Alongside the social aspects, Paul discusses the physical and mental health benefits of playing football. Drawing attention to matters such as the importance of playing a team-based sport for the youth amidst health concerns, he also highlights the positive mental aspects. “There’s something about it that rests your brain in a healthy way,” he says, “and puts your line of thought completely into the team and the present moment.”

A Legacy of Growth and Equality in Football

Approaching the end of the conversation, it’s clear that Paul’s vision for the future of football is both ambitious and inclusive. He reflects on the significant growth of the game over the past five years. However, he acknowledges that there is still much work to be done, particularly in achieving parity among different groups. He highlights the disparity between the number of men and women playing football in London, with just over 9,000 women and girls compared to just under 75,000 men.

His vision extends beyond gender equality, encompassing underrepresented communities such as those with disabilities and individuals from a British Asian background. Paul believes it would be “brilliant to see levels of growth continue” and for equality and parity to come together on a grander scale.

The legacy Paul foresees is not just about numbers on the pitch, but crucially the role the London FA plays in supporting this growth and equality journey. He envisions the organisation as one that helps provide better access to facilities, qualified referees and coaches, closely supports the grassroots volunteer community and drives innovative programmes to establish and grow the game in London.

Paul also notes a positive upturn in the game following the pandemic, which he believes has made people realise the importance of community and social connections. Despite the complexities of organising team sports, he emphasises the richness of personal connections that football, as a collective endeavour, can foster. In his words, “although we still have a long way to go, I believe the game is in a healthier state than it’s ever been.” Long may that continue.

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Authored By

Gary Ellis
Senior Editor
June 14th 2024, 11:11am

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