Fooball: Hero of Hampden to wally of Wembley

IT MAY seem impudent but the unavoidable question of the week is why a clapped-out old sporting nation like England is spending so much time and energy bickering over the size and shape of a pounds 475m super stadium? To put it another way, have they thought about the more practical option of keeping Wembley as it is and rebuilding the nation; or, at least, that substantial part of it that suffers from these extraordinary fits of grandeur? Maybe the detachment that comes from being merely an interested neighbour was necessary in order to see the events of last week in perspective. Even then, it was difficult to judge which was the more pathetic sight - the deluded build-up to an inevitably disappointing England display or the explosion of a crazed debate about the new stadium.

There is a link between the two but it was not obvious at the start of the week when the wave of English euphoria was almost tidal. Following the 2-0 victory in the first leg of their European Championship play-off with Scotland, a strong feeling of optimism about the second leg at Wembley was understandable. But it reached a pitch of expectation that was many octaves higher than any note to which England could aspire.

It was a hypnotic state that spread wide and no one was entranced more than the media. Writers whose memory banks are crammed with the frustrations of the past rushed headlong into the same old trap. Wednesday's game was elected the biggest foregone conclusion since the Alamo.

Even the Scots fell for it. Two days before Wembley, a Scottish newspaper conducted a poll on the question of whether their manager, Craig Brown, should be sacked. The bookies joined in by offering odds that surpassed all previous generosity. Scotland were 6-1 against winning over 90 minutes. With Hills, they were an amazing 33-1 to qualify and the same price to win 2-0. I couldn't resist. A lifetime of watching England flounder at Wembley has equipped me with a cynicism that won't be cured until the place is demolished.

I didn't quite win the bet but I had an exciting run for my money and the pleasure of watching an excellent Scottish performance pieced together by players I'd hardly heard of was ample return. There has been the added bonus since of watching the acrobatic agility of somersaulting experts. "Tarts 0 Tartans 1" was one headline on a page that had oozed patriotic patronage the previous day.

Brown was swiftly removed from the dole queue and promoted to tactical genius while many found it easier to execute the volte-face if they used Kevin Keegan's head as a springboard. Revelations that the England coach and some of his players had stayed up late on Saturday night drinking beer and watching the Lennox Lewis fight were presented in triumph - as if that was the reason England lost, not that their resident experts had been hopelessly wrong. Physical correctness in sport is becoming as boring as political correctness elsewhere.

So Keegan, hero of Hampden, becomes the wally of Wembley and the ritual chants for his head have been sounded or, worse still, that a coach should be appointed to help him. This sad scenario is all the more depressing for having been repeated endlessly for 20 years or more. At least we're going to get rid of the old and soulless Wembley Stadium from this recurring nightmare.

This would be a more comforting thought but for the controversy now ensuing about what should be built in its place. There may be grounds for an argument about where its replacement should be sited, but there should be no doubt that it should be an arena dedicated to the national game.

In fact, the England football team don't need a stadium, they need a fortress; a home that intimidates the visitors and where they can feel the crowd's hot breath. A visit to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff would provide an inspirational example of what I mean. Wembley frightens nobody; apart, that is, from England.

To saddle the new place with an athletics track would kill all possibility that there might be some interchange of passion between England and its followers. To introduce this dead-hand suggestion at this late stage is ludicrous and reveals only what an uncontrolled mess our sporting thinking is in.

No one disputes our need for a major athletics stadium, but that has been apparent for years. It is shaming that a country of our size and range of sporting traditions doesn't possess one already. Compared with most other countries our lack of facilities is appalling. It would be absurd to attempt to cure that failing by wrecking English football's hopes of having a headquarters worthy of the name.

If we are serious about bringing the Olympics here in 12 years' time, or the World Athletics Championships in 2005, then we should create a stadium built specifically for that purpose. Although a stadium is hardly adequate. We need a site that offers facilities for many sports and which can serve as a national focal point. The Wembley squabbles merely show how short of vision we are.

IF DAVID SUKER, the Arsenal striker, had bet a large lump of money on Manchester United winning the Premiership this season, there is no doubt that the Football Association would have performed their famous impersonation of a ton of bricks. Rightly so, for Arsenal themselves are likely to be among the main contenders for the title and Suker could be subject to a conflict of interests.

But the FA see nothing wrong with Suker purchasing pounds 20,000 of United shares, as he did last month. Obviously, there's a difference, but only of degree. United's shares are likely to be worth more if they win the Premiership than, say, if Arsenal do. And if that's not a conflict of interests, I don't know what is.

Not for one minute do I suggest that Suker would allow his stock market investments to affect his game but if the FA are strict on betting why are they so casual about shares? Their spokesman denied last week that there was a contradiction in their rules if they permit one form of financial speculation on football but ban another.

Arsenal, famed for their strict code of player behaviour, said it was "absolutely absurd" to suggest that Suker had compromised his commitment to them. Nevertheless, he does have a stake in the success of their biggest rival.

Perhaps we should take it as a foretaste of the footballer of the future who, when weighing his next opposition, asks:"Are they in my portfolio?"

IN OUR eternal battle to get the better of the bookmakers, no sign or omen can be ignored, and very often the finger of fate is a more reliable pointer than the form book. In the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday runs a horse called The Last Fling who has an outsider's chance and brings to the race a poignant tale.

The chestnut gelding was born nine years ago as the result of an arranged assignation between a stallion, Avocat, and a mare, Highway's Last. We needn't trouble ourselves with the details of this brief relationship but as soon as he had performed his duties to the satisfaction of all concerned, Avocat dropped down dead on the spot.

The Last Fling, therefore, has a name more meaningful than most. It is sadly ironic that, as a gelding, he didn't have a first fling never mind a last but, on the grounds that even horses want their dads to be remembered kindly, a small each-way bet is recommended.

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