The past month has seen two games which gave a tantalising hint of how things might have been if football had not got into such a mind-boggling mess over the reconstruction of Wembley.
The Worthington Cup final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium was by no means an unqualified success, as contributions elsewhere in this issue make clear. However, everyone who actually got to the game seems to have been struck by what a pleasant change it made from Wembley. Suddenly, from bemoaning the loss of the supposedly unique atmosphere at the old pissoir on the North Circular, the tabloid press now blithely asserts that Wembley “could never have generated such tension, such fervour” as Cardiff (Mirror).
It would be pushing it a bit to claim that the atmosphere was enjoyable at Villa Park for England’s friendly with Spain, but again it was certainly an improvement on the sullen lethargy of similar encounters under the inexplicably lamented twin towers. The disrespect for the opposition’s national anthem and the persistent “No Surrender” theme made it another wearying evening for anybody with a less aggressive view of what supporting England should be about. On the other hand, few would argue that taking England games around the country has not been a welcome break. Combined with the new manager who, contrary to the fulminations of the Daily Mail and others, seems to have been warmly accepted by most England fans, getting away from Wembley makes the contrast with the last dismal rites of the Keegan era all the more stark.
Oddly enough, two of the central figures in the Wembley debacle are now arguing that the project should never have been undertaken in London. Both Ken Bates and Sir Rodney Walker, past and current chairmen of Wembley National Stadium Ltd, claimed before a parliamentary select committee at the end of February that the national stadium should have gone to either Birmingham or Manchester.
They are right, of course (assuming you think we need a “national stadium” at all). But it seems curious that Bates, in particular, managed to put aside his doubts to become such an enthusiastic cheerleader for the new Wembley when it looked plausible that he might bring it to triumphant fruition. Less than two years ago he was insisting with no qualifications that it would be “the best stadium in the world”.
The only reason those possibilities were not seriously considered was because the government and the FA entertained grandiose fantasies about staging the Olympics and the World Cup, with the new Wembley as the centrepiece. Now that those hopes have been gently laid to rest for the foreseeable future and Bates’s combative input (let’s put it no stronger than that) has been excised from the whole debate, perhaps there is still time to think again. Dozens of high-profile careers would, of course, go down the tubes if Wembley were abandoned, but let’s just pretend for a moment.
The big games that need to be accommodated at a neutral venue each season are: the FA Cup and Worthington Cup finals, and the play-off finals. That’s not very many matches. Since the decision was first made to go ahead with Wembley, club grounds around the country have expanded at a startling rate. Whereas for several years Old Trafford was the only one with a capacity above 50,000, there is already one more (Newcastle) and several other clubs have new stadiums or extensions planned which will take them to that level or significantly beyond (Sunderland, Arsenal, Manchester City).
In other words, there will always be somewhere for England to play, though for the time being never somewhere that will hold as many as the Stade de France, the Bernabéu or Rome’s Olympic Stadium. Then again, the attraction of the national team playing outside London on a regular basis must be obvious to all but the most blinkered.
That leaves the domestic finals. Nowhere is ideal (nor, of course, was the old Wembley) but there is no reason why the play-offs at least should not also rotate around the country. The same does not apply to the FA Cup final or the Worthington Cup, assuming that competition staggers on for another few years. But building a stadium at a cost of something over £500 million (put any figure you like and it stands a chance of being right) for two games a season seems excessive even by the mad standards of the Wembley fiasco. Whether Cardiff could be considered a viable long-term option remains to be seen (the fact that, like the old Wembley, it has non-football owners is a big drawback) but it deserves a chance.
It won’t happen, of course. Something, surely, will finally go up at Wembley. But even before the old monster has been torn down, we can safely guess that we’re going to regret it.
From WSC 170 April 2001. What was happening this month