Manchester's powerhouse draws on the Sydney success story for a new legacy

The Frances Done interview: She's not the sporty type but the first lady of the Commonwealth Games has uncommon talents. Alan Hubbard meets her
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The Independent Online

A rainy day in Manchester. So what else is new? Well, quite a lot, actually, not least a superb stadium which looms resplendently into view as the train from London pulls into Piccadilly Station. It looks stunning, and next year it will be the centrepiece of the biggest multi-sports event ever to be held in Britain.

At least someone seems to be on the ball when it comes to getting sports facilities off the ground. At £110m, a fraction of the cost of the new Wembley or wherever the proposed national football stadium is likely to be, Manchester's Commonwealth Games Stadium is up, and almost ready for running. What's more, the majority of facilities for the 10-day, 17-sport, 72-nation jamboree next summer are in similar stages of completion, or built.

The £32m aquatic centre, with two 50 metre pools, has been in use for a year and the £15m multi-sports Bolton Arena was opened last month. The cycling velodrome helped produce a champion in Sydney.

Even so, Manchester has endured a lot of cynicism, not least over the shaky finances, but fair dues, while they have been wittering on in Whitehall, Westminster and Sport England over Wembley and where the 2005 World Athletics Championships might rest its wearying legs, Manchester seems to have ensured that the event which could save Britain's face is on track.

Oh yes, there's a cost. It could not have been done without the £105m rescue package which included a hefty dollop under duress from the Government, but in most countries that care about sport, that's what governments are for.

There was a time, of course, when the cynicism did not appear to be totally misdirected. Manchester had clearly got the sums wrong and was heading for huge financial embarrassment, if not disaster. What it needed, evidently, was a woman's touch, especially one that knew its way around balance sheets. Just over a year ago Frances Done, 51-year-old daughter of a former Labour MP for Newark, and mother of two teenage sons, took over as chief executive of the organising body of the Games, which will open in the new 38,000-seater stadium on Thursday 25 July.

So what does she know about sport? As they say up north, booger all, really. And she laughingly admits it. But that hasn't stopped Done getting things done. And dusted. What's more, she's not even a Mancunian. Well, not by birth, anyway, though she has lived there for 32 years.

Born in Bristol, she comes from a background of career accountancy, the public sector and local politics. She was an elected member of Manchester City Council in the Eighties and was chief executive of Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council before taking on the Games role.

"Initially I was reluctant because I didn't think my qualifications were those needed to organise a sports event," she says. "But when I thought about it I realised that while it was outside my normal experience a big part of the job was understanding the way the public sector works, bringing private and public sectors together and knowing how to handle large number of competing priorities and agendas. Plus the whole Manchester bit. After 32 years I'm committed to the place and felt I wanted to be part of a happening that will make history here. Anyway, they chose me to do it despite my lack of a sporting background.

"Actually, I'm not very sporty at all. Never have been. I do a little bit of swimming and dinghy sailing and I listen to Radio 5 Live. I only did that because when it first came on they said it was going to be Radio Blokes. I started listening because I've always worked in a man's world. And if you can't talk sport in male company you can't talk anything. Now I love Radio 5 Live because it's a real combination of news and sport, and that's life, really."

Her husband [Jim Hancock, the BBC's North-west political editor] supports Plymouth Argyle and sometimes she goes along. "But sport isn't the contribution I make to this organisation. We have plenty of others who do that. My job is dealing with the external relationships of the Games, the federations, the Government, the City Council and Sport England."

But make no mistake. She runs the show, albeit in a pleasant and far from matronly manner. She is upbeat and outgoing, and clearly has her sights set on making Manchester's Games a role model. "Some of the facilities we have are unbelievable. They will provide a legacy not only for élite athletes but the community."

All done, with more than a little help from the equally non-sporting numbers man, Gordon Brown, at the Treasury. "Plus the community itself." Done has instigated a programme of volunteers based on the one which was instrumental in Sydney's success. Manchester is seeking 10,000 unpaid helpers, aged 16 and upwards. There have been 11,000 applications (including her sons aged 16 and 17). Jobsworths need not apply. "I don't think we'll have trouble in getting people with the right attitude. We can replicate Sydney in this field.

"It is the biggest peace-time recruitment exercise ever held in this country. I know the people of the North-west and how they love to get involved. All the applications are sound and sensible... We've only had one Donald Duck, I think."

As with many aspects of the Games organisation, the volunteer programme is under Australian supervision. Done has recruited a whole platoon of those who were involved in the Sydney success story, and the accents around Manchester's Games HQ are decidedly more Home and Away than Coronation Street.

There are some 30 Aussies, 10 per cent, of the current Games permanent staff, planning everything from catering and transportation to accreditation. Di Henry, who directed the highly-praised Olympic Torch relay, has been hired to organise the one which will run for 50 days and mark the Queen's jubilee. There are also several organisational experts from North and South America who will supplement the final workforce of more than 20,000. Some will move on to Athens, then to to Melbourne for 2006 Commonwealth Games. Helping to set up major sports events has become a global industry in itself.

Done is one of a growing number of female powerhouses who have invaded what was traditionally a male preserve. While not quite as formidable as Gianna Angelopoulos, who is very much in charge of the Athens Olympics, Done is clearly the boss. Angelopoulos reckons that 54 per cent of those involved at organisational level for Athens 2004 are female. Done says the Manchester ratio is about 50-50. "It wasn't deliberate. It just happens they are best suited for the jobs. Anyway sport is very much a woman's domain these days. Just look what is happening in the media."

It is reckoned that Manchester's sporting extravaganza will cost around £250m and there have been accusations that some of the spending has been on the lavish side. The sports minister, Richard Caborn, questioned why it was necessary for a 15-strong delegation to the World Athletics Championships in Canada, at a cost of £25,000, especially as visits had had already been made to the last Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur and Sydney. So is Manchester overspending?

"Absolutely not," insists Done. "We've provided a breakdown of the costs, what the team did and what the benefits were, and why it was necessary go. I was the one who approved the expenditure. Look, there are two accountants heading up this organisation, myself and my deputy. We are conscious that we are spending public money and we have to account for it. We fly economy and we stay in budget hotels.

"I don't want to make the organisation out to be penny-pinching but my way of doing things is based on a public-sector background. There are no expensive lunches, or first-class jollies. Neither do we pay huge salaries. Some people are working up to 17 hours a day, but there is no overtime. I can assure you the control on budgets is extremely tight."

So, when she drove us to inspect the new stadium in Eastlands it was in her own R-reg Astra. No chauffeured limo for the First Lady of the Games. Just wellies and a hard hat as, in the pouring rain, she strode across the track, the final strip of which was was ceremonially laid by herself and Tessa Sanderson last week.

As stadiums go it may be on the smallish side but it looks terrific. It seems a pity, indeed some might say a disgrace, that when the nation is in dire need of permanent athletics facilities this splendid track is going to be ripped up and the stadium handed over free of charge to Manchester City, leaving the city itself, as well as the nation, again without a world-class athletics arena. Does Done regret that? Her reply is diplomatic.

"You'll understand I don't want to get into any of that discussion. It's not really my concern. The decision had already been made when I took over. It was felt necessary to have this arrangement to make the Games a success." At least it is a treat to see a decent stadium being built to budget and on time, but also galling as it was actually commissioned on the same day as New Wembley.

In these pages a couple of weeks ago the Manchester MP Gerald Kaufman made the point that if Manchester fails to rise to the challenge of successfully hosting the Commonwealth Games doubts will be raised about Britain's ability ever to deliver important international events. "Absolutely right," says Done. "These are the UK's games. We've got to do them really well. We know they can't just be OK, they have to be truly spectacular. We're not going to try and out-do Sydney. Manchester is Manchester, but all those who have come from Sydney to work with us are knocked out by this city. The place is buzzing. I want people to go away and say, 'Fantastic. That's the way a sports event should be run'."

The ticketing launch is on 1 October, with 850,000 seats to be filled. There will be a lottery for those events likely to be oversubscribed, such as the opening and closing ceremonies, and the athletics and rugby sevens finals. Half the tickets will cost £10 or under. Those for the ceremonies start at £21. "This compares favourably with football and the big shows in London's West End," says Done. "We want people to bring the whole family. These are the affordable games, the people's games."

But can Manchester really afford them? Done admits that while the break-even target has not been reached it is still within their sights. "I'm confident we'll do it. The city council's view is that there will be no adverse implications for the taxpayer, especially when the regeneration of east Manchester is taken into account."

So, like the track, the Games are now on the home straight. "The one thing I have learned since I took this job is just how important sport is," says Done. "It changes people's lives. Until I stood in Sydney's Olympic Park last year I never felt I'd be overwhelmed by a sporting event. I just know I'm going to get the same feeling at the opening ceremony here next year.

"What we will deliver will have huge benefits for the future. I know that in years to come I won't be thinking, 'Oh, I wish we hadn't done that.' It is all a bit daunting, but I'm not a person to be daunted." Not even by the rain.

Biography: Frances Done

Born: 6 May 1950, Bristol.

1968: Moved to Manchester as a student.

1971: Graduated from Manchester University with economics degree and trained as a chartered accountant with KPMG.

1975: Elected to Manchester City Council, becoming chairman of Finance Committee.

1980-84: Regional finance manager for Manchester Housing Corporation.

1988: Returned to KPMG as senior manager for public sector department.

1991: Borough Treasurer Rochdale Council.

1997: Chief Executive and Borough Treasurer, Rochdale Council.

2000: Appointed Chief Executive, Manchester 2002.