Wembley director comes under fire

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The Independent Online
FURTHER trouble is brewing at Wembley with speculation that the main board director, boxing promoter and showbusiness impresario Jarvis Astaire, may be the next to go as new management seeks to polish the group's tarnished image.

Sources close to the board said pressure was now mounting for a break: "They're trying to get him out. They wouldn't be unhappy if he left," one well-placed source said.

Dampening speculation, however, Claes Hultman, the Swedish non-executive chairman said Mr Astaire was playing an active part in Wembley's revival, though management was always being reviewed. "Everyone is constantly reassessed, and Jarvis is pulling his weight with his contacts," he said.

The leisure group, which completed a pounds 100m rescue refinancing in May, jettisoned its controversial chairman Sir Brian Wolfson in September. The group has since been hit by fraud probes relating to stadium contracts.

Other allies of Sir Brian, including former finance director Alex McCrindle and director Geoffrey Simmonds have also been pushed out by the new team, headed by Mr Hultman, with the support of the group's bankers.

Last week, Wembley failed to secure an expected pounds 100m of National Lottery money from the Sports Council to rebuild its stadium, going head-to-head in a second round of bidding with Manchester instead.

"A clean-up of the company has to start at the top. After a transition with Sir Brian, it was right for him to go," Mr Hultman told the Independent on Sunday last week.

Wembley shares dropped 24p by the end of the week after Tuesday's decision by the Sports Council.

The group lost pounds 5.1m pre-tax in the six months to end June. Despite improved trading, including more pop concerts and the recent Rugby League World Cup, a successful Manchester bid would be a severe blow to Wembley's commercial prospects. Despite the refinancing, debt still stood at nearly pounds 70m, a weighty burden, though profits covered interest charges in the first half.

The full Wembley scheme involves demolishing most of the existing stadium, save the famous twin towers, and replacing it with a new 80,000 all-seat arena, with athletics track and a roof for winter entertainment events.

Wembley would gift the stadium into a national trust, in return for a lease and management contract, now being negotiated with the Sports Council.

The key to the award is the backing of the Football Association and Football League. Last year, after months of bitter wrangling with Sir Brian, the FA signed a deal with Wembley, including first-time sponsorship of the FA Cup.

That runs only until 2002, however, around the time the new national stadium is due to be completed.

Wembley's financial problems stemmed from overambitious empire-building by Sir Brian, just before recession struck, leaving little scope for large investment in the stadium.

Mr Astaire, now 72 and at Wembley before Sir Brian joined in 1985, said he had no plans to leave and was certain his position was secure.

"Retirement is not on my agenda," he said. "When Wolfson was here things were not done by committee, which was not good. Simmonds went because he was Wolfson's associate. I was there before. I am not a Wolfson associate."