National stadium contest goes into extra time

North v South: Wembley remains the firm favourite to beat Manchester as shortlist of competitors is whittled down to two
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The decision on where to build the proposed new national stadium was postponed yesterday. The Sports Council, which had been expected to name the winning bid, announced instead that it had narrowed down the choice to Wembley or Manchester, and that a further three-to-six months of deliberation would be needed.

Three other contenders - Birmingham, Sheffield and Bradford - were ruled out. But the steering group of leading sporting administrators which has been considering the five bids since 14 July needs further time to explore specific problems with the remaining two.

The Sports Council chairman, Rodney Walker, defended the postponement of the naming of the winner, which will be given up to pounds 100m worth of lottery money.

"This is a decision for the next 60 years," he said. "It is a decision about how to spend tens of millions of lottery funding and we must be sure that public money is spent wisely.

"We have deliberated long and hard. But now that Manchester and Wembley realise they are in a very serious bid situation it will be possible to start tough negotiations which we couldn't do before."

Wembley, regarded as the favourite given its history, existing infrastructure and location, still needs to convince the Sports Council on two major issues.

The crucial area is the operation of the stadium. Wembley's present owner, Wembley plc, plans to hand over the stadium to a trust in exchange for a contract to run events.

Mr Walker said that the detail of how such a trust would work alongside a management company needed to be clarified.

The second problem relates to the stadium's surroundings - at present its car parks are reached via a narrow road through an industrial estate. "A national stadium cannot exist in a concrete jungle," Mr Walker said. Assurances will be sought from Brent Council on plans to improve access from the North Circular Road.

Manchester, which offers a cleared site with planning permission in the city centre, and funding of up to pounds 47m, also has to satisfy the Sports Council over the operation of its stadium. There is, too, concern about transport, especially over its strong emphasis on the use of private cars.

Howard Bernstein, deputy chief executive of Manchester City Council, said the bid would push for the expansion of the current metro link between the stadium site and the city centre.

Mr Bernstein was due to leave yesterday for Bermuda, where the Commonwealth Games Council is due on Friday to rubber-stamp Manchester's hosting of the 2002 Games.

Yesterday's announcement left Manchester in a no-lose position. If they do not win the national stadium, the Sports Council is committed to help fund the 2002 Games. However, Mr Bernstein said: "We are absolutely confident we can convince the Sports Council of our case."

Wembley believes that it is "the only logical choice". A spokesman said: "We would have preferred a clear-cut decision but we are confident our strengths will be recognised in the coming few months."

Both parties will seek meetings with the rugby, football and athletics bodies represented on the steering group as to how exactly they would stage events.

"The real talking starts now," said Graham Kelly, chief executive of the Football Association and a member of the 10-man steering group. The FA has a contract with Wembley until 2002 to stage major matches such as England internationals and the FA Cup final, but Mr Kelly said a future deal with the winning stadium would have to be more flexible.

Bradford's proposal of a covered dome was rejected because its predominant use would be as an entertainment centre. Sheffield went outside the remit of one stadium by proposing separate sites for athletics and field sports, while Birmingham's bid was undermined by its siting on green-belt land.