He was never going to do a Trevor Brooking and leave the Government with a flea in their collective ears as he departed high office. Boat- rocking has never been his style. Sir Rodney Walker may be a bluff Yorkshireman, but he is essentially a diplomat.
Brooking's blast over the way sport is administered in Parliament and Whitehall when he stepped down as chairman of Sport England may have seen his knighthood kicked into touch. Sir Rodney's probable peerage presumably remains intact, with wry circumspection rather than stinging criticism the valedictory theme for his exit as head of UK Sport.
However, the eye-twinkling invitation to read between the lines needs little deciphering. He is clearly irked that his erstwhile organisation, if not so much him personally, has apparently been snubbed by those orchestrating London's bid for the 2012 Olympics. It would also be surprising if he was not more than a tad miffed at the discourteous manner in which he has been cast adrift after almost a decade as Britain's senior sports administrator. Not that he will need any lifebelts. If nothing else, Sir Rodney is a survivor.
He was given no prior warning when his departure was announced by the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, at a public meeting in which he was in the audience. Most thought the Government were seeking a way to renew his expiring contract, but suddenly the man who had been flavour of the month for so long seemed to be past his sell-by date at 60 - the same age as the Sports Minister.
It transpired there is a new agenda for UK Sport, chief conduit for élite Lottery funding and the nation's sports drugs-busters. This will be implemented from tomorrow by the ubiquitous ex-schoolmarm Sue Campbell, who one suspects is now more New Labour's cup of herbal tea than the man with the bonecrusher handshake from deep in Yorkshire's meat-and-potato- pie rugby league country.
Walker says he is "more disappointed than angry" over the fact that UK Sport, which had been under his stewardship for the past six years, had been left out of the bidding team - now looking more like a squad - for the Games. It does seem astonishing that Walker's unique expertise has not yet been embraced. Patrick Carter, Brooking's surprise replacement as chairman of Sport England - and someone whose working knowledge of sport could be written on the wrapper of an Oxo cube - sits on the board. Straw-weight Carter (twice the Foreign Secretary's best man) will find it hard to shake off the widely held, if misconceived, suspicion that he is there as a Government "mole", which Walker never was, even though UK Sport relies totally on Exchequer funding.
"I find it surprising that an organisation which over the last four years has helped with the bidding for and staging of over 70 European and world-class sporting events in the UK has not become fully involved with the Olympic bid committee," he says. "I will be extremely disappointed if, as things progress, this is not rectified."
Walker, a self-made multi-millionaire from myriad busi-ness interests, never lets me forget that I once described him as someone who wore an enormously large number of hats. But those sporting caps among them have now been hung on the locker-room peg. He was chairman of the Rugby League for 10 years, chairman of Leicester City plc and of Brands Hatch. He was also briefly a firefighting chairman of Wembley Stadium, replacing Ken Bates, and the Manchester Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, helping turn round both troubled projects before being unceremoniously jocked off.
Was there any political motive behind this? "You would have to ask the politicians," replies the man who won't disclose his own politics except to say he has never voted Tory. "But I am happy the leader of Manchester City Council expressed the view that without me, the Commonwealth Games might not have happened. It was arguably a far greater success than any of us had dared hope, and it was a pleasure to have been part of.
"Similarly Wembley. Of course, I am sorry I am still not chairman, but I confidently predict that when New Wembley opens, it will be a true world icon, a magnificent success. I would like to have finished both projects, but it was not to be. What's the old saying? 'Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all' "
He says he does not anticipate returning to a role in mainstream sport. "But should any other public appointments arise where it is felt that some of my experience may be of benefit, I would be interested."
Walker, whose famed party-piece is a rendering of Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire", may have worn a blazer on many occasions, but he has never been one, and he has always been accessible and honest in his dealings with sport and the media. "Maybe some people thought I was being too accessible, and that I was stealing their limelight."
So, is he really now yesterday's man? Well, the former Yorkshire shot-put champion still carries sufficient clout to secure the best table at Langan's, where last week he could be seen lunching with an extremely influential political figure - which should give ministers and mandarins food for thought.
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