Queen told us to play game, reveals Farry

THE Queen approved the Scottish Football Association's contentious decision to stage a World Cup qualifying tie against Belarus on the same day as Princess Diana's funeral in the autumn of 1997.

Her backing for a stance which provoked a public outcry was not revealed at the time because the SFA didn't want to add fuel to the flames of hysteria which already surrounded the royal family.

Jim Farry, who was chief executive of the SFA eight years ago, told The Scotsman yesterday that he regretted the eventual decision taken by the association's international committee to bow to public pressure and switch the match away from Saturday, 6 September, when Diana was buried, to the next day.

Recalling the most controversial week of his combative career as a football administrator, Farry still believes the SFA would have been right to resist the clamour of three days of public protest, a players' revolt and the intervention of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

"The key point, which I don't think was public knowledge at the time, was that I spoke personally to the Queen's private secretary," Farry recalled as Scotland prepare to meet Belarus again on World Cup business today in far less feverish circumstances. "I took advice from Her Majesty the Queen, who, in addition to being our sovereign, was also the patron of the SFA. What needs to be remembered is the funeral would have been over before the kick-off of the match in Aberdeen and she was at ease with that.

"From the conversations I had with Buckingham Palace, it was clear we were not creating a breach of protocol. Our game in Aberdeen was not interfering with the arrangements for a funeral in London of major public interest. The reason we didn't make that public at the time was because there was already a lot of hysterical reaction to the royal family. And I didn't want to add to that hysteria."

By choosing not to reveal the Queen's advice, Farry found himself cast in the role of public enemy No1. If the country's mood at the time of Diana's death now seems like an emotional over-reaction akin to a Tartan version of Evita, the build-up to the Belarus game was so overshadowed by anger that the SFA seriously contemplated withdrawing from the World Cup.

"There was a wave of hysteria and that hysterical reaction was not confined to ordinary members of the public," Farry explained.

"It extended to many of the great and the good - most of whom phoned me at home. My phone was red hot with calls from Westminster and the Scottish Office. But after taking the advice from the royal household, and spoken to FIFA, the organisers of the World Cup, as well as officials from Belarus, we also thought it was mindful to take into account the travel arrangements people had made to get to Aberdeen from all over Scotland."

Donald Dewar, secretary of state for Scotland at the time, described it as "utterly inappropriate" to play on the same day as the funeral, but Farry responded to Dewar's intervention by joking that "Big Donald" could perhaps play at centre-half in place of the injured Colin Hendry.

"I didn't think the international committee was unsympathetic and I felt they took all the factors into account," Farry reasoned yesterday. "Moreover, they looked at the situation very carefully. I had the job of making the announcements, as was my wont at the time. So that was why I became so identified in the public mind with such a controversial decision.

"I was the one standing on the office steps making the announcements, but people forget there was a committee acting behind that. There was a process which considered all the views before a decision was reached. The responsibility to speak on behalf of the committee was mine. And, as it happened, I was fully supportive of the international committee's view point."

If, with the benefit of hindsight, Farry adopted a far more commonsense position than, say, the Rangers players of the day - Ally McCoist, Andy Goram and Gordon Durie - who threatened not to play unless the date was switched, the chief executive was reviled by many in the media for remaining level-headed.

No longer involved with football after being forced out of the SFA after a row with Celtic over Jorge Cadete's registration six years ago, Farry said: "My abiding recollection is that Safeway didn't close on the day of the funeral. You could still get a taxi, board a train or fly on a plane. For that matter, you could still go to the bookies and put on a line or visit the pub for a pint. The truth was nobody closed down at all.

"But a huge amount of pressure was brought to bear to make the SFA change its mind. I relayed all of that information to the international committee who eventually relented. Every decision has to be viewed in context, taking into account the prevailing climate of the times. In the years I was with the SFA, I was involved in many aspects of controversial decision making at Park Gardens. But I can never recollect another incident which evoked so much hysteria.

"In the midst of everything which was going on, we had to fulfil a fixture against opponents who were flying in from eastern Europe. People at the time tended to underestimate just how many factors there were to be considered before reaching a balanced decision. All the arrangements for policing, transport and so on had been in place for a year for a match taking place on the Saturday. And then on Thursday before the game we said, sorry, it'll be on Sunday. When the committee had that change of heart and bowed to public pressure, I have to tell you that I didn't agree with the change of view. My opinion at the time was that we should have stuck to our guns and that's still how I feel today.

"Did history prove us right? When you think of the terrorist acts which killed so many people in the London bombings or the attacks in American on September 11, the fact is the world went on. Business didn't close down."

Although the game at Pittodrie was almost an afterthought, both the occasion and the performance turned out to be memorable enough. A deep and resonant hush settled over Aberdeen's stadium when the pre-match mark of respect was followed by the poignant lilt of a piper's lament.

Once Scottish football paid its respects to the Princess of Wales, no respect was shown to the footballers of Belarus. Two minutes of silence were followed by 90 minutes of uproar as Scotland secured the victory that moved them step closer towards the World Cup finals in France.

"We were very grateful to our opponents from Belarus, because they were the ones suffering the most inconvenience," said Farry. "I won't forget their graciousness or understanding. In the end, it was a decent game and we enjoyed a 4-1 win which helped us reach the finals in France. It turned out, as we say in Glasgow, to be a good, bad yin."