The Shadow who is ready to box

The John Greenway interview: After years of lip service, the Tories may have found a sports spokesman with a voice
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The Independent Online

Apart from the diminutive and spirited Colin Moynihan, who seemed to spend most of his time dodging Mrs Thatcher's handbag, Tory sports ministers have been a pretty woeful lot. A long procession of lame ducks, without either clout or charisma. So it is comforting to know that should the Conservatives get another innings in the foreseeable future they will be sending in to bat someone who at least knows the score, and who is not afraid to hit out.

Apart from the diminutive and spirited Colin Moynihan, who seemed to spend most of his time dodging Mrs Thatcher's handbag, Tory sports ministers have been a pretty woeful lot. A long procession of lame ducks, without either clout or charisma. So it is comforting to know that should the Conservatives get another innings in the foreseeable future they will be sending in to bat someone who at least knows the score, and who is not afraid to hit out.

Since he got the job in February, John Greenway has been gently playing his way in, but a couple of days ago in Brussels he came out of the shadows and gave a couple of European Commissioners a piece of his mind, both in his capacity as the Opposition spokesman on sport and as the long-time president of York City football club.

He told them that the transfer scenario which is likely to be imposed on football is a complete disaster. "And I mean disaster. Especially to clubs like mine," he said as he unpinned the red and white York City rosette from his office wall in Millbank, central London, from where, with other MPs, he is moving across Westminster to the purpose-built Portcullis House.

He said he needed to find out exactly "where they are coming from" and suggested that, although the European Commissioners had been talking to Fifa and Uefa, most clubs in the lower leagues had no idea what was going on, so that it might be sensible to have an in-depth inquiry to get some assessment of just how damaging abolishing the transfer fee system will be. "I think they are wrong in the assumption that TV and marketing money could be redistributed and that would provide a counter-balancing effect. If that were possible we would have done it already.

"I feel so strongly about this that I felt there was a case for going straight to the EC as both a politician and a football man. Our policy is clear. We support the FA, the Premier League and the Football League in asking them to think again. We should be conceding as little as possible. If it goes through there will be a fire sale of every good 23-year-old player in the land. That's not good enough. It would be a disaster for York and clubs like them."

Talking of disasters, Greenway is equally strident on the increasingly vexed subject of Wembley. It's a shambles, he says and an embarrassing one at that. "Had the relevant ministers and Government generally taken a closer interest in the original brief then we would not be in this mess. I am of the view that an athletics track was always perfectly feasible at Wembley. It was a huge mistake to boot it out. We should have accepted from the start that Wembley was right for athletics. Instead we are left with a potential bill for the Picketts Lock that is four times what it would have cost to put a track in place at Wembley.

"The Stade de France has a running track with retractable seats over it for football. Why not Wembley? Because they wanted to fill the stadium with restaurants.

"Insufficient attention was paid to the original design brief to ensure it met the initial specification of a national stadium, incorporating athletics. We also had the farce of the Wembley task force, on which various government departments were represented but never spoke to each other. People should have banged heads together.

"I have an inkling that Sport England will end up saying that Picketts Lock is not a feasible proposition after all, so it will be back to square one. Then there'll be nowhere else to go, except Wembley. I think it's a resigning issue for Chris Smith. He's fouled up.

"The only way the situation could be saved then is for the Government to get involved again, insist that Wembley is rebuilt like the Stade de France and if that means that fewer people will be able to sit down to lunch before a match, so be it."

So who is this man who now fights for sport from the blue corner in Parliament? The 54-year-old Cheshire-born Greenway is an ex-copper (five years on the beat in the West End of London) who for 13 years has represented the Yorkshire constituency of Ryedale, deep in Emmerdale and Heartbeat country.

The adopted Yorkshireman is passionate about football and racing, chairing the all-party Parliamentary committees on both sports. He went to a rugby-playing grammar school but played football for a local shipyard. Like Kate Hoey, his opposite number, he has come to sport via the Home Office. He loves opera, cricket and follows Arsenal as well as York City. He would love to own racehorses but says as a humble MP he can't afford it. "I'm not a patrician, just the son of a chemical worker."

The former sports minister Tony Banks reckons Greenway is "a good bloke for a Tory". Hoey has also confided that she now has a serious sparring partner. Greenway gets on well with both. "We do have some differences of opinion, of course," he said, adding impishly: "but then, Tony and Kate have even more."

Sebastian Coe is another who rates Greenway highly. "He's first class," he said. "above everything else he is a true fan and he knows what he's talking about. As a sports minister he'd be terrific, hands on."

"I'm not an ideologue," says Greenway. "I'm a fixer. You've got to make progress, not fight ideological battles."

He concedes that the present Government have made an effort to take sport more seriously themselves but reckons it is all a bit shambolic at the top, and is especially critical of the changes being made to Lottery funding. "Basically they are botching it up and short-changing sport. They are now directing where the money should be spent and this is undermining Sport England and the other governing bodies who run sport. And while they say they are making a huge effort with sport in schools, the grass-roots sports clubs are being seriously neglected.

"While I am entirely in favour of improving sporting provision in schools, I am not convinced they have actually thought through the practicality of actually spending £750m on school sport and the development of sports co-ordinators against the background of an ethic that says schools are not that keen on competitive sport.

"You can spend thousands of pounds on a new pitch, but who is going to cut the grass? Sports clubs know all about these things and after all it is some of these clubs which will be the only means of providing youngsters with the opportunity to play competitive sport."

For a Tory, Greenway has an intriguing, almost socialist, approach to the redistribution of sporting wealth. "It should be more evenly spread. I had a meeting recently with Tom Pendry, the chairman of the Football Foundation - actually, I never understood why they never made him sports minister - and told him that there is nothing that would help football's battered image more than it saying, 'Here's threequarters of a million pounds or so to spend on a new hockey pitch.' Some sports are seriously impoverished, and football is in a position to show more generosity. It needs to be more altruistic." As a football supporter (although like Hoey he insists there is more to doing the job of sports minister than paying lip service to the round-ball game), Greenway says the problems at international level stem from the paucity of players.

"Trevor Brooking is right when he says we need to start coaching youngsters from the age of six. But I don't think the problem is in the dearth of coaches, it is because of the lack of playing talent and this is not simply because of the influx of foreigners into the Premier League. That hasn't stopped other nations from doing rather well.

"We are in this cycle where we don't actually have the players, but we should take encouragement from France. They were in a similar situation 10 years ago. Their national team was a joke. But they went back to basics and restructured. Essentially we have to do the same."

He wouldn't mind a foreigner as the new England manager though when pressed he says he feels that Roy Hodgson could do a good job. "I certainly wouldn't want to loseArsÿne Wenger from Arsenal."

He would also like to see money used to reinvigorate team sports other than football and to encourage women's participation. "The best role model any woman could have is Denise Lewis. She's proved it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, you can actually be the best. That's why Lottery money has got to be maintained."

So sport really is important to the Tories then? "You bet. The message from William Hague downwards is that we are now taking it very seriously indeed. And why not? Quite frankly what matters to people up and down the country is not who got elected as Speaker but whether Leeds could beat Barcelona or who won the 3.30 at Lingfield."