Daily Telegraph

THE PAST may be another country but when it comes to rebuilding Wembley the past is always being revisited. Yesterday, as the Football Association finally made the long-awaited announcement that Wembley would be rebuilt, there was no escaping the similarities with another press conference.

That was held on July 29, 1999. Ken Bates, then in charge of the Wembley project, unveiled plans for the new Wembley. We were told it would cost £475 million, the money would be in place by March 31, 2000, the stadium would open in 2003 and be the centrepiece of England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup finals.

Three years and numerous delays later, the plans have finally been given the go-ahead. Demolition will start next week, and the 90,000-capacity stadium is scheduled to be ready in time for 2006 FA Cup final.

But much has changed since that press conference in 1999. Bates has gone, Germany were awarded the 2006 World Cup and costs have now risen to £757 million. But in one area, nothing has changed — how wonderful, we are led to believe, Wembley will be for the fans. Yesterday, Adam Crozier, the chief executive of the FA, might well have borrowed Bates’s press release of 1999.

Bates had boasted the new Wembley would be “the best stadium in the world”, adding: “The new Wembley has been designed around the fans in their seats. Comfort levels will be outstanding, as will leg-room and sight-lines.”

Yesterday Crozier said the new Wembley would “be the best stadium in the world” with spectators having more leg-room than VIPs had in the royal box of the old Wembley.

This has been a theme of the sorry eight-year-old saga: the cast changes, ministers come and go, the money required to rebuild Wembley keeps going up but the fans are always being told that the new Wembley will be the paradise they have always sought.

Yet for all this obligatory genuflection to the fans, the fact remains that if Wembley was still operational today, nobody in their right mind would plan to rebuild it.

Trevor Brooking, chairman of Sport England, acknowledged this yesterday when he said: “Back when the project started in 1996 we [Sport England] were getting £300 million from the Lottery, now we get £200 million and there would be no question of funding a major sports stadium. We could not do it.”

It was the £120 million of Lottery money that Sport England provided that was essential for the rebuilding of Wembley.

After Lottery money kick-started it, like so many British projects this was launched with little thought. In 1994, when a new Wembley was first discussed, it was naively thought the whole thing would cost £250 million: £120 million would come from Lottery funding, the rest cobbled together form various sources — even some from the FA. Not that anybody at the FA had given any serious consideration to putting money into a new Wembley.

At one of the first press conferences I asked Graham Kelly, then chief executive of the FA, whether the FA would put up any money. He looked at me as if I was mad and brushed aside my question.

Yesterday, six years on, his successor revealed with some pride that the FA would immediately invest £100 million from the sale of television rights for FA Cup and England matches — and there would be a further £48 million paid up front for the staging of club and international matches over the first three years of the new stadium’s life.

Crozier justified the FA’s financial contribution by saying it was for the good of the game, and for good measure we were shown a video where David Beckham, the England captain, said how brilliant it would to be play in the new Wembley.

Yesterday Crozier said there was a “robust business plan approved by all parties”. But he failed to mention that, in 1999, the FA were not putting any equity into Wembley. They were like a housebuyer who wanted to finance his house by borrowing all of it from the bank. Much as the bank may like lending money, they like to see the housebuyer put up a little bit of his own money.

The FA may now have decided to do this but, initially, Crozier was not keen. Last year he went to the Government and asked for £300 million. Instead he has got £41 million, mainly for infrastructure costs, which has effectively locked the FA into rebuilding Wembley.

Crozier and the FA now believe they have sorted out the money issue. The problem is, it has taken eight years to do so and, in the meantime, those of us who have questioned the project have been told we do not know what we are talking about.

Nothing illustrates this better than to look back at what was said in July 1999 when Bates launched the new Wembley. The £120 million of Lottery money was already in the bag. But where would the other £355 million then required come from? The impression created was that this new Wembley — with its wonderful seating, catering facilities and hotel — would only have to go to the City, whistle for the money, and get it. The reality was somewhat different. The City were not impressed, the money did not come, and Bates went.

Crozier is confident that the figures will now work out and that there is no danger to the future financing of the English game.

We shall have to see. But there are some in the game who do not share his view. They include the chairmen of Premiership clubs. In the last two years they have enjoyed their taste of the England national team’s roadshow and would like to keep the arrangement whereby England play their home matches at stadiums around the country.

Crozier sees Wembley as a dream fulfilled; they see it as a potential threat — even more so as English football seems to be heading for recession.

They think it’s all over…

© Mihir Bose


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