Football: Cordiality and the cordite

THE INTERVIEW: TONY BANKS; He is not just the minister for 2006. He is no career politician but sport's mouthpiece.
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THE WEEK began badly for Tony Banks. He was trying to negotiate a peaceful settlement in a dispute about noisy neighbours at his Monday morning surgery in his East End constituency when he was interrupted by a call from Twickenham. What did the sports minister think they should do about Lawrence Dallaglio?

With perverse timing, Banks was about to leave for a lunchtime meeting with a new international body convening in London to discuss a strategy for the battle against drugs in sport. As he stepped into his car he was still railing on, as you might expect, against the "slimeballs" of the News of the World and sighing over the "sheer stupidity" of the England rugby captain. But he insisted that the advice he gave the Rugby Football Union remained confidential.

Just over 48 hours later Banks was on a high himself, punching the air and hugging Sir Bobby Charlton after a result at the Nou Camp which will have done England's prospect of hosting the 2006 World Cup no harm whatsoever: nor, indeed, his own turbulent tenure at the sports ministry where, much to the chagrin of his detractors, he is now barnstorming into his third year.

Banks says that the near-to-tears emotion he showed on Wednesday wasn't for himself, but for Charlton. "Bobby was actually sitting a couple of rows behind me but at the end I called him down so he could get as close to the fans as he could. You could sense Munich, 1968, and Matt Busby all coming together in his mind. It was an incredibly emotional time for him. I just wanted to put my arm around him and share that moment. It was as much for him as it was the drama of the night."

However, Banks being Banks he couldn't resist reminding us that he did forecast the correct score in a radio interview that morning. "Everything you wanted to say about English football was said in that match - passion, drama, fair play. It was a wonderful advert for us."

It was certainly the high point of Bank's stewardship, a time in which he may have got up some toffee-noses but has won over many of the sceptics within sport with his blustery blend of energy, fervour and blunt talking. After a succession of chinless nonentities and Thatcher lapdogs, for the first time since the Seventies the nation knows it actually has a sports minister, even if there are times when it splutters indignantly over what he says.

Speak as you find. Unlike some, I have always believed him to be a positive influence on sport, a breath of fresh air after the stuffiness which preceded him, albeit blowing an opinionated gale at times. What you hear is what you get and to those who denigrate him as a mouthy twerp his retort is simple. "Stuff 'em," he says, or a word to that effect. With Banks, expletives are rarely deleted. At his worst, he can be teeth- grindingly abrasive: at his best his enthusiasm for sport - boyish rather than laddish - can be captivating. He might even yet charm the votes out of Fifa delegates in support of 2006 if his performance at last weekend's post-FA Cup final dinner at the Natural History Museum is a yardstick.

This weekend brings more opportunity to play the statesman when he attends the conference of European sports ministers in Paderborn, Germany. There are crucial issues to be discussed, not least a way of extracting sport from the maze of Euro-legislation which, he believes, is threatening its future. Banks is leading the campaign to give sport special status within Europe, enabling it to bypass some of the restrictive laws of the single market. "We've seen in recent court cases how sport is badly affected by the structure of legislation passed by the European Union. When they were drawing up the European Act and in particular the competition laws, no one considered the effect on sport and its special characteristics.

"I firmly believe that we cannot allow the structure of sport, nationally or internationally, to be damaged by legislation that was not designed for it. If we are not careful sport in Europe will descend into a shambles. We must not allow that to happen because it is too important politically and economically."

Also on the agenda will be drugs (inevitably) and the provision of facilities for the disabled at international events. It was pressure from Banks that led to the number of seats for disabled Manchester United fans being quadrupled in Barcelona, a piece of diplomacy that did not go unnoticed in Downing Street where Banks, one hears, enjoys the wholehearted support of the man who controversially brought a potential rebel into his tepee.

Banks has certainly succeeded in meeting Tony Blair's desire to give the sports ministry a higher profile, although this has been accompanied by a heap of hype, not least surrounding the no-expense-spared quest to bring the World Cup to England. But he has found it much harder to plough the grassroots of sport and unravel the red tape that has strangled its confused administration. Not every battle has been won and the smell of cordite lingers in the air at the department of Culture, Media and Sport where he and his boss, Chris Smith, the secretary of state, are said to be barely on speaking terms.

The protracted scenario where Banks and Smith fell out over a woman - in this case Tessa Sanderson, whom the sports minister wanted to head the English Sports Council - is fascinating and Banks is known to have been close to resigning on a number of occasions. His volatility is such that it is not beyond him to tell them where to stick the job, despite his commitment to the 2006 bid, before the government's five-year span has elapsed.

Will you see it through, I asked him? For once, he picked his words carefully. "I'll tell you this, mate. The only person who will decide whether I see this job through is me." He clearly resents the implication that his only real concern is 2006 and all that. "I'm not just the minister for 2006," he says. "It is, after all, the single most important sporting event on the planet and everyone, from the Prime Minister downwards, wants us to get it and I believe we have cracked it. But I'm not in this for me. Look, I'm not going to be around in 2006, I hope I'll still be alive - although the way they are working me I'm not sure - but I won't be the sports minister, I may not even be a member of parliament. I'm not a career politician."

Does this mean he might join the mayoral race for London? A cough. "Let's wait and see. Who knows what the next few years will bring." Those close to him believe he'd love to go for the job but only as Labour's official candidate, a move Blair may consider to baulk Ken Livingstone.

Meanwhile it's back to digging at those grassroots and his antagonists. "I'm happy to be judged on what we've achieved over the past two years. We've changed the Lottery rules to make the grants system fairer, we're in constant dialogue with the governing bodies, we've an active anti-racist campaign and ethnic minorities and women are now encouraged to play a greater role. I promise you there's more to come in that direction. Yes there have been hiccups but there always are." And his critics have let him know it.

We are well aware that Banks thinks most sports writers are bums (another euphemism). Fair enough. Most of us are similarly disposed towards politicians, but he has never been one to resist a riposte. "What journalists have been forced to concede is that I know a hell of a lot about sport and that I can influence a lot of things. I think I have seen off those people who say I'm just a loudmouth who knows a bit about football. I'll stand my ground with any journalist across the range of sport. If that sounds immodest, too bad. If they want to f... with me, I'll f... with them. I'm not eating anyone's crap. Criticise me by all means but let me get on with my job."

This, he insists, is to be sport's mouthpiece, its cutting edge. "My role is to represent sport in government, not to represent government to sport. I'm only concerned with putting the case for sport and I'll continue to do it as robustly as I can."

Banks promises that more sparks will fly before he's done. A spry 56, he seems in good nick, despite a lifestyle that taxes his stamina and his temper. He's a vegetarian and some reckon there are times when he cares more for animals than he does humans. His pet charity is a society for the preservation of the tortoise. There may be something symbolic in that, although it seems unlikely they will ever keep him in his shell.

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