Shahid Khan’s decision to withdraw his offer to buy Wembley has been described as a “huge disappointment” and a missed opportunity by two of the biggest sponsors of grassroots facilities.
The Fulham owner had offered the Football Association £600million in cash for the stadium, as well as letting it keep the Club Wembley hospitality business, worth another £300million.
FA chairman Greg Clarke and chief executive Martin Glenn were both strongly in favour of the deal and wanted to use the money to fix England’s dilapidated changing rooms, water-logged pitches and stretched 3G facilities.
But in separate statements, Glenn admitted the proposed sale had been “more divisive than anticipated”, while Khan said it had become clear “there is no definitive mandate to sell Wembley and my current proposal, subsequently, would earn the backing of only a slim majority of the FA Council, well short of the conclusive margin the FA chairman has required”.
This has been on the cards ever since last week’s council meeting proved just how split football was on the idea, with some seeing it as a gilt-edged opportunity to solve one of football’s most expensive problems, while others likened it to selling the family silver and questioned the FA’s ability to invest the windfall wisely.
The UK’s largest sports charity, the Football Foundation, would have been the vehicle the FA used to pick, manage and fund the projects, as it currently does with the funding it receives from the FA, Premier League and government.
In a statement, it said: “News that Mr Khan has decided to withdraw his offer to buy Wembley should come as a huge disappointment to community footballers everywhere.
“Football participation in this country is huge. Unfortunately, those who play the game, simply for the love of doing so and for the health benefits are having to put up with a stock of community football facilities that is in a shameful state.
“This would have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make considerable inroads into probably the most pressing issue facing football in this country.”
Nick Bitel, the chair of Sport England, the government agency that funds grassroots sport, was more measured but his disappointment was equally plain.
“We agree with the view that the Wembley Stadium offer was a huge opportunity to boost funding into the development and maintenance of artificial and grass pitches up and down the country,” he said.
“Now that this deal is off the table, we hope the football family will now consider other ways the much-needed additional funds for grassroots facilities can be generated.”
Sports minister Tracey Crouch told the BBC she was “very disappointed” but a spokesperson for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport told Press Association Sport it was always “a matter for the FA” and any deal “would have had to further benefit the grassroots game in this country”, while the stadium remained the home of English football.
For Clarke, Glenn and Khan, that was exactly what was on the table.
In a statement the American billionaire released to fans of his National Football League team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Khan said “a successful transaction would have had a much-needed positive effect on the Jaguars, both in London and here in Jacksonville”.
Khan had hoped to use Wembley as the Jaguars’ home field in the future, although the team’s training base was expected to remain in Florida. He had also wanted to upgrade the stadium so it could host a wider range of events, including perhaps a Super Bowl.
But in his earlier statement, aimed at the “Football Association family”, Khan said he would be “willing to re-engage with the FA on this matter” if the circumstances changed.
That does not appear to be likely in the short term, though.
The FA’s research suggested that football was split into three equal camps on the issue: those strongly for, those passionately against and those who needed to know more before they made their minds up.
The governing body had thought it was slowly winning the argument and last week told county FA bosses it thought there was 55 per cent approval for the idea.
Last Thursday, however, that theory was tested at what was described as a lively meeting of the FA Council, which made the divide look more like 50/50.
In a statement, the Football Supporters’ Federation chairman Malcolm Clarke, who is also an FA councillor, said: “More than 2,000 supporters took part in our consultation on the Wembley sale and we took that feedback directly to the FA Council last week.
“Only one in three fans thought the FA should sell to Khan while two-thirds of supporters were against selling the stadium under any circumstances.
“While the majority of fans will be pleased that the stadium will remain in the control of the FA, they recognise the need for much greater investment in grassroots pitches. It is a sobering thought that the Wembley sale would have yielded £590m and yet English football pays £250m each year to agents.”
This is a point one of the sale’s main critics, former England and Manchester United defender Gary Neville, made to a committee of MPs in August.