Mark Godfrey

18 for 18, part 7: What price Wembley?

Mark Godfrey
18 for 18, part 7: What price Wembley?

In part 7 or our 18 for 18 series, GARY JORDAN looks at an issue that tugged at the hearts and minds of everyone with a stake in English football: its grassroots and its national stadium.

Wembley Stadium.

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear or read its name?

The Twin Towers? 1966 World Cup win? Your team’s Cup Final win there? Something else perhaps? Maybe just that it’s the iconic heart and home of English football. That is after all how it’s viewed around the world and not just ourselves. The very home of football. Its status as one of the world’s most revered stadiums still holds true.

So, what happens when an overseas billionaire tables a serious multi-million-pound bid to buy it from its custodians? Take the money and use it to fulfil the needs of the many? Or, dig your heels in and put up the “not for sale” sign?

OK, there’s a lot of questions there, and many more have been asked over the last few months since Pakistani-American businessman Shahid Kahn offered to buy Wembley in a deal initially worth £900m in late April. Kahn is no stranger to the game having purchased Fulham FC from Mohamed Al Fayed in July 2013 for a fee said to be somewhere in the region of £150-200m, stating “It’s a very special place. This is the perfect club for me at the perfect time.” No stranger to these shores, Khan is also the owner of NFL franchise Jacksonville Jaguars, a team he bought in January 2012 for $760m. The Jaguars have played every year in the International Series games at Wembley Stadium since 2013. Clearly a man of serious wealth, estimated in excess of $7bn, he made the bulk of his money through the Flex-n-Gate auto supplies company.

So, clearly a savvy businessman; but why the out-of-the-blue bid for the stadium which wasn’t, at least publicly, up for sale? He clearly has his sporting roots firmly set in London. Fulham have steadily progressed under his ownership, as have the Jaguars. His deal to bring the NFL team here every year to play at Wembley and become “London’s team” has endeared him to fans of that game. Back in April, he said he purchase of the stadium “makes a lot of sense for us. When I say us, I’m talking about the Jaguars, NFL, Wembley, and I think it makes a lot of sense for the FA and the English football team.”

When news broke it was met with a chorus of disapproval. Fans up and down the country shared the feeling that the FA was selling its very soul, the crown jewel of football was now just another item that could be auctioned off to the highest bidder, to someone that was from overseas and had only his own interests at heart. Kahn was quick to try and pour water on the fire, “We’ll leave the tradition and the stadium itself. Even though this is a new stadium it does need upgrades.”

Upgrades? Wasn’t that the main reason why the new Wembley was built in the first place? The tired old stadium had clearly seen better days, and the decision to replace rather than repair was a welcome one, although some campaigned for parts of its heritage to remain on site. The two iconic towers were of sentimental value to fans, but they were part of the last phase of demolition. The new Wembley was built at a cost of approximately £757m, although this eventually exceeded the £1bn mark when the surrounding infrastructure was also renovated. This meant that Kahn’s offer, although hefty, would see the FA making a loss on their prize asset just over a decade after its completion.

Let’s break down the numbers a bit. The £900m bid from Kahn would see £600m drop straight into the FA’s bank account with the other £300m invested back into the Club Wembley hospitality areas for the FA to run. The immediate investment would be put back into grassroots football. Clearly the FA were interested in this quick hit and started making plans on how to spend the money. £70m a year would be available at grassroots level over a 20-year plan, this would include extra money from the Premier League, TV revenue and advertising. For some the maths didn’t add up. “I despair at the thought that the FA board and management are sitting there and thinking that they have to sell Wembley to fund grassroots football. They are talking about £70m a year for 20 years, that’s a pittance. It’s a price of a full back!” argued former England international turned TV pundit Gary Neville when he addressed the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee in Parliament. It was an impassioned plea; “I think we could look back on this deal in 30 years’ time and wonder what we’ve done. It’s a short-term plan we’ll regret for ever. Don’t sell Wembley. Whatever you do, don’t sell Wembley.”

Eventually it was agreed that the FA would put the sale proposal to local FA councils on 24 October. The 127 councils would have no overall control in whether the sale would go through or not, but had the chance to voice concerns and fears, or agree that the deal was a worthy one. They would take away the information passed to them and form their own meetings at local level. Present at the meeting was Howard Wilkinson, the former Leeds United manager, who was a leading man in the development of St. George’s Park. He was very optimistic about the offer from Kahn, “I made clear my view, it’s a unique opportunity. The facilities at grassroots level are not adequate compared with other countries.”

Kahn was thorough in his bid and wrote to all the local councillors to address the main concern of wanting to move both his owned teams, the Jaguars and Fulham, into Wembley should his bid succeed. In a statement released shortly after he reiterated that “Wembley Stadium will forever be the national stadium of England.”

The table had now been laid. It was now a case of whether the FA and its council members would feast at it.

Before they could even pull their collective chairs up and start their banquet, the deal was off. Kahn had officially withdrawn his bid. Having his ear close to the ground, or rather in constant contact with FA chief Martin Glenn, he sensed that not all was well at grassroots level, the very people he was hoping to help with his offer. The “divisive” manner in which the bid had been talked about left him with no option but to take back his millions from the table. This was just a week before the official council vote. The now former Minister for Sport, Tracey Crouch, was “very disappointed” after calling the offer, “a huge opportunity to boost funding into the development and maintenance of artificial and grass pitches up and down the country.” Now, of course, some would say that the government should be doing more to fund the game at park level and above…

Glenn was all for the sale, believing this was the shot in the arm needed and that the burden was about to be lifted from his and the FA’s shoulders. During the constant dialogue he was having with Kahn he revealed, “At a recent meeting he expressed to us that, without stronger support from within the game, his offer is being seen as more divisive than it was anticipated to be, and he has decided to withdraw his offer.”

Kahn was downbeat after his decision but hadn’t ruled out coming back with something in the future, “Until a time when it is evident there is an unmistakable directive form the FA to explore and close a sale, I am respectfully withdrawing my offer. When I started, the thought was to do something really good for English football. Definitely, I have an interest. When there is a mandate to do it, I’ll be around when the circumstances present themselves.”

And so, that was that. The “once in a lifetime opportunity” as Tracey Crouch put it, had been swiftly taken away, just as quick as it had appeared six months earlier. The FA were left with the hollow sensation that teams get when they lose in a semi-final, a “so near, but so far” feeling. Where does this leave them now? Still having to pay off a debt in excess of £142m that is estimated to take until 2024 to pay off, and of course, the conundrum of how to raise those much-needed funds for grassroots football.

It was seen by many as a short-term fix all along and that a more long-term solution would be needed. Something permanent; an arrangement that would maintain a steady cash flow coming in that would filter down into the necessary channels. A structure for the future. A proper blueprint should’ve been drawn up years ago, but what the Kahn offer highlighted was a desperate need. A need that the FA wanted to fix but were struggling for ideas to solve the issues.

There’s the possibility of putting a levy on agent’s fees; for too long the over inflated transfer fees have helped line the pocket of agents. Money that should stay within football is being lost. Of course, this wouldn’t be an easy table to negotiate at. Some agents have a greater reach than others, so what percentage would be best for all? Television and other media outlets will earn the Premier League £8.4bn between 2016-19. The money distributed among its members and filtered down in parachute payments, could be used to finance grassroots. Of course, that seems like holding the Premier League to ransom, taking their hard earned money away. This is something that the new chief executive, Susanna Dinnage, could influence. She was appointed in mid-November, and with a background in media and television, she might be the hero we’re looking for. Being at the top table of world football will only last so long if we cannot fund ourselves better, be equipped for a brighter future. In a time where the England national team is finding a new identity, then perhaps those at the top of the game could find theirs.

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