Football: Sentimentality is a hindrance to British sport

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ON A wall of the room in which these words are being laboriously picked out, there is a painting of George Best by the distinguished Salford artist Harold Riley. A vivid celebration of Best's artistry, it is also a reminder of how the Stretford End looked before Old Trafford's splendid renovation.

Doubtless, there are many supporters of Manchester United, certainly those of an older generation, who remember that ancient structure - smoke- shrouded in Riley's depiction - as fondly as followers of Liverpool do the Kop at Anfield and those of Arsenal the North Bank at Highbury.

It is now established, I think, that apart from salary escalation - with its accompanying distortion of worth - English football has seen no greater change recently than structural improvements resulting from the Taylor Report. If not better players, then at least better arenas.

Bearing that in mind, I feel no aching bond of sympathy with those who have risen up against the notion that every effort should be made to preserve the famous twin towers in a reconstructed Wembley Stadium.

As Sir Stanley Matthews put it this week, when inducted as the first of 10 FA Cup legends, Wembley will remain Wembley, no matter how it looks in the future.

However, the ringing announcement in one daily print this week was that to put a wrecking ball to the towers would be a criminal rejection of national heritage. This brings up the thought that there is no greater hindrance to the advancement of British sport than sentimentality.

A nation's sporting strength - and I have never been sure that to be consistently successful at games means a great deal in the general scheme of things - lies not with its past but with its future, not with appurtenances but with the quality of performance and behaviour.

But, with a blind devotion that sometimes seems touching, people are playing to the preposterous idea that Wembley's towers should be saved at any cost, and costly it will be, by architectural cunning.

Soon, it will be necessary for Brazil to reach a decision about the Maracana, the great stadium in Rio that was erected to accommodate more than 200,000 spectators for the 1950 World Cup finals, but is now in such a state of decay that it may have to be demolished.

The spiritual home of Scottish football, Hampden Park, no longer rings with the vast crowds that turned out for biennial home matches against England, and housed a British attendance of more than 130,000 for a memorable European Cup final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt. The other great Glasgow stadiums, Celtic Park and Ibrox, would be almost unrecognisable to the forebears of today's supporters.

Time alters most things. "There used to be a ball club over there," Frank Sinatra sang mournfully after the demolition of Ebbets Field in New York, following the Brooklyn Dodgers' migration to California. The possibility that Madison Square Garden in New York will stage the contest next March between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis for the undisputed heavyweight title reminds us that no arena is more synonymous with championship boxing.

In fact, the Garden on the corner of West 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue is more name than actual history. In the days of Jack Dempsey, Benny Leonard and other great figures of the roaring 20s, it was 16 blocks further north in Manhattan.

To repeat what Matthews said this week, and nobody figures more romantically in the history of the stadium that has stood in north London for 75 years, Wembley will remain Wembley no matter what it comes to look like.

About 18 months ago, I was asked on radio how a Welshman felt about the demolition of Cardiff Arms Park, or the National Stadium as it was officially known, to make way for a modern structure in keeping with the prestige of staging next year's rugby World Cup. I shrugged.

From the way some people spoke, you would think that an act of vandalism had been committed in the cause of progress. Sentimentalists bought up fittings, even slabs of turf, as mementoes.

Few now remember it as a big issue and most will still refer to the new stadium as the Arms Park, no matter what grand name is attached to it.

You may feel that if Wembley's towers had been reduced to rubble, something oddly valuable would have died with them. This ignores the fact that there is more in a name than in concrete.