City of Manchester Stadium: The Wembley rescuers

First Night: Manchester is ready to provide a national home for athletics. By Alan Hubbard
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The Independent Online
IN A week when Wembley has become more like Wimbledon with damning criticisms and angry rebuttals volleyed furiously to and fro over the net, it went virtually unnoticed that the foundation stone was laid for the nation's other super stadium for the millennium. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, did the honours in Manchester on Monday. It rained, of course, but the prospects are looking distinctly sunny as the city twice rejected as an Olympic venue steps up the pace on the countdown to the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

The City of Manchester Stadium may be just a hole in the ground at the moment, but it is a whole lot better than the hole in which Wembley - now more Fawlty Towers than Twin Towers - finds itself. Construction has begun on the elegant showpiece arena in the Eastlands district that will be the hub of a shimmering complex known as SportCity. Although half the capacity of Wembley, at pounds 90m it is being built at less than a fifth of the cost. And according to Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester City Council and a driving force behind the Games plan it will be a "vastly superior" stadium to Wembley in many aspects. "Wembley may be a stunning landmark for London, but in terms of functionality and value for money we have a much better concept," he says.

Manchester, who lost out to Wembley in the bitter battle to become England's national stadium because the Football Association did not want to look north, say they bear no grudges, but they can barely hide a satisfied smile knowing they are now in the perfect position to help their one-time rivals out of the hole into which they have dug themselves.

If no solution is found shortly to the vexed question of whether or not Wembley either wants, or is suitable for, athletics events, then Manchester is ready, willing and able to step in with an offer to stage the World Championships in 2005 and for the stadium to become the permanent national home for British athletics.

Although Bernstein is reluctant to confirm it - "We don't want to be seen jumping on bandwagons at this stage" - my understanding is that Manchester City Council have requested a meeting with the Secretary of State Chris Smith to explore the possibilities.

It is an idea that makes sense. The World Championships do not have to be held in London. It was Primo Nebiolo, the recently deceased President of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, who wanted them staged in the capital but I believe the governing body would now view Manchester as an acceptable compromise, having staged the event before in continental provincial cities such as Gothenburg, Stuttgart and Seville.

At the moment Manchester's new stadium is due to be handed over to Manchester City FC after the Commonwealth Games. The athletics track would be dismantled to allow the seating capacity to be increased from 38,000 to 48,000. But council sources say they are confident that the football club could be persuaded to allow the track to remain as a permanent feature with a retractable seating scheme, such as that in Paris's Stade de France which would further increase the capacity to 65,000.

It is estimated that making the stadium permanently suitable for track and field events would add another pounds 50m to the cost - a far cheaper option than Wembley's proposed prefabricated platform or building another athletics arena elsewhere. It is also less than half the Lottery money allocated to Wembley on condition it would be an all-purpose sports stadium.

There is no doubt that the new Manchester stadium would make a superb home for athletics and would be economically viable if shared with Manchester City.

Adjacent will be a warm-up track, which itself is capable of accommodating 12,000 spectators. The main stadium, on the site of an old gasworks and disused coal mine, is due to rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of Manchester's two Olympic bids. It is one of the eight new facilities purpose-built for the 17-sport , 75-nation Games, which will be the biggest multi-sport event ever held in the United Kingdom.

Although it lacks the gigantism of Wembley it will still be a state of the art building of some architectural splendour, with design ideas incorporated from some of the world's best stadiums, including San Siro, Munich and Sydney. It will be ringed around the rim with fluorescent blue lights that can be seen for miles. "A beacon for the regeneration of the whole area," Bernstein says.

The stadium, and SportCity will be the focal point of the Games but equally eye-catching is the pounds 32.8m swimming pool complex located in the centre of Manchester, which is claimed to be the best in Europe, with two split- level 50m pools. It is already ear-marked as a future venue for other major international events in the sport and work on the project is 10 weeks ahead of schedule.

"We're in good shape," claims Bernstein. "I'm not saying it won't be a challenge financially. We aim to break even though we know it won't be a doddle. But we won't be going cap in hand to the Government asking them to bail us out. The city council have agreed to underwrite any losses. Look, we are two-and-a-half years out from the Games and we're 75 per cent there in terms of funding. We're certainly not going to lose tens of millions of pounds. There might be a small shortfall if we don't get all the sponsorship we need, though I'm confident we shall."

At present Manchester, with a Games budget of pounds 207.8m, need to raise some pounds 62m to stay out of the red, through TV rights, sponsorship, merchandising and tickets. They have already received pounds 132m of Lottery funding, which will pay for the stadium and the pool, but despite Blair's fine words about urban regeneration and the north-south divide last week, the Government have made it clear that there will be no extra revenue from the Treasury.

All of this places something of a strain on the shoulders of Niels de Vos, the energetic young commercial director of Manchester 2002 Ltd, who has the job of raising the cash. He is well practised in the role, having helped bring in around pounds 150m of sponsorship for the Millennium Dome."It's a tough call," he admits. "If we do it we'll have raised more than for any other sports event in this country. But I thought it would be a harder sell than it is proving to be. We've already got 10 per cent of what we need [of the pounds 62m still outstanding] and I'm surprised just how much enthusiasm there is out there for the Games from potential sponsors."

What might be a much harder sell is convincing the Government and other interested parties that there is a ready-made solution to the Wembley crisis. Yet it shouldn't be. Manchester may have been mocked as a home for the Olympics but as far as the Commonwealth Games and a potential home for athletics are concerned, it is definitely on the right track.