Football: Smith toughens up over Wembley

Alan Hubbard says government action on stadium is imminent
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The Independent Online
AS THE silly saga of Wembley drags on towards the 21st century, the Government have finally decided to get tough with football and send in the heavies. If no solution is reached this week about the suitability of the new stadium as a multi-sports arena, the Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, will warn the Football Association that he is ready to appoint an independent regulator with statutory powers over the game.

Such a move has been under consideration for some time and is among the recommendations of the Task Force which presents its final report on Wednesday.

Smith and the Minister for Sport, Kate Hoey, have grown tired of arguing the toss with football over a project which, as it stands, does not meet the original requirements of a national stadium. They want the issue settled and have told Wembley and the FA they do not consider it too late to go back to the drawing board and redesign the pounds 475m stadium with a permanent running track, which would make it suitable for major athletics events and any future Olympic bid.

The option of a temporary raised concrete platform, which would take a year to build and dismantle at a cost of pounds 20m, remains unacceptable to the Government despite the UK Athletics chief, David Moorcroft, taking the expedient view that it could enable the 2005 world athletic championships to be staged at Wembley. Their opposition has been reinforced by the fact that the International Amateur Athletic Federation, who would preside over the event, are known to have reservations about the technical viability of the platform plan and would prefer the championships to be staged on an orthodox track.

If Wembley continue to ignore requests to consider building such a track around the peri-meter of the football pitch then Smith, who is due to answer more questions about the delay in Parliament tomorrow, is likely to carry out his threat to bring in a high-profile regulator who would have powers over the game's financing, similar to the situation in the service industries. The regulator's first job would be to claw back a substantial portion of the pounds 120m Lottery money given to Wembley, through the courts if necessary. Wembley would also be stripped of its status as the "national stadium" and left solely as a venue for football and the occasional rugby league match.

Privately, Smith and Hoey are resigned to Wembley not playing ball and have spent the weekend looking at alternative proposals for athletics and the Olympics, which include Twickenham, though the rugby union authorities are more kindly disposed towards the idea than the local authority. The immediate priority is the world athletics championships, for which the IAAF have extended the bid deadline until the end of next month, with Melbourne now ominously in the running alongside London.

A mini-Wembley, a purpose-built 20,000-seater athletics arena constructed close to the new stadium as part of an Olympic-styled sport city, has been mooted, but the scheme is riddled with financial and logistical problems.

However, Smith's office is also considering the proposal from Manchester - revealed here last week - to convert the stadium now being built there for the 2002 Commonwealth Games into a permanent home for athletics. Soundings are being taken from the IAAF about holding the world championships in Manchester, and first indications are not unfavourable. The influential secretary-general of the IAAF, Istvan Guylai, has told Manchester officials the idea is worth pursuing should the London option fall though.

The championships would be guaranteed bigger crowds in a city more sports- conscious than London, as testified by the 21,000 sell-out within hours of the Tyson-Francis fight being announced.