Walker itching to stalk the corridors of power once more
Heavy hitter sidelined by New Labour is up for front-line action
Sunday 13 November 2005
Naseem Hamed may have convinced himself that boxing misses him more than he misses boxing, but there are many who reckon that another comeback by a fellow resident of Yorkshire, also a bit of a bruiser in his time, is more genuinely overdue.
Sir Rodney Walker, who for almost a decade was the most powerful figure in British sports administration, occupying at various times the chairs of nine leading organisations including Sport England, UK Sport, Wembley Stadium, the Rugby League and the Manchester Commonwealth Games, is ready for a return to centre ring. Though this time not as a heavyweight.
The former Yorkshire shot-put champion has shed around four stones, but none of his old political skills. It was his virtuoso performance which headed off a rebellion and persuaded the 125-year-old Amateur Athletic Association of England to back Sir Andrew Foster's watershed programme of reforms which will modernise, streamline and, it is to be hoped, unite a sport littered more with stumbling blocks than starting blocks.
It is also largely due to him that snooker, a sport seen as a lost cause through bad management and changing TV priorities, is now being taken seriously again. As the chair of World Snooker he has helped negotiate a number of new deals, including a BBC contract believed to be in excess of £18m, with his organisation showing a profit of £1.2m after losses of £4m in the previous three years. Now the man who was dumped by the Government two years ago is seeking a fresh challenge.
He was given no prior warning when his departure from UK Sport was announced by the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, at a public meeting in which he was in the audience. The Government had reneged on a promise to extend his contract, and suddenly someone who had been flavour of the month for so long seemed to be considered past his sell-by date.
It transpired there was a new agenda for UK Sport, the chief conduit for Lottery funding and the nation's sports drugs-busters. One suspected that his successor, Sue Campbell, was more New Labour's cup of herbal tea than the man with the bonecrusher handshake from Yorkshire's meat-and-potato-pie country.
A self-made multi-millionaire, Walker, 62, never doffed his cap to ministers or their mandarins. Like Trevor Brooking, his successor at Sport England, he trenchantly argued sport's corner, and that may have been the pair's undoing.
So, was being jocked off from UK Sport, as well as Wembley and the Commonwealth Games, politically motivated? "You would have to ask the politicians," he says. "Maybe certain people thought I was being too accessible to the media and that I was stealing their limelight."
He was also not invited to play any part in the 2012 Olympic bid. "Let's just say I was more disappointed than angry. Had I been asked to help I would have been delighted. But they seemed to do very well without me."
However, it is a different game now. Bidding was one thing, building towards 2012 another, and there is little doubt that Walker's profitable return to his business roots (in which he has overseen the flotation of three new companies, with four more seeking him as chairman), plus his global sports contacts, would prove invaluable.
He admits: "I do miss walking sport's corridors of power. When you have been involved at the top level that is inevitable. I left UK Sport feeling I had a contribution to make. I still do. There is no point in having regrets, and if at some point I was asked to help of course I would."
The gun of sport's erstwhile chief troubleshooter is still smoking, and is still for hire should the right target present itself. The Big Beast of sports politics may yet call the shots again.
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