The lost sporting city of Sheffield

In the Nineties it was held up as a model. No longer
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Three years ago it was on course to be the sports city of the new millennium. It was labelled the "National City of Sport", boasting some of the finest facilities in the land and earmarked as the home of the nation's first sports academy. But now all that has been kicked into touch and, like its leading football club, Sheffield Wednesday, the city is on the brink of relegation from the premier league of sport.

The much-vaunted sports academy, brainchild of John Major, now renamed the UK Sports Institute by the Labour government, has been transferred from Sheffield to London. Originally, Sheffield won the three-city bid to be the centre of the £160m Lottery-backed project, but in a series of political manoeuvres it was demoted to become first theadministrative hub, and now simply one of 15 regional centres in the latest game plan, which has seen the headquarters moved to the Londonoffices of the government quango UK Sport. Sheffield has also lost its involvement with sports science and medicine and will no longer be the home of sports such as athletics and swimming, housing some of the less glamorousactivities such as netball.

The loss of the Sports Institute and all that went with it has been compounded by the troubles of the two local football clubs, with Premiership stragglers Wednesday first embroiled in political controversy following the intervention of four local Labour MPs, who called for the sacking of manager Danny Wilson - ademand that was finally realised last week.

Up to yesterday Wednesday had won only five of 21matches, while United, themselves relegated from the Premiership in 1994, are halfway down the First Division. So it seems probable that next season there will be no Premiership football where football's oldest club, Sheffield FC, still play after 142 years.

It is only seven years since Wednesday and United clashed in an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley before 75,000 fans, but now both are deeply in debt. As is the city itself following the legacy of the ill-fated World Student Games in 1991, which brought some stunning facilities, like the Don Valley athletics stadium and the Ponds Forge swimming complex, but left taxpayers with a £10m bill.

Logically, the 25,000-seater Don Valley stadium should now be the natural home of British athletics, but it is rarely used for significant events because the athletes themselves do not like it, claiming it is too windy.

Ponds Forge is among the best swimming complexes in Europe but is in danger of being overtaken as a potential world championship venue by the state-of-the-art arena, with two Olympic-sized pools, being built in Manchester for the 2002 Commonwealth Games - an event that Sheffield feels it should be staging.

Sheffield also has an excellent ice-skating rink but has been rebuffed by the National Ice Skating Association, who have decided to create a new Centre of Excellence in Nottingham. And it is less than two years since the city's rugby league team, the SheffieldEagles, pulled off one of the great upsets by beating Wigan to lift the Challenge Cup. But since then they have beeneffectively swallowed by neighbours Huddersfield in a Super League merger, leaving a grassroots Sheffield team to pick up the pieces again.

Sheffield has always had a fine sporting industry. Sebas-tian Coe forged his career there, and Naseem Hamed still lives there. Coe, a former Tory MP, believes Sheffield has been double-crossed by the Labour government it supported. "Although I wasn't born there I was brought up there and look up it as my home city," he said. "What happened over the Sports Academy makes the shambles of Wembley look like sublime planning. Sheffield has been treated disgracefully by the government. It took some knocks after the World Student Games because of the deficit, but the legacy was some fine facilities and it deserved to be thought of as our first city of sport. Now it has had the stuffing knocked out of it."

So it is understandable that an air of bewilderment, bitterness and betrayal prevails in the city that gave the world The Full Monty but is now gradually being stripped bare of its sporting prestige.

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