Astaire's war dance over Wembley

Alan Hubbard talks to the entrepreneur who is a key figure in the conflict over control of the National Stadium
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The Independent Online
JARVIS ASTAIRE has always savoured a good scrap. For more than 30 years he was involved in promoting the biggest names of the ring, from Terry Downes through to Frank Bruno, as one of the barons of British boxing. Now he is engaged in another major fight, taking on a fellow sports mogul in what has developed into a pitch battle for the control of Wembley.

Astaire, who is deputy chairman of the stadium company and one of three dissident directors of the parent body, Wembley plc, has come out punching in a determined effort to prevent the Lottery-funded purchase of the stadium by the Football Association and the English Sports Council. It is, claims Astaire, a thoroughly bad deal which will all end in tears. "A recipe for chaos."

In the opposing corner is the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, all beard and bluster according to Astaire, in his role in charge of the development company set up to oversee the sale and transform Wembley into the new National Stadium.

Their acrimonious spat will culminate on Thursday at an extraordinary general meeting of Wembley shareholders when Bates confidently expects the pounds 103m offer by the English National Stadium Development Company to be accepted. But Astaire, backed by the two other independent directors on the six-man board, refuses to be counted out. "This deal is not in the interests of the shareholders, football or those who work at Wembley," he insists.

Astaire's principal objection is that if the deal goes through the present Wembley management team will be discarded, but the surrounding complex, including the indoor arena, conference centre, access roads and car parks, will continue to be run by the existing organisation. "It simply won't work."

Wembley's fate is likely to hinge on the casting vote of the Swedish chairman, Claes Hultman, whose knowledge of football, according to Astaire, "would make the thinnest book in the world". Hultman is expected to back the sale but in a last-ditch attempt to thwart it Astaire and his fellow directors Peter Mead and Roger Brooke have circularised shareholders advising them that it is "not in their best interests". The trio want them to study rival bids from the European leisure group ENIC and the US entertainment conglomerate SFX, both of whom would retain the present management structure.

In doing so, Astaire has been accused of attempting to undermine England's bid for the 2006 World Cup, to which a redeveloped Wembley is crucial. He retorts: "That is a lie, complete nonsense. The World Cup stadium will not be needed until 2005 for the traditional pre-World Cup tournament. We are still six years away. Whatever happens it will be ready comfortably by then, and even for the proposed World Athletics Championships in 2003."

Astaire is a multi-faceted multi-millionaire who, despite his name, dances to no one's tune but his own - certainly not that of the FA or Ken Bates. He explains: "I was always against the complete sale of the stadium because Wembley plc without the stadium is like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. It is the jewel in our crown. Even now I am certain we could have made some arrangement with the FA whereby we had an on-going involvement with the management of the stadium.

"I know Bates wouldn't like that but he would just have to lump it. There's no way the FA would have walked away from that sort of deal, because they would have been laughed at by everyone from 10 Downing Street downwards." Astaire is a fan of Chelsea but not of its pugnacious overlord. "I call him Chairman Mao-Tse Bates because I'm sick of some of his utterances. The way he talked about Matthew Harding was typical of that. He's not so smart. He's got into a bind at Stamford Bridge over planning permission and if he deals that way with Wembley, he's really going to be in trouble. To separate the two entities in terms of management is ludicrous - a recipe for dispute and eventual chaos."

Astaire can be a formidable adversary, as those who crossed his path during his days in boxing will testify. Some attempted to smear him with the label "Mr X", because his name never appeared on the promotional billings, though the cartel with Harry Levene, Mickey Duff, Mike Barrett and Terry Lawless was official and above board. "Boxing was never more than 10 per cent of my activities, but it represented 90 per cent of my reputation," Astaire reflects.

At 75, he remains one of the most influential string-pullers in British sport, and one of the country's most successful business entrepreneurs. He is a director of more than a score of companies, and in the Sixties pioneered closed circuit and pay-per-view television while Rupert Murdoch was still wiping printer's ink from his hands. His biography, Encounters, will be published in April.

"In all my years in business I've been involved in good deals and bad deals, but never one as bad as this. Let me make it clear that as independent directors, we are not opposed to the National Stadium development. What we are opposed to are the terms of the sale.

"This is really nothing to do with any dispute between Bates and myself, although he's making it personal by saying I'm trying to sabotage the deal. I'm not. I'm simply concerned with my duty, which is to get the best possible deal for Wembley's shareholders and it is not the best deal when they are subsidising professional football clubs under the jurisdiction of the FA, who, because of the Lottery funding, are getting the stadium for virtually nothing."

Although Astaire recognises that shareholders are primed to vote in favour ("there's an incentive to do so because they've been promised pounds 75m in pay-back out of the pounds 103m") he will not concede that his cause is lost. "Things might emerge between now and Thursday which could change their minds. We shall see." If he loses, 51 of the stadium staff will be made redundant.

After the verdict, Astaire will fly off to his ringside seat at that other big fight, between Holyfield and Lewis in New York. By Concorde, naturally. His luxurious lifestyle is something of a paradox considering that, politically, he has always been a committed socialist of the Old Labour school. So his determination to fight the corner of the present Wembley staff might be explained by a true story.

Some years ago he found himself seated at lunch next to the titled wife of an eminent company chairman and spent most of the time espousing the cause of Labour and his friend Harold Wilson. Later, they waited outside for their cars and Astaire's Bentley purred up. "Mr Astaire," declared the high Tory lady, "how do you reconcile this with the socialist doctrine you've been preaching at me throughout lunch?"

"Nothing's too good for the workers, madam," replied Astaire, hopping into the passenger seat as his chauffeur opened the door.

Bruiser Bates should keep his guard up. By the end of the week he'll know he's been in a fight.