Better the devil you know

After a tortuous and shambolic process, the final, final decision on where the new Wembley will be built is expected any day now. And the answer, as Colin Peel exclusively reveals, well be, er, Wembley

As this is being written, the announcement of the location of the new English national stadium is late. It might be another month before the choice is re­vealed, but make a couple of enquiries and it becomes clear that location is no longer much of an issue for those who are behind the decision. The rather more taxing questions now facing the “stakeholders” are: what sort of stadium will be built at Wembley and, above all, how will it be paid for? Those plucky out­siders from the west midlands were never in with a chance from the outset.

First let’s remind ourselves why, after six tortuous years of endless discussion and botched plans, not a single brick of the new stadium has been laid. A plan to rebuild Wembley had been agreed on back in 1996 but costs spiralled to a reported £660 million, the majority of which needed to be raised by the FA from sources in the City of London. In May 2001 the FA got scared that the banks were demanding too much of their finite resources in the form of guarantees, and asked the government to stump up the cash.

The government responded in the way it knew best – by forming a committee and ordering a report from a businessman, Patrick Carter, with little experience of the subject but who was personally known to the chair of the committee, then-Home Secretary Jack Straw. A spokesman for the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, explained: “The report will help the government come to a decision about the FA’s request for £300 million to bail out the project. It will ask if this is the best plan for the national stadium, and if so, should we support it.”

Part of Carter’s remit was to examine alternatives to Wembley, and competition soon arrived from fun­damental optimists in Birmingham and Coventry.The latter bid grew out of a project that was originally in­tended to provide a new home for Coventry City. Called Arena 2001, the 45,000 seat stadium was to have a retractable pitch as well as a retractable roof, but the Sky Blues’ retractable League position was one of sev­eral factors delaying progress. The national sta­dium bid ramped up the design to 85,000 seats and foresaw few planning obstacles, but the issue of where City themselves would play was left unresolved.

Birmingham launched a glitzy bid based on the same site as their failed attempt to get the national sta­dium in 1996, a greenfield plot next to the National Exhibition Centre. In supporter surveys of varying credibility for the Premier League, the FSA and the BBC’s Watch­dog programme, Birmingham invariably topped the poll, usually garnering more votes than the other options com­bined.

This is probably because fans see Birmingham as the best option for transport, but in fact it’s this issue that is one of the bid’s major downfalls. It asserts that 80 per cent of the spectators would come by road, whereas at Wembley roughly the same percentage use public transport. As well as making a nonsense of Bir­mingham’s claims to be environmentally acceptable, stadium expert Simon Inglis adds: “It could take an hour and a half just to get into your car, never mind get out of the car park. On the transport issue alone Birm­ingham’s bid is unsustainable.”

It was after the delivery of the Carter Report to Jo­well’s department that the killer blow was landed on the provincial contenders. Mindful of a repeat of the Millennium Dome fiasco, the government said that al­though it would consider the report, the final de­cision over location would rest with the FA. This meant the FA would be considering a bid from Wembley National Stadium Ltd (WNSL), a com­pany it wholly owns, to build a venue on a site for which the FA has already paid £106 million. Inglis again: “The FA are in an invidious position. They have to go for Wembley, or else what are they going to do with the site?”

Back in Brum, Doug Ellis bravely continued to ar­gue the case in public, but a comparison of PR efforts tells its own story. Birmingham hired an expensive agency and a media expert from Carlton Television, whereas Wembley have one man and a mobile phone. Why fight a battle you’ve already won? Inglis, who grew up in Birmingham, declares: “If it’s not Wembley then I will sit on the centre spot of the new stadium and eat my Villa hat. It would be an absurd decision to give it to Birmingham.” Leon Hickman, chief sports writer for the Birmingham Evening Mail, has observed failed bids for the Olym­pics, Millennium Dome and the earlier national stad­ium. He la­ments: “I don’t think Birmingham ever had a chance. The powers that be want it to go to London.”

Assuming Wembley does get the nod, the gov­ern­ment’s desire to distance itself from the project is not promising for the FA. Hickman: “The government can’t win – it’s either going to get a blast from Birmingham or stand accused of wasting more public money on Wembley.” WNSL’s Chris Palmer denies that cor­ners would be cut. “The new stadium will be the dog’s bollocks,” he gushed. “For the fans’ experience it will be manifestly better than the Stade de France or any comparable stadium. We’ll be overcoming all the bug­bears of the old Wembley Stadium.” Hold him to that.

Additional research by Richard Grove

From WSC 177 November 2001. What was happening this month