Brooking on the defensive

Alan Hubbard examines the growing row over the new Wembley
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TREVOR BROOKING is an angry man. The normally imperturbable footballer turned TV pundit, who has always preferred to operate in a controversy- free zone, is getting hot under the collar in his role as chairman of Sport England.

What bugs Brooking is the escalating row over the rebuilding of Wembley as the pounds 475m national stadium. He is furious that what he believed was a done deal has suddenly been propelled into a bitter dispute involving Sport England, the Football Association and the British Olympic Association, all of whom have vested interests in Wembley's future.

Last week Brooking was involved in a series of heated exchanges with journalists, myself included, who have recently highlighted the concerns of several voices in sport, including the new Minister for Sport, Kate Hoey, that Wembley is being purpose-built as a football stadium rather than the original concept of a national sports stadium.

Even though a complicated, lengthy and expensive re- configuration of the stadium will be necessary to enable it to host international athletics events or future Olympics, Brooking argues that this is the most practical solution and says he cannot understand what the fuss is all about. "There is nothing new here," he says. "This was decided upon some time ago, so why all the headlines now. Why aren't you writing about more important issues, like the scandal of sport in our schools? If this isn't sorted out, then in years to come there won't be any use for Wembley, anyway, because we won't be developing the kids to play there."

Brooking, in his then role as chairman of the English Sport Lottery Fund, and the Sport England chief executive, Derek Casey, accepted, at the insistence of the Football Association, that Wembley should be rebuilt without a permanent athletics track, even though this is an integral feature of most other national stadiums throughout the world. The football case was argued aggressively by the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, who has since become chairman of the stadium development company. Bates made it abundantly clear that he did not want a track there at any price, arguing that its presence would inhibit the atmosphere at big football matches.

Instead it was agreed that the team of architects, led by Lord Foster, would design a temporary track which could be built on a concrete platform over the pitch to be used as and when needed. But this would cut the capacity to 67,500, well below the 80,000 figure needed for an Olympics. The BOA warned Sport England last January of their concerns. Now Hoey has intervened and ordered an independent report on the feasibility of the design from the American company Ellerbe Becket, experts in stadium construction. They are assessing whether the lower tiers of seating can be reconfigured to bring the capacity back to 80,000 without restricting the view or comfort of spectators. If they say yes, the BOA will accept the compromise; if not, Wembley will have to go back to the drawing board, which could seriously affect plans for the 2006 World Cup bid.

Brooking seems irritated by the move to call in fresh consultants. "Our design team is the best in the world," he says. "Are you saying they have got it wrong?" Well, what the BOA and others are saying is that they they have got it "arse-about-face" and that a running track, covered by seats, should have been installed from the off. It will take up to seven months and pounds 8m to convert Wembley whenever it holds athletics. The Stade de France in Paris requires only 48 hours.

Wembley's plans, which should have been submitted for local planning permission last month, will now be formally presented to Brent Council tomorrow - even though the new report ordered by the Sports Minister is unlikely to be available before the end of the week.

Brent Council are known to be unhappy at several aspects of the plans, not least the seating controversy and lack of provision for an international warm-up track. It could be six months before they decide whether or not to give their approval.

A BBC Watchdog programme planned for this week examining the whole Wembley issue is unlikely to brighten Brooking's mood, but one can have some sympathy for a football man who is suffering an apparent backlash from those who feel that other sports are being sacrificed at the altar of his old game. As a player he always followed the advice to "keep it simple". Much of the vexation might have been avoided if the same principle had been applied over Wembley.