Wembley, the sick creature of football, has suddenly taken a turn for the better, and it is no coincidence that it is being nursed along the road to recovery by the Government's troubleshooter-in-chief, Lord Patrick Carter. The 60-year-old Labour peer had no sooner relinquished the chair at Sport England at the end of last month when, with Wembley sinking even deeper into a fiscal and farcical mire, the word went out from Downing Street: Get Carter.
Michael Caine clone he isn't, but not many people know that Lord Carter of Coles was largely responsible for saving Manchester's eventually much-lauded Commonwealth Games from impending financial disaster, and there are several other ailing projects that were resuscitated by his prompt assistance.
He has not waved a magic wand at Wembley, but one suspects he has wagged an admonishing finger at the relevant factions whose procrastination, squabbling and apparent incom-petence have led to British sport's biggest embarrassment. No one, they say, is more adept at cracking heads together. The result is that his intervention is likely to lead to confirmation as early as this week that Wembley is now definitely on course to be ready for this season's FA Cup final, resplendent as the world's finest football stadium.
Carter refrains from public criticism of those involved in the tripartite fiasco: the Australian builders, Multiplex; Wembley Stadium Ltd; and the Football Association. No doubt, though, his private views of the costly delays have been forcibly conveyed. Consequently, relations have been eased to the extent that all parties now agree that continuing litigation is in no one's interests. What has to be settled now is the level of Multiplex's pay-off, with the FA waiving some of the late completion penalties, and the wording of contracts to clarify who is responsible for completing what parts of the £750 million stadium.
He says circumspectly: "Yes, I've been helping a bit. Some progress has been made, and the situation is looking more encouraging." Has he been banging heads together? "Let's say I've been persuading people to take a different perspective rather than staying on the back foot. When things don't go according to plan, at that point nobody is absolutely right and it is a question of helping them to see a way through."
It is a case of Wembley Revisited for Carter, who recalls: "In 2001, I was asked to look at the Commonwealth Games and put it on a sound financial footing. It was around that time that Wembley started to wobble. I was asked to have a look at this situation too, and we started from scratch to see how a deal could be put together."
The rest, as they say, is history. But history that went sour. Now Carter is back to sweeten things up again. He is, he will argue, more facilitator than fixer, as his experience in various business enterprises, including the medical group Westminster Health Care, which have made him a multimillionaire, indicates.
Arriving at Sport England, he admitted his working knowledge of mainstream sport was scant; he was received with some scepticism but proved a quick learner as well as a hatchet man, cutting the staff by more than a third and reshaping the role of the quango. So is Sport England where he wanted it to be after his four years? "The answer is yes. When I arrived it was a monolithic, highly centralised, bureaucratic organisation which had forgotten it was partly about sports development and had just turned into a sort of cash dispenser.
"It had to move closer to the customer, and I think we did that by regionalisation and making it a lot leaner. But it was quite a painful process. There are three ways the Government can intervene in sport: in schools, mass participation and funding elite sport. They are different businesses and needed a different approach. Now Sport England own community sport while elite sport is the province of UK Sport and schools are with the Department of Education. Now Sport England's role is clearer."
But surely it has diminished? Carter disagrees. "It is still the biggest cash distributor [ £263m this year from Exchequer and Lottery funding] most of it going to the community. We are all fascinated by our heroes and heroines but we don't have any if we don't get the grass roots right."
As a member of the the 2012 Legacy Board he was a valuable conduit between Lord Coe and the Government. Coe, he says, is a genius, but he admits concern about what the London Games legacy will be. "I'm not relaxed about it. I don't think anybody should be. The thing that Wembley has taught me - and Athens will teach anybody - is that time is staggeringly short. Above all, we have to make it a national event. Britain has to feel it has a legacy, not just London. We don't want white elephants. If there isn't a use for it, take it down."
Once the Wembley deal is sorted, Carter says he will take a break from sport and concentrate on his other interests, but no doubt the PM will soon be on the phone again. Last year Carter undertook three Governmental reviews: electronic tax, reforming legal aid and the future of pathology. A long way from sorting out volleyball - or even Wembley. "Yes, but some of the strategies are quite similar," he says. "Once sport was an embarrassment to the Government. Now it has begun to convince Government it is a worthy partner.
"I've met some extraordinarily good and challenging people in sport - and lots of the other kind, too, full of self-interest. One of the things about sport is that because of its combative nature it does have great difficulty in behaving collectively, to its detriment." It seems Wembley has been firmly reminded of this, now that it has got Carter.Reuse content