Richard Sutcliffe: Wembley shifting to private hands? Nothing new here, folks

FOR SALE: The national stadium, one previous owner and a smattering of sitting tenants.

England and West Germany line up at Wembley before the 1966 World Cup final. The France-Uruguay group  was played at White City as greyhound racing took precedence.
England and West Germany line up at Wembley before the 1966 World Cup final. The France-Uruguay group was played at White City as greyhound racing took precedence.

Yesterday’s revelation that the Football Association are in advanced talks over the sale of Wembley with Shahid Khan, the billionaire who owns Fulham and American football team Jacksonville Jaguars, took the country by surprise.

A little over 11 years since first opening its doors, the new Wembley has become established as one of the finest stadia in the world. It is why the final of the 2020 European Championships will take place under the Arch, one of seven fixtures scheduled during a tournament that is being held across the continent.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Even the colossal cost – the £757m was only £100m or so shy of what Germany spent in total on either building or refurbishing all 12 venues for the 2006 World Cup – has largely been forgotten, with the FA revealing last January that the loans for the much-delayed project would be cleared by the end of 2024.

Khan’s offer, believed to be around £500m with the FA allowed to keep future revenues from Club Wembley, will wipe out that remaining debt of £142m and, sources within the governing body insist, allow a long overdue investment in grass-roots football.

So far, so good. Or at least it will be if the various bodies that contributed financially to the Wembley project are onside.

Lottery-funded Sport England paid the £120m required to buy the site initially in 1999, while the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport contributed £20m and the London Development Agency a further £21m. The latter two are likely to want to claw back at least part of their outlay.

Providing that can be sorted, though, the deal seems, from an FA perspective, to be a no-brainer.

Wembley has been the body’s financial millstone since the first delays hit the project early in the new Millennium. The current debt level is manageable, but future work – and every stadium, no matter how gleaming when first opened, needs considerable maintenance as the years roll by – could be a problem. Much easier to hand that responsibility on to a new owner.

The flipside to this, of course, is that the FA will no longer call the tune at Wembley.

Khan made clear yesterday that England’s home matches will remain at the heart of the stadium’s sporting calendar. So, too, will the FA Cup final and, presumably, the Football League play-offs.

But such warm sentiments do not quite tally with the primary motive behind the purchase of installing his Jaguars side as the NFL’s first London franchise.

Moving a team from one city to another is nothing new to gridiron fans. Now, the NFL are committed to going a step further and establishing a team outside the States sooner rather than later. Khan’s purchase of Wembley will put the Jaguars in pole position.

With the American football season running from the start of September to early in the new year, any home fixtures for the Three Lions scheduled for autumn – there are four this year – will have to be moved.

This, of course, will mean a return to the ‘on the road’ years that followed the demolition of the old Wembley.

Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle and even Ipswich hosted the national team and would surely welcome them again. A win-win for those outside the M25, while fans in the capital are also unlikely to miss out totally, either, thanks to the opening of the Emirates in 2006 and the soon-to-be-completed new White Hart Lane.

Predictably the FA came in for criticism the moment the sale plan, believed to have been under consideration long before Khan made his offer, became public.

‘A disgrace to sell the crown jewels’ was just one of the barbs aimed at the governing body yesterday, some likening the move to other high-profile sales of Cadbury and most of the car industry to foreign owners.

What many of these critics fail to appreciate, however, is that the FA are unusual in owning their own stadium with Germany, for instance, not having their own ‘home’. Plus until 1999 Wembley was owned by a private company with the governing body paying rent every time England played under the Twin Towers.

Such an arrangement was not ideal, not least because the contract was skewed towards Wembley plc in terms of gate receipts, catering and so on.

Worse still, the landlord could dictate matters to such an extent that the World Cup group game between France and Uruguay in 1966 had to be switched to White City due to Wembley plc insisting the regular greyhound meeting, a big money-spinner in those days, went ahead as planned.

The FA, though, will know all this and surely ensure any agreement over future use, NFL commitments aside, prioritises existing users, including the Rugby Football League, to ensure Wembley continues to live up to its old billing as the ‘Venue of Legends’.