On the 7th of October, 2000, an entire era of English football came to an end. Germany beat England 1-0 and the gates closed for the final time at the real home of the sport in this country, the Empire Stadium. Few referred to this imposing structure – fronted by the iconic twin towers – by its official name. To most fans, the ground was affectionately known by the area of London in which it sat – Wembley.
This old ground was showing its age by the time it was finally closed. To many, however, it was this rickety imposing atmosphere that gave the venue its character – a trait all too often forgotten when football clubs move to large soulless Ikea stadiums these days. I was too young to appreciate the wonder of the old Wembley Stadium. I was a latecomer to sport and was a little over eight years of age when the final match was played at the ground. From speaking to people, however, those that have been there to see their club, those that have just had a stadium tour, it really seems to evoke a raw passion in them. They’ve been somewhere and seen things that I will never get the chance to.
I believe it helps in a way that the old Wembley Stadium was around a time when football was a bit more liberal. The administrators used to work for the fans and not the television channels. The FA Cup final was THE football event of the year and nearly everyone in the country spent the day sat around their televisions watching the big match. This was back in the days when the BBC used to kick-off their coverage of the match at 9am, a full six hours before the game itself got underway. Viewers saw the cup being brought out onto the pitch. They may have been treated to a tour of Wembley by a reporter in the build-up. You really got a sense of the atmosphere building for the big showpiece final, which back then would have been the last game of the season and the final match people would be able to see until August.
The fans of clubs used to want to win the FA Cup, not for the money, but for both the glory and a chance to have a day out at Wembley. The terrace chant goes ‘Que sara, sara, whatever will be, will be, we’re going to Wem-ber-ley, que, sara, sara”. Even if their team was unfortunate enough to lose the Wembley final they still went home able to say that they had seen their team play at the national stadium. There seemed to be an excitement, a desire to get to Wembley back then. There doesn’t seem to be the same sort of anticipation and motivation for clubs these days, in the extremely impressive but ultra-modern replacement on the same site. It may be a bit unfair to write this article at this point in time, with the new Wembley only four years old and still building its own history, but the FA Cup has been diminished as a competition in such a way that the big clubs are fielding weakened, reserve sides and still making it through to the final. The smaller ones are happy just to go out to a Premier League team in a home tie, purely for the pay day. The big fish themselves have more important matters to worry about, with the Premier League and Champions League being a whole lot more lucrative.
The old Wembley was the venue for some of the greatest moments in England’s sporting history. This was where England won their one and only World Cup way back in 1966. Those who take a tour of the new stadium will be shown the crossbar from that final against West Germany on display, the famous piece of wood that Geoff Hurst’s shot cracked against for a controversial goal. As it happens, the ball was way over the line, and there would have been no contention with the modern day video equipment. Wembley was also the venue for the first European Cup triumph by an English side, when Manchester United held ‘old big ears’ aloft in 1968 after beating Benfica.
For all of the intense rivalry between England and Scotland, it is a quirky fact that the original Wembley Stadium was built by the company run by Sir Robert McAlpine – from North Lanarkshire. He was known as ‘Concrete Bob’, and completed the stadium in 1924. Concrete Bob’s company still exists today and one of their most recent construction projects was the building of Arsenal’s Ashburton Grove stadium – otherwise known as the Emirates. Wembley was built at a cost of £750,000 and was built specifically for the British Empire Exhibition – an event that was designed to improve relations, stimulate trade and repair the reputation of the British Empire. The original plan was to demolish the stadium once the exhibition was over in 1925, but it was kept following a suggestion from a member of the exhibition’s organising committee that it be made a national venue.
Compared to the 7 years it took to knock down the old Wembley and build the new one, the original stadium was completed in a mere 300 days. The 1923 FA Cup final on the 28th of April was the first event to be held at the stadium. Incredibly, the FA did not believe the match would be popular enough with spectators to warrant ticketing, so fans flooded through the 104 gates to watch – and so the White Horse Final became legend. The stadium’s official capacity in those all-standing days was a whopping 127,000 – but this was dwarfed by the number of people who had rushed to north-west London to see the first game at the new national arena. Estimates range from 240,000 to 300,000 in terms of how many people were actually inside Wembley Stadium on the day of the final, which was between Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United.
Amazingly, the match went ahead, thanks in no small part to Police Constable George Scorey who was riding his white horse, Billy. The officer managed to push the crowds back (there was another 60,000 believed to be locked out of the ground) to the sides of the pitch, clearing the playing area and allowing the game to go ahead only 45 minutes after its original kick-off time. As a memorial to this remarkable event, the footbridge that takes supporters over and above the car park and into the new Wembley is called the White Horse Bridge. As for the game itself, Bolton won 2-0.
With all this history, it was a bit of a hard pill to swallow for football supporters up and down the land when they heard that Wembley wasn’t going to refurbished – it was going to be demolished and replaced. The stands were showing their age, the gate and toilet facilities were no longer suitable, and the all-seater stadiums that were brought about by the Taylor Report following the Hillsborough disaster meant that the old place just wasn’t big enough any more.
The new Wembley was a disaster in terms of planning and construction. It was over schedule and over budget. The original plan was to demolish the old stadium before Christmas 2000, just two months after the stadium’s last match, and to open the new arena in 2003. As it turns out, delays meant demolition did not begin until 2002, and the opening of the new stadium was pushed back to the 2006 FA Cup final. There were further delays. Eventually, at an enormous cost of £798 million, the new Wembley was ready and hosted the FA Cup final in 2007, a 1-0 extra time victory for Chelsea against Manchester United.
The massive cost of the stadium means that the FA is forced to have many events at the venue every year in order to pay some of the debts caused by the construction and to justify the building of such an expensive stadium. As well as the FA Cup final, both semi-finals of the competition are played at Wembley now, as well as numerous concerts, American Football matches and other events, such as the Race of Champions. Wembley was a focal point of England’s failed bids to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and will host the football finals of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Personally, I have visited the new Wembley Stadium on two occasions – I had a tour of the ground in 2009 which gave me access to the dressing rooms and the royal box – and then on the 29th of March, 2011, I saw my first match at the national stadium when England drew 1-1 with Ghana in an international friendly. Despite there being 80,000 people in the ground that night, there was no sense of overcrowding at all – I feel more claustrophobic in my usual surroundings of Norwich City’s Carrow Road, where capacity is just over 27,000. I was high up in the stand, almost in the corner, but the view was fantastic and there were no heads in the way of the action. It’s well worth a visit and for all the delays and cost of building it, in the end it will be justified. England has a national stadium to be proud of.