A Wembley Windfall Wouldn’t Have “Saved” Grassroots Football

by | Oct 18, 2018

Some things never change. When the original Wembley Stadium was built in 1922, the site chosen was that of Watkin’s Folly. The completion of the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1889 set off a brief craze for building towers in the 1890s, and the railway entrepreneur Sir Edmund Watkin wanted a piece of this particular action. His tower, however, only rose as high as its first stage before financial problems brought about by spiralling costs and the unsuitability of the ground under which the tower was being built led to the liquidation of the construction company and the demolition  of the base several years later.

Throughout its ninety-eight years on the site under both of its iterations, Wembley Stadium has always been a financial headache for those charged with responsibility for maintaining it. The company that owned the stadium went into liquidation at the end of the British Empire Exhibition in October 1925 and, having built at a cost of £750,000 just three years earlier, was purchased by the entrepreneur Arthur Elvin for a fifth of that amount. Elvin diversified the use of the stadium and made it just about viable through the introduction of greyhound racing, but the stadium always felt as though it was one false move from being sold and levelled.

When the bulldozers did finally move in at the start of this century, there were few protests. Wembley had come to be regarded out hopelessly out of date for modern needs, and a piecemeal attitude towards bringing it up to date had left it looking more like a relic of a bygone era than a “Home of English football.” The decision to build a new stadium there, however, was never less than controversial. Some baulked at the cost – at £750m-£800m, it remains one of the most expensive stadiums ever built – whilst others argued that the demolition of the old stadium gave the FA an opportunity to rip up the Londoncentric nature of the England team and get it out around the country, a viewpoint that made considerable sense when the FA put the England team on the road during its construction to considerable success.

When Shahid Khan made his £600m offer to buy the stadium earlier this year, there was a carrot on a stick for those with reservations concerning the wisdom of the sale. A lack of investment going back decades has left the condition of the facilities for grassroots football as something of a national joke. This money, it was reasoned by those who supported the sale, was plenty enough of a windfall to drag facilities for the grassroots game into the twenty-first century. The England team and cup finals would continue to be played there, so why shouldn’t the FA cash in and spend the money on something that most people with any degree of knowledge on the subject agree desperately needs to be done. It was, when viewed through this prism, a no-lose deal for everybody.

The FA’s chairman Greg Clarke and chief executive Martin Glenn, however, must already have been aware that there was a possibility that this particular bomb could explode in their laps, so they “significant majority” of support from the 127 members of the FA Council, who represent all sections of football from the very bottom of the game to the very top, and what they found was they would be unable to get the mandate to sell the stadium that they felt they needed, even though they stated that they would be able to make £1bn available for grassroots facilities and have almost half a billion pounds in the bank in the event of the sale going through.

There is no question that grassroots facilities in this country are a disgrace. Horrendous cuts to local authority budgets over the last few years have left councils unable to spend very much at all on this sort of thing, and the results of this governmental neglect have been stark. Last year, almost 150,000 matches were cancelled because pitches weren’t fit to play on, whilst so much as the presence of changing rooms has come to be seen as a luxury in some parts of the country. As grassroots football is an umbrella term which encompasses youth and children’s football, amateur football and much more besides, this isn’t just about giving hungover men somewhere to nurse their hangovers of a Sunday morning. It’s a matter of access to decent sports facilities for everything, potentially finding young players, and the bedrock upon which our entire system of developing referees is based.

Critics, however, argued that this windfall might not be all it seems upon first glance. Bringing our grassroots facilities up to scratch would only be addressing part of what will need to be done. Building all the changing rooms in the world would count for little if they weren’t also maintained, and that would be an ongoing cost rather than one that could be definitively addressed by writing a cheque and telling local FAs to start installing 3g pitches, floodlights and new changing facilities wherever there’s room. The FA might well be able to throw money at the initial costs, but who would step up and take responsibility for the upkeep? This, it turned out, was a question that seemed difficult to answer unless we assume that the costs of maintenance were to be subtracted from that headline £1bn figure, at which point that headline £1bn starts to look somewhat less enticing than it did before.

There were other criticisms to take on board as well. It’s hardly as though there is alack of money in English football at the moment. The cumulative value of all television deals at present amounts to more than £8bn, and Premier League clubs paid £211m to agents over the last year. Should, some asked, the FA be selling its biggest asset whilst this state of affairs exists? A paltry-sounding ten per cent levy on the current Premier League television deal, for example, would bring in a shade over £500m over the next three years and it can hardly be said that Premier League clubs don’t benefit from grassroots football and the facilities that it offers, even if we disentangle ourselves from the (currently pretty unfashionable) view that it may have a moral obligation to fund it.

The FA’s consultation of stakeholders, of course, left out one significant group: supporters themselves. When the Football Supporters Federation ran a poll to establish fans’ opinions, the results were illuminating, with 58% of respondents stating the stadium should never be sold, 32% stating that it should be sold under the right terms and 10% stating that its sale should be a priority and that the FA should not own a stadium. The reasoning behind this thinking on the part of supporters was outlined as follows:

  • Potential new owner making Wembley home of their club side – 53.4%

  • Rising ticket prices for football matches – 52.9%

  • Future loss of iconic matches at Wembley Stadium – 51%

  • Lack of future control over the development of the stadium – 50.2%

The branding of the stadium was also cited as a concern by fans (34%), as well as the possible loss of England games from Wembley (31%) and potential development of the NFL as a rival to football in the UK (27%).

In addition to this, they found that 45% of supporters favoured England matches being held at “grounds around the country, including Wembley”, whilst a further 25% felt that matches should alternate between Wembley and other venues, 24% believed that all England matches should be played there, and just 2.2% felt that no England matches should be played at Wembley. As such, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the offer falling through is a fair representation of the views of supporters.

It should be added that Shahid Khan went to great lengths to seek to persuade that his interest in buying Wembley was at least partly benevolent in its reasoning, but it might be considered that inviting a higher profile for NFL football in London could hardly do association football any good at a time during which tensions remain high over ticket prices and participation levels in the game at a grassroots level are continuing to fall at a near-vertiginous rate. There is nothing to suggest that Khan had any malign motives beyond raising the profile of his NFL team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, but there can be little question that the FA would have been hung out to dry had the NFL made considerable further inroads into the UK market at the expense of our domestic game.

With the deal now in tatters, though, all of these questions are broadly academic. The one that remains, however, hangs even heavily in the air than it did previously: if this country is to have grassroots facilities worthy of the name, who is going to pay for it? It seems more likely than not that local authorities will continue to reduce the amount that they spend without government intervention, and recent governmental intervention on this subject goes little further than hacking away at the amount of money they receive. Hoping for significant funding for government coffers, in other words, feels more like a pipe dream than ever.

The moral case for the Premier League to be funding it, however, is strong and it now seems likely that attention will switch from the FA being the organisation that pay for these much-needed facilities to the Premier League taking that role. We’ll likely find out over the coming months the extent to which the Premier League is prepared to pay for positive PR as well as the extent to which both supporters and the members of the FA Council are prepared to push them in order to Do The Right Thing. As such, the collapse of Shahid Khan’s bid to buy Wembley Stadium feels like it might just be the end of a chapter rather than the end of a story, in terms of the near-century old story of the financial issues that seemly to perpetually hover over one of world football’s iconic venues.