What is wrong with Wembley?

What is wrong with Wembley? It’s a consistently annoying question. What is it? Some fans will tell you it doesn’t feel like a football stadium, and it doesn’t. It’s got the odd air of an airport terminal or possibly what a Scientology brain washing facility would look like if such a thing existed (which it obviously doesn’t – Hail Xenu!) That isn’t the problem though. Some fans will tell you the abundance of corporate seats are ruining the atmosphere, which could be partly true, if there were realistically enough of them to render 60 odd thousand partisan fans redundant. Structurally, it’s expansive ends should be conducive to a great atmosphere regardless of how many politely clapping suits pad the middle. Some fans will tell you it’s design flaws internally aren’t particularly good at coping with mass transit, meaning the ground is always half empty when the second half resumes as 90 thousand people rush back to their seats with wee down their trousers. And no football stadium needs a Champagne and Seafood bar. I mean seriously, none. Some people may even tell you the camera angle’s rubbish. Far too low and close and un grandiose giving those watching at home – and future attendees – the impression they’re not watching anything special at anywhere special. It should be much higher, not Reebok Stadium high, but at the least Emirates Stadium high. All of these have some small truth in them but none of them are the real reason why the new Wembley Stadium has so far failed to be revered, renowned or regarded as a significantly ‘special’ arena. The main reason, unsurprisingly, is a football one, and it all comes down to this; The pitch is shocking.

James Milner hit the nail on the head yesterday when he criticized the surface after Aston Villa’s Carling Cup final defeat to Manchester United;

“You work as hard as you can to get to a final and it’s one of the worst pitches you play on all year,” he said.

“It was worse than the couple of lower league team’s pitches we have played on, to be honest.”

And he’s right. And it’s not a new thing either. In the 3 plus years the new stadium has been open there has yet to be one truly engrossing or constantly entertaining game. One great game in 3 years is hardly too much to ask for from a national stadium is it? Especially when it has already hosted ties between Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, not to mention Brazil and Portugal. The two best games so far were probably Tottenham’s 2-1 Carling Cup victory in 2008 and England’s wash out 2-3 defeat by Croatia the same year. Neither were classics though, unless you’re Croatian. This naturally doesn’t help the atmosphere. You can build a giant neon floating super disco out of gold and chocolate if you like but if the dancefloor melts and the acoustics are rubbish it’s not going to be a good venue is it? You could build a 5 storey, environmentally friendly art gallery out of diamonds and dreams if you so wish but the if paintings don’t’ stay hung on the walls, no one’s going to enjoy the experience much. If you spend £800m on a state of the art sports arena and fail to get the playing surface right, then the state of the art is going to be woeful. The increased accessibility to caviar and canapés is completely irrelevant.

There are several infuriatingly unnecessary things implemented by the people who run the Stadium which have helped to dampen it’s reputation. The overpricing of food and programmes is an obvious one, as is the rather paltry amount of tickets allocated to club sides who reach the finals staged there, with thousands of others withheld for the “football family” of people the FA want to impress with hospitality. The fact that the already much maligned Club Wembley ticket holders (who have at least paid for their tickets) are instructed to not wear club colours – for some bafflingly incomprehensible reason – seems a fitting one to focus on though as it seems endemic of the problem that’s scuppered the Stadium’s aspirations. Namely that the people who’ve built it and run it, don’t seem to realize it’s a football stadium. They seem to have gotten every meticulous detail from an aesthetic design point of view right, whilst getting every little detail conducive for a good football match wrong. And if the people running football in this country don’t know how to organize a kick about in a football stadium – let alone a piss up in a brewery – then it’s very sorry state of affairs.

The old Wembley Stadium was a dump. I went there several times and if you weren’t positioned behind a pillar 400 yards from the pitch itself you would probably get lost in the concrete concourses and have a fairly good idea of what a fascist labour camp in the 30s was like. However somehow the Stadium was just right for football. The pitch was great and often made for classic encounters and thus a raucous atmosphere which enriched the Stadium’s reputation and shrouded it’s miserable appendages in romance, nostalgia and glory. This pitch cuts up like Jack the Ripper on the jolly. It’s slow, sluggish and infirm. There was talk of it being an endemic problem caused by the position of the ground itself but since it’s older incarnation could miraculously manage it, there’s no unassailable reason why this one can’t also. Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium was built for half the money in half the time and is twice as good for actual football. Something is clearly wrong here, no?

So sort it out Wembley. Get the pitch right, and if you can’t, stop encouraging American Footballers to dig it up the week before an important England qualifier. Allow the prawn sandwich brigades to wear their club colours, even if they look undignified and uncomfortably stupid in them. Stop giving so many tickets to dignitaries, especially if they’re in the specific fan ends. Encourage them to believe they’re gold dust and make them pay through the nose for the Club Wembley ones instead. Stop charging a ridiculous amount of money for substandard food and printed mementos. Encourage the fans to believe this is their national stadium, a welcoming, all inclusive home of football, not an airport lounge for the frequent fliers club. Position the camera higher on the gantry, give the place an aura about it, and for goodness sake get the bloody pitch right. No matter how much you want to resist it, it’s still a football stadium and it will never be one of the greatest if you can’t play good football in it.