Open for business

Philip Cornwall pays a visit to the new Wembley. And he likes it

There have been times in the past six-and-a-half years when I have thought about Wembley and the phrase “Be careful what you wish for” has come to mind. I delighted in the demolition of a relic that was, in Whitehall jargon, no longer fit for purpose, yet a hole in the ground was even less suitable for hosting football matches than that old, tired stadium.

The new ground’s construction difficulties stretch back into the 1990s, to the arguments over where the national stadium should be built and to what design (Ken Bates’s Chelsea Village clone, anyone?). Those rows are over at last, but in some ways the new grounds problem’s have only just begun. Now it must be filled, and regularly, as the FA struggle to pay what’s left of the bill for their £757 million masterpiece. If England can find a way out of the Steve McClaren hole then that should happen, but after some early press critiques there is the danger that cynicism may lead to bad PR and create unwarranted difficulties.

Because as somewhere to watch a game – its primary purpose – it is indisputably magnificent. The open day, mainly for local residents, on March 17 gave you the chance to wander around whichever tier your ticket was for, as stewards went through the motions. I could change ends, like during Terry Venables’ friendlies, but that was just about the only reminder of the old ground. The two most important changes are the loss of the dog track, bringing you so much closer to the action, and the return of your circulation. You’ve probably read that every seat has as much leg room as the old Royal Box, but the practical upshot is that if someone walks along your row there is no need to stand up, just to swing your legs to one side like a chorus line. There are no pillars to block your view, the fixed roof should provide adequate shelter from the elements and the retractable one can be called upon if necessary.

But none of this guarantees that Wembley will be full as often as is necessary, nor that there will not be carping, given the nature of the English and our press. Complaints at the open day and the next Saturday’s Under-21s game concentrated on the price of refreshments, with the odd word about the queues for toilets, as if everyone should have their personal porcelain. Food prices are high – £7 for fish and chips – but the range and quality is very good for a football ground and outlets are plentiful. Nor do you have to eat there. The failure of some hi-tech drinks machines, perhaps because the staff weren’t used to them, was an irritant. But some of the coverage felt like it was caused by an unnecessary desire for journalistic “balance”, as if faults had to be found to be weighed equally alongside the positives. Consider Alyson Rudd’s disappointment in the Times at the lack of hand cream in the ladies’ and the absence of “a tomato and mozzarella salad” from the menu.

Transport was also raised. Yes, it still takes a while (though nowhere near as long) for Wembley Park station to handle that many people wanting to leave at once. It always will. National stadiums have a problem that no club ground faces: more than 95 per cent, perhaps 99 per cent, of the customers are going to need transport to get home. Comparing getting away from Wembley with leaving a club ground, where many live locally and will walk or linger, is not a sound comparison, either on scale or circumstances. And while the Millennium Stadium’s ­city‑centre location and proximity to a mainline station are advantages, plenty of capacity games there saw chaos on road and/or rail.

Journey to Wembley
, Brian James’s round-by-round, following-the-winner account of the 1976-77 FA Cup, was the first proper football book I ever owned. Perhaps that explains why I was so attached to the old ground for so long, ignoring its many faults almost up to the time that squeezing into one of the seats for 90 minutes led to a trip to casualty. That was folly, but not on the scale of those who pick holes in the new ground or expect the impossible from what is the best football ­stadium that most of us will have ever seen.

From WSC 243 May 2007. What was happening this month