The Football Association has drafted in Gareth Southgate for a last-ditch attempt to push through the troubled £600 million sale of Wembley after discovering that fewer than 40 per cent of people involved in the grass-roots game are in favour of the deal ahead of a decisive vote.
Southgate was called upon to deliver an endorsement at a hastily-arranged presentation to a select group of FA Council members and county game chiefs at St George’s Park just two days before the 127-member body gathers on Thursday to decide Wembley’s fate.
The England manager was parachuted in after a piece of FA research showed just 38 per cent of the grass-roots game supported the deal, despite assurances that every penny of the offer from billionaire Shahid Khan would be spent on the amateur game.
Southgate, whose side take on Croatia on Friday, was said to have cautiously welcomed the sale, telling the meeting that he had seen first-hand the problems with amateur facilities.
However, one senior FA Council member, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Daily Telegraph that Khan’s offer was in “serious risk of being torpedoed” on Thursday and warned chief executive Martin Glenn to expect fierce opposition before the councillors vote on Oct 24.
The FA consultation with 22,500 people – almost two thirds of whom were connected locally to football either as players, coaches, referees or volunteers – found 52 per cent of those over 55 were “unsupportive” of the sale. One player told the FA “… it’s like selling Buckingham Palace to Donald Trump”. Overall, 45 per cent of those questioned opposed the offer, while 17 per centsaid they were neutral.
The council member, who claims to have been invited just four days before the presentation on Tuesday, said: “Southgate walked straight in off the training ground and was extremely professional in everything he said, but the very fact he was there did hint at nervousness at the FA about the apparent gulf that has opened up between the bean counters and the people on the ground. I think the deal could be in real trouble on Thursday.”
Mark Burrows, the FA’s chief financial officer, invited the council to accept the deal, saying the purchase price was higher than could have been achieved had Wembley gone out for tender. Southgate then said his players would welcome the opportunity to play at other stadiums every autumn if Shahid Khan’s NFL team were allowed to take annual residence at the home of English football.
Burrows and Glenn will lead the presentations on Thursday and are expected to tell councillors the offer is potentially “transformative” for the amateur game, and that accepting the deal would help ward off future financial threats. Burrows has said Khan’s offer of £600 million in cash and £300million in retained hospitality income is the best they will get.
The council – which includes representatives of the Premier League, Football League and county FAs and is often referred to as the parliament of English football – has no powers formally to stop the deal. However, it is understood the FA is not minded to go against the wishes of the wider game. Glenn and FA chairman Greg Clarke want a clear mandate from the stakeholders that make up the English game.
It is understood a close vote in favour of the deal would not be accepted by the board, which has given its approval, on the basis of widespread support.
Fulham-owner Khan, who wants to use Wembley for his Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team, has sent a two-page letter to every council member this week in which he said he would be a “responsible owner and operator of Wembley Stadium”.
However, his PR campaign was undermined on Tuesday when he was embroiled in claims from a former member of his coaching staff alleging “systemic corruption” relating to his bid to buy the home of English football. The Metropolitan Police confirmed that officers were looking at the case following a report last year of “non-recent threatening behaviour” at Fulham’s Motspur Park training ground. Khan vehemently denies the claims by former assistant director of football, Craig Kline, who attacked the Wembley bid, claiming the stadium was worth £1.6 billion to the Fulham owner.
Khan has been in talks to acquire the stadium since April. The outline deal is said to include operational limitations, including that no sponsor can gain “title” rights, such as renaming the stadium or adding a corporate brand alongside that of Wembley. The deal has the backing of the Government via Sport England so Thursday’s meeting is being widely considered as the final hurdle before solicitors can start considering the process of exchanging contracts.
A total of £113 million is owed to public bodies who contributed to the original build costs, but the FA is confident that it can service the debt under the existing terms from profits and other sources of income. The £600 million would be spent entirely on grass roots, the FA insists, including the creation of potentially thousands of 3G pitches.