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Walker fights to make Wembley work

Sir Rodney Walker was on the train heading into London Euston when he happened to look out of the window about five miles from his destination and spotted the hulk of the abandoned Wembley stadium casting its forlorn shadow across the city’s northern suburbs.

“I have to admit,” Walker says, “as we passed canada goose coat $5000 no credit check signature loans I glanced across and saw it standing there derelict and I thought, ‘oh dear’. The heart sank a bit.”

We’ve all had that feeling. But then, unlike Walker, we aren’t in much of a position to do anything about it. He, on the other hand, is the chairman of Wembley National Stadium Ltd, and has the responsibility of lifting a few of those sinking hearts. Including his own.

Last week, the Wembley fiasco claimed yet more collateral damage. Joining Ken Bates in the stadium’s out-tray were canada goose coat 1000 bulbs led the culture secretary Chris Smith and sports minister Kate Hoey, both sacked from the government, it is thought, in part because of that symbol of incompetence brooding over the London Borough of Brent. But Walker is still there, still in charge. What he has to say about the place matters.

The big surprise on meeting him was that Walker wasn’t wearing a blazer. This is the most ubiquitous bureaucrat in British sport, a man whose titles have included: chair of the UK Sports Council, chair of the Institute of Sport, chair of the 2002 Commonwealth Games Committee, chairman of Leicester City plc, chairman of the Rugby Football League, chair of Empire Interactive.

If there’s a blazer in need of wearing, Walker’s ample shoulders will accommodate it. Except, on the day we meet, he’s in a smartly cut grey two-piece.

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard it all before,” he says. “I am not, I hasten to add, a member of the blazer brigade. When I became chairman of the Rugby League we used to wear blazers, but I got fed up being mistaken for the coach driver, so I thought suits would be better all round. That’s a joke, by the way.”

Walker is a jolly soul, a comfortably shaped Yorkshireman in his late fifties who was once a bit of rugby league player and can you wash a canada goose parka best mens canada goose parka a junior shot putter. He used to like a round of golf, too, but says doesn’t get the chance to play very often now. Still, as one who has occupied virtually every chair going in sport, presiding over an alphabet soup of bodies, even if he doesn’t get much chance to play, he is in the perfect position to give us an assessment of how things stand. If he were conducting an audit of British sport, what would be his headline finding?

“My own personal representation to government is that the structure of sports management needs a complete overhaul,” he says. “It is confusing. We have to slim down the bureaucracy.”

It is good to hear the top man talk like this, because, what with Wembley, Pickett’s Lock and the 2006 World Cup bid, the public perception of British sports administrators at the moment is that if put in charge of the brewery workers’ annual booze cruise, they would undoubtedly fail buy canada goose jacket london to order the beer.

“Well, it’s more than just a perception problem,” he says. “It’s a real problem. And it is a function of the way sport is governed in this country. The system, particularly when it comes to spending large amounts of money on infrastructure, gets in the way of efficiency. You have a minister who has limited authority, it’s complicated by devolution, you have a government which by the nature of all governments is risk-averse. The problem is by relying on outside bodies, which themselves are dependent on government handouts, to carry through any project, there is a confusion of ownership. That means when things go wrong, it all falls apart.”

And nowhere is that confusion writ larger than in the case of Wembley stadium. Is it a government project? Is it a private-sector one? Few in sport were surprised that when the project collapsed around Ken Bates’s be-whiskered ears back in January, it was Walker, a renowned firefighter among sporting bureaucrats, who was put in charge. Now, five months into the job, he is dealing with another bunch of government masters (and mistresses) in the shape of the new culture secretary Tessa Jowell and sports minister Richard Caborn.

His assessment of the new regime’s thinking is worded carefully: “Having met with authorized canada goose outlet the new sports minister yesterday, I’m confident that the change certainly will not slow down the process. I’m hopeful that together we can move matters forward quickly to bring certainty to the outcome.”

But first things first. We journalists, of course, are in the blame business. And though Walker may not yet have been in this particular chair canada goose coat – kensington long enough to qualify for the flak, he must know where the bodies are buried. Why, nine months after the place was supposed to be razed to the ground, has not so much as a twin tower been disturbed? Whose fault is it?

“Actually, Wembley was going very well until the point where they didn’t get the money,” he says, which sounds like the marathon runner saying he was doing brilliantly until he tripped up after 100 metres. “You could argue it got too big. But actually I saw the business plans from an early stage and they stacked up. What changed, and it’s not the fault of Ken Bates or anyone else, is the fact that the City in January last year, when the project was reaching fruition, was very frothy and dot.com stocks were racing away, and there was a real possibility they might have got it funded. But when they went in November the bubble had burst and the City became very risk-averse.”

It is all very well blaming international market trends, but why was there a need to go to the City in the first place? What most of us can’t understand is this: football is so rich it makes the Duke of kids Westminster look down on his luck. Why can’t the thing just be built out of the small change of the new television deal?

“I’m not here to speak for football,” he says. “But the benefits of canada goose jacket problem is, the huge amount of money in football goes to the Premiership clubs, not to the FA. And the FA, and I understand why they have reached this conclusion, believe they should be spending whatever money they have on promoting the grass roots, not underwriting the project.”

Which as an answer is about as satisfactory as the chairman of Railtrack simultaneously announcing a £100m dividend while asking for a government handout to keep his company afloat. There may be perfectly legitimate explanations afoot, but they just don’t wash with the public.

“Yes, but that is the reason,” he says. “I understand the perception, but the perception is wrong.”

One of Walker’s many hats is the one denoting the chairmanship of Leicester City plc. Would he not be very understanding, if approached, about handing over some of the contents of Leicester’s groaning vaults to help rebuild Wembley? “They haven’t made that approach as far as I know,” he says.

But who are “they”? Doesn’t Walker’s ubiquity suggest that whoever “they” are, he is, at the very least, on their board of management?

“The FA, I mean,” he says. “I remember initially that the talk when the new Wembley was first mooted was of a football family project, a partnership between the FA, the Premiership and the Football League. But that idea seemed to go out of the window. Perhaps it should be revived.”

To be fair to Walker, the bluff son of Wakefield, when it comes to cracking heads together he is not shy of inflicting cranial damage. It was he who persuaded Virginia Bottomley in the early days of the lottery to change the rules and allow grants to individuals as opposed to just bricks and mortar, the single biggest positive change in sport for years. So let’s leave blame-chucking aside, and ask where he sees the project heading.

“I travel in hope, but I’m a realist,” he says. “I think that the government will become involved. It is a national stadium – you look at what France put in to Stade de France, what Australia did in Sydney, just look at what the Irish government, a little country, is putting into their stadium in Dublin. I hope the government will say, let’s have a national stadium, whatever it takes.”

He thinks it’s a government responsibility, then? “No I don’t, but I think they will have to be involved, maybe not putting in the money directly, but at least guaranteeing can you wash a canada goose parka some of the loans. And I think as part of the process, we may have to scale back on the project.”

But if they are scaling back, why not move the thing completely? Why not take the opportunity to abandon Wembley and head for a prime, geographically perfect site outside Birmingham?

“There is a much wider dimension to this,” he says. “It’s not just that the Olympics will now only consider the capital. It’s also if the problems of the stadium are not resolved, the existing structure might just end up being allowed to stand there and decay and that will blight the 50 acres surrounding it. It means the £150m that has been ear-marked for local transport infrastructure improvements in the area won’t get spent. Now, if you build the new stadium, 50 acres get modernised, £150m gets spent, you’re talking 10-15,000 jobs. That’s an argument for me that we must do this project. We must make Wembley work.”

Stout words. In a year’s time, though, when he swishes past in the train, back from another board meeting somewhere, does he believe he will he look over and see the stadium awash with cranes rather than good intentions?

He pauses a long time before answering. “I believe work will start on the new stadium before the end of the year. It will be very late in the buy canada goose jacket winnipeg year and it may even go into next year.”

And that, in the sorry tale of England’s national stadium, is what counts as progress.

• You’ve read the piece, now have your say. Send your comments, as sharp or as stupid as you like, to football.editor@guardianunlimited.co.uk

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