Banks refuses to be made a scapegoat

Ex-sports minister hits back over the Wembley fiasco.

The former Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, came out fighting yesterday and declared he is not prepared to be the fall guy over the Wembley fall-out. He reacted angrily to suggestions that he colluded with the Chelsea chairman Ken Bates to keep athletics out of the new stadium. "It is absolutely untrue," he said of the newspaper report which alleged he had told Bates, then co-chairman of the Football Association's Wembley Committee, that he wanted to "destroy" the proposals to make Wembley an all-purpose sports arena.

The former Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, came out fighting yesterday and declared he is not prepared to be the fall guy over the Wembley fall-out. He reacted angrily to suggestions that he colluded with the Chelsea chairman Ken Bates to keep athletics out of the new stadium. "It is absolutely untrue," he said of the newspaper report which alleged he had told Bates, then co-chairman of the Football Association's Wembley Committee, that he wanted to "destroy" the proposals to make Wembley an all-purpose sports arena.

Banks, who quit as sports minister three months ago and is now the Government's ambassador for the 2006 World Cup campaign, says he has issued writs against the newspaper in question and also Jarvis Astaire, the former deputy chairman of Wembley plc, who made a similar allegation in his biography published earlier this year in which he wrote of the "close relationship" between the Chelsea fan Banks and Bates.

Astaire, a millionaire socialist and boxing and business entrepreneur, also says he once told Banks, who was having dinner with friends at Stamford Bridge, that he was "a disgrace to the Labour Party" over his support of Dennis Wise after the player's trial on charges of assaulting a taxi driver.

"The story that I wanted to keep athletics out is a complete fabrication," Banks told me. "I have spoken to Ken Bates who denies that any such conversation took place. It is true that I have never been in favour of a running track that would be permanently visible between the pitch and spectators in the new national stadium, which has been policy all the way through. But that does not amount to destroying athletics, which is a sport I happen to love.

"I have always wanted to have the Olympic Games at Wembley, and still do. The minutes of all the meetings I was involved in make that quite clear. I happen to think that if athletics was forced out of Wembley it would imperil any future Olympic bid. This is why I am bitterly contesting these allegations.

"I feel entitled to defend my own position over this. Whatever anyone says about me, I might be mouthy and I might be opinionated, but I'm not dishonest. I do have integrity. I'm not prepared to take a dive on behalf of anybody."

In fairness to Banks, in none of the several conversations I had with him in his two years as sports minister did he express anything other than enthusiasm for Wembley as a multi-sports arena. In fact he once revealed that he had argued, unsuccessfully, for the Government to underwrite the entire cost of the stadium. "Then we could develop the whole area, as the French have done with the Stade de France, which is now being held up as a role model. But I was told there was no money.

"The idea of a permanent athletics track was rejected a long time ago and I agree with that. I think you lose too much in terms of atmosphere, though there are some stadiums, such as that in Rome, where it works very well. But I would be quite happy with retractable seats over a permanently installed athletics track.

"However, I am confident that the design as launched by Chris Smith last July is perfectly adequate to meet the requirements of the British Olympic Association and athletics, although some slight modifications may be needed. I happen to agree with Wembley that the report upon which Chris Smith based his statement in Parliament is grossly flawed."

If this proves to be true - or even if it does not - the Secretary of State, who has called for a re-think of the entire Wembley project, will face an embarrassing impasse when he brings together the relevant parties involved in the dispute on 15 December. Prospects of a happy ending to the wretched tale of Wembley's woes are remote, with Wembley digging their heels in and refusing to pay back all or part of the £120m Lottery funding provided through Sport England.

There is a growing feeling in sport that some elements of the Government, though certainly not its new sports minister (nor even the old one, it seems) would now prefer to see Wembley built as a football-only stadium with athletics being given a new Lottery grant to build its own arena somewhere outside the capital.

The question of who takes the blame for the fiasco also remains unresolved, though it is likely that once the dust settles, some heads will be rolling in it. If he doesn't get it sorted, will Chris Smith's be among them?

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