What Kate did right

Kate Hoey lost her job as sports minister after the general election, to no one's great surprise. John Williams looks back at her term and argues that her views on Wembley were sound , but doomed

Her arrival was a blaze of brave talk and contro­versy, her departure something of a whimper followed by a series of moans in the Mail on Sunday, no less. In retrospect, appointing as sports minister in this particular government a women such as Kate Hoey was high risk stuff. Hoey has no strong objections to foxhunting, is at odds with her own government’s policy in countenancing a return to terracing in football stadiums, and, laudably, would rather see decent cha­nging rooms at grassroots for all athletes in all sports than see England host the 2006 football World Cup finals.

Taking on Sir Alex Ferguson and Martin Edwards on her first day in office over Man Utd’s craven with­drawal from the FA Cup was either brave or foolhardy, depending on whe­ther you like your politicians prin­cipled and confrontational or stra­t­­egic and cunning. The former tend to fizzle out before their time; the latter get a little more time to change the world, but are almost inevitably tarnished by ac­cus­ations of excessive toadying. Some manage to burn brighter for long­er, but they are few and far between.

When Hoey got the job, a broad­ly supportive broadsheet art­icle  ac­cused her of “liking a band­wagon”, a harsh judgement but one which is largely true. She also has an un­derdog’s sensibility, God knows a missing ingredient from most departments in Blair’s authoritarian bun­ker, but one almost doomed from the outset to little more than gesture politics and defeat. Hoey followed Tony Banks, of course, a sports minister who only ever talked, it seemed, about foxhunting (banning it) and the World Cup (getting it).

But Banks talked football’s language: he was a “lad”, making a facile They Think It’s All Over appearance, he understood the new football business, he enjoyed spend­ing time with players and managers, and he was a fan of the big event. He was also a Metropolitan, a Londoner, with few of the suspicions of the capital and its football operators – Bates, Crozier, Dein – and none of the provincial sympathies of Hoey. Her outspoken comments about alleged corruption in the game, about United’s “shabby” exit from the FA Cup, and about the Premier League’s attempts to neuter the still-not-ap­pointed Independent Football Commission, by mak­ing it neither independent nor a home for sup­porter representatives, made her both a friend of the fan and an obvious candidate for an early bath.

Such is the commercial and cultural power of the game at the moment, that in the current climate a less-than-sparkling sports minister can do one of two things and expect to survive: either be utterly in thrall to the booming power of football and swing right along with it, as did Banks; or else leave football and its money be. Hoey was happy with neither of these approaches and the Wembley fiasco, as she saw it, brought government and football directly into conflict.

In June 1996 Sir Norman Foster unveiled plans for a new national stadium, initially incorporating the twin towers, as Hoey favoured. In December, after a nebulous beauty contest, Wembley was chosen as the site for the new national venue at a cost of £230 million, to be used to host the 2001 athletics world championships and as a centrepiece for London bids for the 2008 or 2012 Olympics. Half of this cost was ear­marked from the Lottery, the rest to be raised in loans from the City; a feasible and timely project. But be­cause commercial com­panies cannot receive Lot­tery funds this also meant the owners of the stadium, the ailing Wembley plc, had to be ditched. Rather than a trust established under the auspices of the Sports Council (the original plan), the FA became ambitious owners of Wembley via their subsidiary, Wembley National Stadium Ltd (WNSL). Trouble ahead.

Enter Ken Bates as new Wembley supremo with four unlikely aims: one, to build a new stad­ium at top cost fit for the ill-fated 2006 bid; two, to turn the new stadium into a lucrative corporate and hotel base à la Chelsea Village (in Brent?); three, to build a stadium complex for football and the FA but apparently with no football or FA cash input at all; and four, to squeeze athletics and any other sports out of the picture.

Culture secretary Chris Smith, now blanching at the huge sums involved, stupidly agreed in January 2000 that Wembley should be a football-only venue. Hoey was furious. But as the cost of the stadium  rock­e­ted to £660 million and Ken’s sums looked in­creasingly bizarre, Bates himself was forced to leave this leaky ship before FA chief executive Adam Cro­zier finally held up his hands in May this year to halt the whole embarrassing and overblown affair – and call for another £150 million worth of public investment to “save” Wembley. We might expect some hum­ility from football here, but we will get none, of course. They expect this government to cough up.

A number of things seem clear. First, Hoey was right to claim that the “football only” Wembley option was part of the government fixation, under Banks, with getting the 2006 World Cup finals at virtually any cost. The sort of men who run the new bloated economics of the game in England seem rather like the Thatch­erite soccer casuals and their beloved trainers; they too easily equate the best with the most expensive.

Second, Hoey was also right that the last thing Eng­land needed was a new national football stadium. Nowhere in the world, except divided Glas­gow, does a football-only venue, with no host club, survive these days. The idea, at this price, was risible, and Adam Croz­ier should probably have rubbished it from the start. Except, of course, there is a difficulty for the FA  because the football-only option essentially came from the all-powerful entrepreneurs in the FA Premier League, a body which exerts more and more influence on the national game, rather than just the top professional league. Not that the Premier League wan­­ted to pay for the new venue: not at all, not any­thing.

Third, since the whole Wembley business blew up, and barring some soluble transport problems, Cardiff, with its friendliness, cafes and bars, and reasonably priced accommodation, has done an excellent job of hosting English football’s major events and of showing up north London’s obvious failings. The Millennium Stadium is no hyper-commercialised forum of the kind apparently visioned by the English game’s elite. It’s an impressive football and rugby venue built for sport, not just for consumption, and is an important focus for Welsh civic pride. It beats Brent hands down.

The gains of having England playing internationals in club grounds away from London have also been obvious. The atmosphere at these matches so far has been far less poisonous than what we too often got at Wembley. Taking England to the provinces might just help to deal with some of the jingoism and racism which attaches itself to the national team and which the government and the FA, clumsily, seem so keen to target at the moment. Surely, we can’t now go back to playing all England’s matches in the capital?

Finally, and again Hoey is right here, we do need a new national sports stadium, but one which is substantially publicly funded at reasonable cost. Despite his private sector obsession, Blair and his cronies should now be made to see the importance of this to national confidence and to our international stature. Economics, global sports politics and the demands of visitors probably dictate that it will be in London. But it should host rugby and hockey and probably athletics too, as well as the football play-offs, the FA Cup final and the occasional England match.

This new inclusive venue would also help return football to its rightful place as an important part of the national sporting heritage, not a bullying relative who demands all the family treats all the time. Croz­ier will need to be a key figure in scaling down the worst ex­cesses of the sport he now governs in England. Mean­while, Hoey will join the honourable list of those who have found, as one journalist put it when she got the job, that in relation to football, “while sports ministers may have a lot of shout, they have very little clout”.

From WSC 174 August 2001. What was happening this month