THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Manchester bids to become the new natioanl football centre even though the odds are firmly stacked in Wembley's favour. Adam Brown reports

It is now a year since the Sports Council made the curious decision of asking Manchester and Wembley to revise and re-submit their bids for the national stadium. The ‘race’ for the national stadium saw the final, final bids re-entered on 6th November.

The last act of the drama is likely to come at the end of the year as the Council plumps for the one that will get the lion’s share of lottery cash. And the outcome seems all too plain to see, even if Manchester is still putting a brave face on things: “We wouldn’t be in the process if we didn’t think we could win,” said a press spokesperson.

One of the key factors tipping the odds in favour of the Wembley bid has been the decision by the Football Association to name it as their “preferred venue”. I mean, if you were the cobweb-covered FA committee and were given the option of a privately run and owned company which has enjoyed an unrivalled monopoly on football’s key events, yet still manages to be several million in debt, and a publicly run, publicly owned venue close to all that is successful in English football, what would you do?

Manchester’s bid boasts a £194m stadium with state of the art trimmings such as a retractable roof, retractable stands to accommodate football, rugby and athletics, excellent sightlines, and even seats made from recycled materials. It is also easily accessible from all major routes and is minutes from the city centre. (What? No tortuous tube trips and traffic jams?)

Perhaps more importantly, given that public money will be spent on the stadium, the whole development will, in former council leader Graham Stringer’s words, “Involve the lowest level of lottery grant and the biggest economic impact . . . rooted in the need to integrate the ownership, development and operation of a stadium with the requirement to stimulate sports development.” The enterprise would also go a long way to regenerating the whole of the east side of the city centre.

Research at Manchester University has suggested that even if unsuccessful, such bids benefit the city’s economy and profile, as evidenced by the facilities built on the back of Olympic bids. However, winning a national stadium would see the projected £3.1m annual profit channelled back into better sporting facilities and infrastructure as well as near revolutionary ideas such as subsidised ticket prices. Now why didn’t Wembley think of that?

Manchester’s securing of the 2002 Commonwealth Games has been important in making sure it remains in the running, but it seems that football wields the real power in the Sports Council. The lack of plans for a week-in, week-out use by a football club has been a cause for concern over the financial viability of the Manchester stadium – although United threatened last year to move from Old Trafford in order to secure planning permission for the new North Stand. Manchester City have been the only realistic contenders and they have spent several million rebuilding Maine Road recently. But Wembley doesn’t have such use either, bar a few dogs and men in sheepskin jackets.

The deep sense of history evoked in such competitions as the FA Cup and in England internationals clearly represents a trump card for Wembley, as far as football is concerned anyway. But there are other strong arguments against it.

For a start, Wembley simply doesn’t deserve it. We have a national stadium that is privately owned, in debt up to its eyes and yet has a monopoly on all football internationals and FA Cup Finals. Despite this they have contrived to have facilities to rival the worst in football. The endless journey south and on the tube or in a traffic jam on the North Circular, getting squashed like sardines trying to get in, and having urine drip on you as you go to your seat is only the preamble to finding that you’d have a better view of the match if you put a paper bag on your head.

The place is a disgrace and what magic it may have held in my younger years has been washed away with all that stinking piss. And it could only be the FA and Sports Council that decided to reward them for this with a big fat wad of public money. After all, those making the decisions are some of the very few who actually see any distinguishable sport at Wembley.

But there are more positive arguments supporting Manchester, too. It would be an important wider political statement to actually decentralize for once and redress the balance between London and the rest of the country – a symbolic gesture, along the lines of Barcelona staging the Olympics in Spain, as much as an economic one. Also, how come London gets football’s vote, when the vast majority of footballing success since the war has come from north of the Midlands? If football wants to come home, it could do worse than the North West. Internationals and cup finals may in fact come to Manchester in any case in the short term, as Old Trafford is one likely replacement for Wembley whilst it is rebuilt.

However, despite these factors and despite the stoicism of the Manchester bidders, few expect them to get anything more than a second best and maybe a few crumbs to build a smaller version in time for 2002. The history of British sport seems as littered with missed opportunities as Wembley’s concourse is with vastly overpriced food wrappers.

From WSC 119 January 1997. What was happening this month

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