Jeff Hill pays tribute to a famous building that is about to disappear
The Wembley that we all love to hate – the dog track with a football ground in the middle – will soon be no more. Next year it will be pulled down, and by 2002 or thereabouts only the famous twin towers are likely to remain of the present structure. Barring last minute hitches, the rest is to be transformed into a multi-sports National Stadium. So England will have a site to equal the Stade de France and all those other sporting venues which are supposed to symbolise “the nation”.
But in a country where four nations inhabit one state this has always been a problematic concept. England (or Britain) is not France, and English national identity is a far more elusive thing than its French counterpart. Where Paris serves as a focus for the idea of France, London often does the opposite; the metropolis is seen as a symbol of English or southern dominance and provokes a sense of local identity.
This has been one of the glories of Wembley; a place rich in ambiguity of meaning, where the sporting rivalries and allegiances of British people have been acted out and a site of memory through which we have continued to identify ourselves by our past achievements. Since many of these are not to do with Englishness, Wembley therefore represents the diversity as well as the unity of Britain. Some of the greatest sporting victories of the “fringe” nations have taken place there. In fact, until the 1950s most of England’s international fixtures, with the exception of the biennial Scotland match, were not held at Wembley. It took 1966 and all that for the spectator passion usually associated with the visitors to be generated for England.
For many, then, coming to Wembley has been the occasion for proud assertions of “otherness”. Northern Ireland’s victory over England in 1957, for example, was a glorious celebration of the quality of pre-Best Irish football, of what Danny Blanchflower, Jimmy McIlroy, Peter McParland and Harry Gregg brought to the English League. The Wembley Wizards of 1928 similarly confirmed what Scottish folk had been saying ever since the modern game was invented: that their football, based on passing and dribbling skills, was superior to England’s “kick and rush”.
And how many supporters of now ill-considered clubs in the lower divisions think of Wembley to remind themselves that they once possessed a great team which had its moments in the Cup and, in some cases, actually won it? These memories are still important to supporters in Preston, Burnley, Huddersfield, Brighton and many other places. They help to keep them on the football map.
It is not just football which provides such sentiments. Rugby League, synonymous with the north, has played its Challenge Cup final at Wembley since 1929, when Wigan met Dewsbury, a team whose members all came from within six miles of the town. Wembley has played a similarly iconic role for countries such as Hungary and Denmark, whose victories over England in 1953 and 1983 were key moments in their football history. To compress all these associations – local, regional, national and international – into the idea of a “national” stadium seems churlish. Wembley is all things to all people, and that is perhaps why it commands such affection.
There is another side to the place, of course. Wembley has always had an air of pomposity about it, a whiff of the football establishment. Why is it still so difficult to get a Cup final ticket? We all know the reasons, and the complaints about the restrictions go back years. The FA first took control of the allocation after that disastrous first final of 1923, when admission was possible at the turnstiles (and via many other routes as well). When the all-ticket system was introduced the following year, it also ushered in the entry of the “blazerati” – the FA officials and their guests who kept out the real fans.
JPW Mallalieu, writer, Labour MP and (as he saw himself) a real fan, went to the 1947 final and railed against all those who came for the social occasion. The people who had followed their teams all season were left outside, he claimed, while many inside were “people who don’t care which team wins, who don’t know the rules, and who chatter”. Simultaneous with the rise of the chattering classes was the ritualisation of the final: marching bands, community singing and royalty were not normal features at English football grounds. Fans value their independence, and don’t like to be directed. There has often been a rather desultory response to the attempts to engage Wembley crowds in singing, though in the inter-war years particularly, Abide With Me usually went down well.
This increasing stage-management prompted some old-timers to look back with nostalgia to the carnival atmosphere of the Crystal Palace finals before the First World War. “There was ample room,” said William Pickford of the FA, “for crowds to move about the charming grounds, watch the entertainment under the famous glass roof, listen to the great organ and lunch in comfort... I can see the branches of the tall trees opposite the pavilion black with eager climbers.” Where the Crystal Palace had been an anarchic celebration of fandom, Wembley became more of a state occasion, its crowd structured into price-related status groups, watched over by the controlling gaze of the monarch in the royal box.
Of course, the stadium had always been intended as a serious statement. It was built as the centrepiece of the Empire Exhibition of 1924-25, which symbolised the supposed “one soul and mind” of the Empire. During these two summer seasons the stadium held pageants depicting the rise and unity of the Empire and its peoples. Lofty aims demanded an august style. If anyone thinks that only stately homes and town halls have “architecture”, look at Wembley. Where do those squat twin towers and rounded arches originate? If they look familiar it’s because Wembley is the Colosseum of Rome transported to the North Circular Road, the style of a Mediterranean empire borrowed for a British one of global proportions.
There are still today, alongside the Wembley Arena (another name from Rome to conjure with), a few neo-classical facades of old Exhibition pavilions. A reminder of the imperial splendour in which the stadium was originally set, they now look like remnants from the backlot of a Hollywood epic.
So, Wembley has its special place. No other ground was lucky enough to stage its opening match in such desperate circumstances and get away with it. It could all have ended in tragedy. Instead, a national legend was born. The crowds were marshalled by the policeman on his white horse and the final went ahead. Thus was created an instant myth of orderly, decent English people, who refuse to get carried away in minor crises. For two generations the myth of the white horse fuelled the idea that bad behaviour at football grounds was something that foreigners got up to.
Wembley has meant all this in its 76-year history. The new stadium will have a rich and varied inheritance. It too will arouse feelings of love and hate. If it can somehow revive some of the traditions of the old Crystal Palace and avoid some of Wembley’s pretensions, we are likely to warm to it.
From WSC 146 April 1999. What was happening this month