Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Wembley Saga Drags On

Today the builders of the new Wembley Stadium admitted it was only 70% likely to be ready in time for its first scheduled event, the FA Cup Final in May 2006.

Wembley Saga Drags On


It should be noted forthwith that safety for fans is more important than anything so another delay is far from the end of the world but this is yet another chapter in the troubled tale that has been the replacing of the old national football ground. There were prolonged and bloody political squabbles over whether to include athletics or not, and anger at the exorbitant cost of purchasing the land, demolishing the old ground and constructing a new one and now there are regular concerns being voiced over cost overruns and put back completion times. Nothing strange there you might think, as this is often the case with the birth of grands projets, niggles that are soon forgotten once the Colossus is up there looking out over Rhodes’ harbour.

The English football world is already so jaded by the saga of Wembley’s rebuilding that no one really cares whether the Cup Final will be at Cardiff for another year. In fact, given the positive experiences of fans visiting the Millennium Stadium, an impressive arena located in the heart of a vibrant city a stone’s throw from a mainline railway station, there cannot seriously be many fans dying to return to the grimy industrial estates of the grubby and uninspiring outer suburb of London that is Wembley.

A Cup Final is about having a day out as well as watching the game itself and a trip to the area surrounding Wembley was nothing if not disappointing, particularly given the chronic lack of hostelries within walking distance of the stadium. I traveled to Wembley several times over the past quarter of a century for football matches and not once did I have an experience as magical as the self-styled ‘Venue of Legends’ would have had us believe. The complex itself sat amidst a sea of concrete and was home to overpriced and unpleasant food & merchandise, rude and ignorant stewarding and above all inadequate sightlines, courtesy of a 1920s athletic stadium stands having seats bolted on to them without thought for views of the football field.

My abiding memory of the Wembley experience was of sprinting to the stadium just in time for a delayed kick off for an England v Poland World Cup qualifier in 1988 after Wembley plc had forced everyone to collect their match tickets at Wembley Arena in a barmy and never-repeated experiment in ‘efficiency’. As I ran breathless up the multiple flights of stairs to a seat so high up that the roof only just fell short of covering the field in my sightline, England fans stood urinating against the walls of the stairwells as ‘God Save the Queen’ boomed out over the tannoy.

Even more frustrating than the views and underwhelming experience was the Football Association’s commitment to signing exclusive contracts for England matches with the private company who ran the creaking, smelling dinosaur that was Wembley. While countries like Italy and Germany played their national team games across the country, England, the birthplace of the sport, stayed marooned at what effectively was a neutral ground, which conspicuously failed to replicate the atmosphere English football is famous for.

When the obsolete old place blessedly closed at long last in October 2000 after 78 years of football and two Olympic Games, England took their home games around the country for the first time in living memory. The experience has been positive all round, especially for fans from the football hotbeds of the North for whom a midweek trip to London is out of the question. But it was a time-limited beano, a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been.

Now a new Wembley is almost a reality again, and although the projected sightlines on the official website do not appear that much better than those of the old ground, at least there will be plenty of tickets available, 90,000, for casual fans, (or 70,000 after the corporate parasites have had their fill) and the edifice itself looks more impressive than the old, twin towers and all.

Drive along London’s North Circular Road and the silhouette of a magnificent fortress appears on the horizon ahead, commanding awe from all around and distracting drivers’ attention away from Ikea at Brent Cross. I for one will try to feel hopeful that the 757 million pounds spent on this project will have been worth it and that world-renowned architect Norman Foster has not made another wobbly bridge out of this millennium dream.

It would be churlish not to feel some optimism about a new home for the England team but how telling it is that such an expensive and apparently magnificent creation has failed so singularly to inspire the nation’s fans, whatever the Wembley PR men might tell you.
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