The Brian Viner Interview: Banks busy playing great games

`My job is not to look after me but the nippers who want to do what I did in 1954-55, and go to every home match'

ACCORDING TO The Wit and Wisdom of Tony Banks (Robson Books, pounds 7.99), the left-wing MP's response when Tony Blair phoned to ask if he fancied becoming Minister for Sport was: "Is the Pope Catholic?" I can now exclusively reveal that this is untrue. For, in a rather grand committee room at the House of Commons, Banks fills me in on the precise details of his exchange with Blair. "I'm not an ambitious politician," he explains. "I've never been much of a team player. I'm a bit semi-detached, as they say. I hadn't even supported his leadership bid. So it caught me completely on the hop." What did he actually say, then? "I think that my exact words were: `Fuck me'!"

Not the wittiest or wisest response, perhaps, but at least an honest one. And a brace of words, moreover, that must have echoed round Westminster, if not the country, when Banks' appointment was announced. For, as he is the first to admit, the dapper 55-year-old MP for West Ham is not known for toeing the party line. Indeed, when the Independent photographer arrives, he shows just how unpredictable he is. His right profile, he tells us, is better than his left.

Returning for a moment to The Wit and Wisdom of Tony Banks, the Sports Minister is quoted as saying that: "I couldn't possibly emulate the feats of one D Mellor. Since the great days of Jimmy Greaves, it's the only time anyone's managed to score five times in a Chelsea shirt. The question we were all asking, of course, is did they change ends at half-time?"

Whether or not he was correctly quoted, this is a reference, as everyone knows, to the extramarital frolics of his fellow Chelsea fan David Mellor. To me, Banks points out that, compared with his own 45-year love affair, Mellor is "with great respect, a relative newcomer to Chelsea". But never mind football allegiances, or even Antonia de Sancha. I am eager to know what Banks really thinks of Mellor, head of football's so-called Task Force. For, except in their regard for Gianluca Vialli's squad rotation system, they are hardly soul-mates.

"I proposed his appointment to the Task Force," says Banks. "From a political point of view, it would have been easier to find someone else. But it was a choice for football. We wanted someone with ministerial experience, with a knowledge of football and a feeling for football, and someone who knew how far government could go. We also wanted someone with a platform, which David had with Six-0-Six [the Radio Five Live phone-in].

"Love him or hate him, he does have a useful position in the game. And I've been very grateful for the enormous amount of work he has done without any remuneration but a lot of insults. When I look at the quality of the Task Force's reports, I think my choice has been vindicated. I am perfectly happy with it."

Like Mellor, Banks is more used to receiving brickbats than bouquets. In particular, he was slated, as was his boss Tony Blair, for interfering in l'affaire Hoddle. But there is a sense in which he is damned if he offers his opinion on sporting issues and damned if he doesn't, and he is jolly pleased with me for pointing this out.

"You've put your finger on it," he says. "Actually, it was the Independent who first phoned me up on the Friday night to ask about Glenn Hoddle, and I tried to keep out of it. But by the next day there was such a controversy raging, and so all I said was that I thought his position was becoming untenable. You can interpret that as you will. At no point did I say he should resign. I know Glenn Hoddle pretty well. He is a decent guy. But he got out of his depth. And although he is fully entitled to his opinion, it was dangerous to talk about reincarnation when his source was not some learned religion but a faith-healer who was herself unable to explain what it was all about. I heard an interview in which she suggested that a child starving in Africa could have been Hitler in a previous life. That's a statement which, at the very least, can be grotesquely misinterpreted."

Ten minutes has passed and still the great controversialist has said nothing particularly controversial, even if some folk might quibble with the view that David Mellor is a boon to football. In an attempt to up the ante, I ask Banks to expand on a remark attributed to him to the effect that darts should become an Olympic sport.

"Don't laugh at me for saying it should be," he says, "tell me why it shouldn't be. I think it's perfectly reasonable. Darts is a very good sport and millions of people play it. Archery is a recognised Olympic sport, after all. And the definition of what is sport is highly subjective. I have fought to have chess recognised as a sport, and it is not a semantic point, because once it is recognised as a sport it can receive Sports Council money. Besides, sports go in and out of fashion. Not many people know that we are still the Olympic tug-of-war champions, having won gold medals in 1908 and 1912 or whatever. France, believe it or not, are still the Olympic champions at cricket. Well, it's no more ridiculous having darts in the Olympics than tug-of-war."

The idea of men shaped like Jocky Wilson and Leighton Rees trying to climb the Olympic podium - of a Sid Waddell murmuring "he's just three arrers away from Olympic gold, but first, a sip of lager" - is, I have to say, irresistible. Banks has won me over completely. But, even if I had wanted to take issue, it would not have been easy. For he talks about nearly everything with passion verging on vehemence, combined with a politician's unwavering self-belief.

"Without doubt, sport is one of the strongest motivating forces within a community, be it a village, a town, a city or a country," he continues. "Even if you are not necessarily interested in sport, you still feel the vibes of sporting success, for instance when England beat South Africa at rugby. And we all saw the scenes when France won the World Cup. Here was a country not really addicted to football, and divided by racism, fielding the most ethnically mixed team imaginable and uniting the country in a way politicians could only dream about. I'm not suggesting that politicians use sport, although some have. I am suggesting that we put more resources in and give it a higher political priority. But sport needs a more effective lobby. If I have to do a deal with the devil, I will get an effective lobby."

Hang on. Who's this devil exactly. Tony Blair? Margaret Thatcher? Arsene Wenger ("I would rather die than go to Arsenal" - Tony Banks, Hansard, 5 May, 1994)? Disappointingly, Banks plays a straight bat. "The devil is inside you," he explains. "But there are other problems. Sport is so much bigger than it used to be, so enormous demands are being made of structures rooted in the 19th century. We gave many modern sports to the world, but we haven't moved on structurally. That's why there are problems with the administration of football, of rugby union, rugby league, snooker... I keep telling the governing bodies that they need to put far more pressure on government to win more resources. There aren't many government ministers who say: `Put more pressure on me'."

Indeed. Not even the detractors of Tony Banks would deny that he has a formidable appetite for his job, and is moved by a sincere desire to improve Britain's sporting institutions. Which is all well and good, but his fine intentions have not yet reduced the cost of watching Premiership football, for instance, which for many people remains all but prohibitive. Take his own beloved Chelsea. What does his season ticket cost?

"It costs pounds 1,250," he says. "And it's going up to pounds 1,400. Which I pay because I am hooked into it, and I like seeing stars playing for Chelsea, and I like the facilities at Stamford Bridge, but, yes, my job is not to look after me but the nippers who would like to do what I did in 1954- 55, and go to every single home match.

"Football has to be careful that it doesn't exclude its future fan base. I have asked the Task Force in its final report to address merchandising, ticket prices, strip prices, to see whether there is a coherent case for some sort of regulator who can intervene without disrupting the structure of football and protect the interests of the fans. Of course, it would be better for football to address these concerns itself. It has an opportunity to regulate itself more effectively, but football is too significant for us to allow things to drift."

Moreover, Banks reckons that he has no time to allow things to drift. "What can be given with a phone call can be taken away. I haven't got the luxury of going slow, but I am constantly frustrated by the piecemeal, patchwork, divisive shape of sport in this country. People don't know how fragmented it is. There are five sports councils and four sports ministers. Actually, I believe in a dimension called Britain. It happens when we go to the Olympics. We might see ourselves as four countries, but in sporting terms, the world sees us as one."

At last, a whiff of controversy. It appears that Tony Banks, firm supporter of Scottish and Welsh devolution, craves a national football team containing Ryan Giggs as well as Alan Shearer, playing in Belfast and roared on by the Tartan Army. Yes? "All I'll say is that there is a coherent case to be made for a single team in a number of sports," he says, adding: "There are so many people in sport too busy fighting their own little turf wars to see the bigger picture. I can see the bigger picture and sometimes it desponds me and makes me feel very pessimistic. But then we win things and I realise that winning is all in sport." As it is, of course, in politics.

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