ALEX BRUMMER: Wembley experience is depressing so FA proposal to ditch it sounds attractive


The stalking of Wembley Stadium by Shahid Khan, Pakistani-American owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars American team, has been greeted with howls of protest.

Wembley is treated as if it were a Big Ben-style national treasure when plainly it is not. For most of its existence (1923-99), Wembley was in private hands and football was a customer, like the Rugby League Challenge Cup, Horse Of The Year show, athletics and much else.

Indeed, most national football teams with the exceptions of Portugal, Sweden and Ireland do not have national homes.

Howls of protest: Wembley is treated as if it were a Big Ben-style national treasure when plainly it is not

Howls of protest: Wembley is treated as if it were a Big Ben-style national treasure when plainly it is not

Howls of protest: Wembley is treated as if it were a Big Ben-style national treasure when plainly it is not

There is natural concern that £120m of National Lottery Funds was spent on the Wembley rebuilding project and money belonging to citizens will be lost if it falls into overseas hands. The FA is making it clear that its first priority if the stadium is sold would be to pay back the ‘public’ funds and offload £200m of debt.

The FA fancies the Khan offer, worth around £600m, because of pledges he is making about the future of the stadium.

The main profit spinner, Club Wembley, with its 15,000 seats and corporate hospitality, will remain under FA control for perpetuity. Wembley will remain the name of the stadium although it could have a subsidiary sponsorship attached as with EE at present. Most England footie games, league play-offs and cup finals will be played there. The England team would need to go on tour to the regions for two autumn internationals.

There is recognition that the FA cannot just sell to the first buyer that comes along. Rothschild is doing due diligence and drawing up a prospectus which will be made available to qualified interested parties including Khan.

From a public interest perspective, the FA hopes to buy off the criticism of selling a crown jewel with a promise that net proceeds will go into a trust fund for the Football Foundation.

It will disburse funds to the grassroots making sure communities across Britain have adequate pitches, changing rooms and training facilities.

As someone who finds the whole Wembley experience depressing, a stadium in the middle of an ugly industrial park, the FA proposal sounds attractive.

This will be especially so it if brings US know-how and investment to a neighbourhood neglected by time. But I fear that fake patriotism may kill ambition.

Going Dutch

Next Tuesday, September 11, a 200-page document proposing the departure of another great British institution from these shores will be sent to shareholders in Unilever Plc and Unilever NV.

The historic Dove-to-Ben-&-Jerry’s company, an original constituent of the FTSE, is proposing to unify its shares and move the main quote from London to the financial backwater of Rotterdam.

Unilever will argue this is the best of governance in that investors in the Dutch arm hold 55 per cent of the shares against 45 per cent in London.

The group sought to negotiate a special deal with the FTSE 100 advisory committee on remaining in the UK’s key index but it wouldn’t budge.

This despite the fact that UK regulators and the London Stock Exchange moved heaven and earth recently to try and land the now halted Saudi Aramco float for the City. Rotterdam has been made possible because the Dutch government agreed to remove a dividend withholding tax creating a more even playing field. But shares traded in the City must pay stamp duty which now cedes Holland an advantage.

The technicalities of Unilever’s proposal are complicated but it will require a 75 per cent majority of investors (across the two classes of shares) to approve the move.

Operationally, it seems bonkers. Some 60 per cent of Unilever’s business, namely home care and beauty, are run from the UK, alongside testing and R&D. This is the fastest growing part of the enterprise and within a decade or so could be 70 per cent of the company. That would create a mismatch between operations and share domicile.

Putting aside heritage, that is a huge reason why investors should vote to keep Unilever’s quote in the FTSE 100.

Book worm

How brilliant that James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, is rushing to the rescue of ailing Foyles, Britain’s most evocative bookstore. Less encouraging is that the ultimate owner will be Paul Singer of ruthless hedge fund Elliott not known for admiration of high culture. One can’t imagine he will remain a lover of literature for long.


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