Selling Wembley was a short-term solution to a long-term problem - and it's not going away

The Wembley sale collapse shines a light on a crisis where millions of children don't actually have any pitches to play on

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 18 October 2018 07:57
Wembley Stadium sale plan ridiculous says Gary Neville

After Wednesday’s news, the most pressing question for English football is not why Wembley should be sold. It is how it is we have a situation where the country’s top 20 clubs are annually bringing in over £4.5bn from broadcasting alone, and are capable of paying some under-18s up to £500,000 a year, but there is still a crisis over whether millions of other children actually have pitches to play on.

That just doesn’t make sense. It might sadly and naturally reflect wider problems about the distribution of wealth in society, but it is still astounding, and is what Shahid Khan’s withdrawal of his offer to buy Wembley from the FA should really now highlight. There is an immense disconnect there that this story has helped display.

This is not even to get into the argument over whether the idea of a national stadium is outdated, or whether the value attached to Wembley would be better served on those muddy and ill-equipped children's pitches.

It is not even about whether the FA Council is overly traditionalist and conservative, an accusation that may be entirely fair.

There are however ultra-modern business reasons to not sell Wembley. There is first of all the argument that it is greatly undervalued at £600m, and secondly the fact that the stadium is on prime real estate that is only set to increase in value due to the amount of development in the area.

But then this isn’t even about when you sell. It is that you can only sell it once. And this is where we get to the real crux of the issue.

If the future of grassroots football in England is so deeply dependent on the one-off sale of a stadium, then there are really a multitude of other problems that require drastic and immediate tackling.

It is why the debate over the rights and wrongs of selling Wembley is a red herring, a cypher. It might, however, bring the positive of putting very necessary focus on the real issue of how grassroots pitches are funded.

Because the lack of proper solutions has been made painfully evident.

The grassroots game is in need of serious investment

As relevant as anything in this is the fact that Khan’s offer was unsolicited and out of the blue. It reflects how, for all the debate the story generated, selling Wembley wasn’t exactly being discussed at much depth beforehand.

So, if this bid hadn’t arrived, what was the plan for grassroots funding?

Would £600m - which isn’t all that much in relative terms, given the countrywide requirements and cost of 3G pitches - really have gone that far in such circumstances? And, when that’s gone, what do you sell next? You can’t keep offloading finite assets to tackle the much deeper problem of skewed distribution. It just smacks of short-term thinking for a long-term problem, and one that this publication in 2014 reported goes back to 1972.

One argument is that the sale could have kickstarted grassroots funding, but kickstart what?

And that is what this entire story should now push. It should cause a proper forensic investigation into what is needed to be done, how much money is needed, and how it can be acquired in a sport where there is so obscenely much at the top end.

It should bring big questions over how it is that the latest television deals mean the Premier League can bring in profits of £4.5bn a season, but then only invest £24m a season as part of a wider £100m investment in community facilities and participation projects - especially given expectations the competition will become even less concerned with redistribution once Richard Scudamore leaves as chief executive at the end of the year.

It should look at how £250m of that money goes to agents annually, and whether - as Gary Neville suggested - levies can be imposed.

As regards state action, then, it should bring renewed focus on the government for the neglect of sports facilities and cutting of council budgets that have played into this lamentable problem of 150,000 cancelled games.

It should bring proper pressure in all of these areas, where the money required to replenish a decrepit grassroots is available in vast quantities.

And, in the main area - the grassroots pitches themselves - it should bring informed and intelligent consideration over the best time of the year to play games, especially since the weather is causing such havoc.

Either way, all of this illustrates that selling Wembley was not the only choice. But it should now bring the only debate the FA should have as top priority.

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