In the footsteps of the invisible men

Mike Rowbottom reflects on the impact of previous Ministers for Sport
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The Independent Online
In truth, Tony Banks does not have many hard acts to follow.

Labour have only had one previous Minister for Sport - the former international referee Denis Howell, who fulfilled the role during the Wilson and Callaghan governments.

In 1991, Howell - widely regarded as being the best sports minister to date - looked back on what he described as 12 years of neglect by his Conservative successors, whom he collectively termed "helpless and hopeless."

Harsh words from a man no less direct in expressing himself than the latest incumbent. But Howell's analysis at the time was largely borne out by the facts, and there has been little since to provoke a major re- evaluation.

Since Lord Hailsham first persuaded Harold Macmillan to appoint a national sporting supremo in 1962 - it turned out to be Lord Hailsham - the post has all too often become a political graveyard.

Hector Munro, Robert Key, Neil Macfarlane, Robert Atkins, Dick Tracey - where are they now?

The job itself, which under the Tories never ranked higher than parliamentary under-secretary level, has been something of a poisoned chalice.

Macfarlane, who took over from the short-lived Munro in 1981, was jettisoned by Margaret Thatcher in 1985 after the Football Association's decision to rescind its punishment of Millwall and Luton following the riot at Kenilworth Road.

Tracey, a supporter of retaining sporting links with South Africa and a proponent of capital punishment, was installed as a tougher operator. But circumstances worked against him - he was soon complaining that he spent only 20 per cent of his working day on sport.

The profile of the job was raised by Tracey's successor, Colin Moynihan, who took over at the age of 31 sporting an impressive curriculum vitae.

An Oxford Blue at boxing and rowing who coxed the British eight to an Olympic silver medal in 1980, the diminutive ladies' man established a reputation outside the sporting sphere when he squired Pamella Bordes to a number of events.

But events then swept Moynihan away. In the wake of British hooliganism at the 1988 European Championships, he was charged with introducing Mrs Thatcher's favoured solution of identity cards for supporters. In the wake of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, however, Lord Justice Taylor rejected the idea as being unworkable; Moynihan's trajectory dipped.

Enter Robert Atkins, whose friendship with the new Tory leader, John Major, led Nigel Lawson, then secretary of the Central Council for Physical Recreation, to hail them as "the Dream Ticket."

Rashly, as it turned out. Atkins, whose uncanny likeness to Christopher Lee caused his civil servants to refer to him as "Dracula", took an unconscionable time to get his teeth into the task. "What you won't hear is me telling sport how it should be done," he maintained - curiously, given that he was working on a review of Britain's sporting structure.

The bulk of the review's conclusions were rejected, however, by Iain Sproat, the last of the Tory incumbents. He said the proposals were unwieldy and bureaucratic.

Sproat, dubbed in some quarters the "Invisible Man", worked diligently enough in his four-year term, seeking to restore competitive games to schools - notably, and controversially, boxing - and working towards the seismic arrival of National Lottery funding. Banks's central task will be to oversee the consequent re-shaping of the sporting landscape.

Those sports ministers in full

(Conservative unless stated)

1962-64 Lord Hailsham

1964-70 Denis Howell (Lab)

1970-74 Eldon Griffiths

1974-79 Denis Howell (Lab)

1979-81 Hector Munro

1981-85 Neil Macfarlane

1985-87 Richard Tracey

1987-90 Colin Moynihan

1990-92 Robert Atkins

1992-93 Robert Key

1993-97 Iain Sproat

1997- Tony Banks (Lab)