Fields aplenty but where are the dreams?

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The Independent Online
In an endeavour to introduce some extra drama into the story of a threatened redevelopment of the home of Chelsea Football Club a few years ago, a well-known football writer, whose identity I refuse to reveal, began his report: "Bulldozers are hovering over Stamford Bridge . . ."

Suddenly, it ceases to be a laughing matter. Bulldozers are now hovering over most of Britain as various factions compete for the allocation of millions of lottery pounds in order to build temples to their particular sporting gods. The reason for this burst of constructional fever is two- fold: first, the sight of all those lottery profits heaping higher and higher, while accompanied by no apparent urgency as to their disposal, is irresistible; second, the swiftly approaching millennium is spreading a manic desire to welcome it with as many new structures as can be flung up in time. It represents a hunger for exotic edifices not witnessed on earth since the Pharaohs were around.

This preoccupation is by no means confined to sport. Plans have been announced to build the world's largest domed building in Greenwich. At a cost that may eventually approach pounds 1bn, the dome will house London's Millennium Exhibition and will be as big as 13 Albert Halls and taller than Nelson's Column. Once the exhibition is over, it will be available as the largest indoor sporting centre to be found anywhere.

By that time, we will also have a shiny new national stadium, a vast and glittering national academy of sport and more new or refurbished arenas, velodromes, sports halls and sundry recreational facilities than we will know what to do with.

No doubt, this could be categorised as negative thinking and it is fair to acknowledge that the advancement of sport as an integral part of the nation's life does require an increase in places where our top sports people can strut their stuff in front of large and comfortable audiences. Just as important is the provision of the means of helping our best athletes to improve their standards.

But if we are to pamper our elite we had better ensure we have an elite worth pampering. This means the considerable expansion of basic facilities to broaden the base of sporting participation by our young so that we can make the most of our national potential. You won't find that project on any expensive drawing-board.

Neither do there seem to be any reliable calculations as to how many spectator seats our various sports, major or minor, will need in the next century. Running parallel to the rush to build stadiums is the revolution in television's ability to deliver to our armchairs an incalculable amount of sporting action at any time of the day or night.

We are dealing here with a fairly imminent future that even the most vivid imaginations can barely contemplate. From nowhere comes a calming voice, a reasoned suggestion that perhaps our most urgent need is a little more thought about our aims in the provision of sports facilities and a lot more thought about how we can sensibly co-ordinate our efforts to achieve it. The Klondyke gold rush was more controlled than the present scramble to create new sporting emporiums.

There seems to be in operation a philosophy of every man for himself or, rather, every scheme for itself. Some of these involve the devastation of existing shrines such as Wembley and the Cardiff Arms Park. Even as we speak, the high, echoing stands of Hampden Park have been reduced to a few piles of splinters. Yorkshire County Cricket Club are hoping to move from their traditional Headingley home to Wakefield where, with the help of pounds 28m from the lottery, they will build a brand new cricket arena. It sounds less than a great investment - an expensive facility that might be filled for one Test match a year providing it doesn't rain.

The past decade or so has seen much rebuilding of our sporting homes. Twickenham has been probably the most severely violated by the cement mixers. What was previously a much-loved and cozy headquarters is now regarded as a large, austere bowl and the enormous debt still owing on it is not the least of the causes of the rift between the Rugby Football Union and the English clubs.

In fairness to the RFU, much of the modernisation was necessary after safety lessons hard-earned elsewhere. A large amount of renewal has also been unavoidable at most sports grounds and this, plus the upgrading of the top football stadiums for Euro 96, has equipped us with some excellent club grounds.

The creation of a new national stadium has been made an urgent priority. Both Wembley and Manchester have submitted impressive and expensive claims to be the site of a development that will attract pounds 100m of lottery money. Although Manchester have submitted a tempting and well-planned project, Wembley are the favourites to get the go-ahead next month.

The national stadium will not only serve England's football team but will be a venue for other sports, especially athletics and rugby league. But when the Sports Council make their choice, I trust they will remove the exclusive right to stage all England's matches. The worst day's work the Football Association ever did was to do the deal with Wembley that pledged that every international would be staged there. The deal, which has a few more years to run, robs the rest of England of the chance to see their team in the flesh and denies the team an intensity of support they have not always experienced at Wembley.

The FA are not there to make money but to foster football nationally and allowing England to play occasional matches at club grounds around the country will do more for the game than a riotously expensive new stadium. But the Government finds it easier to sanction vast expenditure via the lottery than address the real issues.

The National Sport Academy is another example. Twenty-five applications from would-be hosts of the multi-million pound academy announced in cavalier fashion almost two years ago by John Major are being considered. Most of them are perfectly feasible; but until we rejuvenate school sport, where are the elite recruits coming from? Lottery money is needed at the grass roots. It is the ultimate irony. We've spent the best part of century bulging with ideas and no money. Now we're bulging with money and there's scarcely a decent idea in sight.

Thanks to the initiative of BBC Wales and S4C, we in Wales have been feasting on the many delights of rugby's European Cup being televised live to our side of the border. Belatedly, the rest of the BBC are going to catch up next Sunday when highlights of the quarter-finals will be shown on English screens. The semis and final are likely to be televised live.

I can't understand why the Beeb didn't acquire highlights of the group matches which would have made excellent viewing on a Rugby Special today. A far bigger puzzle is why ITV pulled out of their agreement to show the entire competition two weeks before it began. They would have made a sporting killing. It says everything about the state of ITV's attitude towards sport. What are they going to do with the pounds 5m they've saved as a result? I suggest they use it to persuade Raquel not to leave Coronation Street.

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