Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wembley Generations


March 4th, 1978 fell on a Saturday. It was not just any Saturday, though. Along with a coach-load of other 11-year-old boys, I travelled south to visit London’s Wembley Stadium for the first time. On arrival, we were instructed to form a long chain, holding hands as we crossed the car park to the turnstiles, so that none of us would get lost in the crowd. I would probably have been the number one candidate to do so.

For a schoolboys’ (Under 16s) international – England versus France (Figure 59.1) – the crowd filled no more than ten per cent of its 100,000 capacity, but the noise amply compensated for the open spaces. Standing on the vast concrete terrace of the West Stand, the whole place looked magnificently dilapidated. Some places are like that. Venice is probably the classic example of such majestic decay.

Figure 59.1: A treasured possession from schooldays

Copyright © 1978 English Schools’ Football Association

Behind me, where ‘Row Z’ met the roof, I remember noticing how drab and dirty the place looked close up, and it was covered with spray-paint graffiti, a far shout from the way it was portrayed on television. Having said that, nothing could detract from what proved to be a grand day out. The score ended 3-3. One of the England players, Tommy Caton – his birthplace was just five miles from my own – turned professional within a year. A further two years later, he returned to Wembley as a Manchester City player for the FA Cup Final. I had witnessed the start of his career and I followed it with interest.

The stadium was even more decrepit on my next visit, in 1991, and the year after that, when I watched the stupendous Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert (Figure 59.2), standing in the centre circle of the pitch. Indelible memories continued to be forged at the ‘cathedral of football’, few more so than the 1993 FA Cup semi-final between the two Sheffield clubs, Wednesday and United. Tragically, that same month, Tommy Caton died of a heart attack, just 30 years old.

Figure 59.2: The remaining members of Queen on stage at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. I am in the dead centre of the picture.

Copyright © 2011 Manuel Velasco

My last trip was in 1994 – another Cup semi-final – and I suspected at the time that I would never see the old place again (Figure 59.3). I was right: the entire eighty-year-old edifice was finally demolished in 2003. Its replacement, which opened in 2007, is the second largest stadium in Europe, costing a not-so-cool £800 million.

Figure 59.3: Tickets for the ‘old’ Wembley

Copyright © 1978, 1991, 1992 & 1994 Wembley Stadium Ltd

A generation has since passed. Tomorrow, I shall return to England’s national stadium, with my son, and watch another football match from the West Stand. The FA Trophy Final is to be contested by Grimsby Town and Wrexham. As my grandfather was born and bred in Wrexham – and his father was the very first of the town’s residents to own a motor car – I hope they return to North Wales with the spoils. Go for it, Dragons!

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We arrived at Wembley Stadium Station, at sub-zero temperature, a couple of hours prior to kick-off. Walking (very briskly, heads down) across the White Horse Bridge – FA Cup aficionados will know the significance of the name – we marvelled at the new home of English football. The 134-metre-high Wembley Arch spans 317 metres. It is the world’s longest single-span roof structure and is becoming every bit as iconic as the Twin Towers of yesteryear.

Inside was equally impressive. We entered the cavernous arena through gleaming glass doors.  I watched my son’s reaction, with a mixture of paternal pride and remembrance of my own first experience, back in 1978. The partial roof coverage offered some resistance to the wintry elements, and the view from every red-cushioned seat was unrestricted (Figure 59.4). I looked out at the pitch from more or less the same spot as thirty-five years previously. Incidentally, it was not just my son’s first Wembley visit, but Wrexham’s too, in a club history stretching back to 1864.

Figure 59.4: The view from Block 243 in Wembley’s West Stand

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

3 p.m. A crowd of 35,000 saw Wrexham make most of the early running (Figure 59.5). Noise reverberated and seemed amplified, flags waved, a (red) smoke bomb went off, and an insanely hardy streaker, wearing a hooded coat yet naked from the waist down, made his own freezing dash for immortality in Wrexham’s football folklore (Figure 59.6). It was Grimsby, however, who took the lead midway through the second half, before Wrexham equalized ten minutes from time (Figure 59.7).

Figure 59.5: Wrexham (in red) on the attack

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

Figure 59.6: Cometh the hour, cometh the exhibitionist.

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

Figure 59.7: Before and after Wrexham’s equalizer

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

A 1-1 draw meant extra time, followed by a penalty shoot-out to break the deadlock, enabling us to gain more than our money’s worth. The dreaded penalties took place right in front of us, and the rest of the ‘red army’ of supporters, in the West Stand. Wrexham’s Polish livewire, Adrian Cieslewicz, who had tormented Grimsby’s defence throughout extra time, buried the first spot-kick, and everything went Wrexham’s way from then on. When 22-year-old Johnny Hunt calmly netted the winner, their 20,000 supporters forgot all about the bitter cold (Figure 59.8). Wrexham’s wait of 149 years seemed to have been worth it (Figures 59.9 & 59.10).

Figure 59.8: 20,000 Wrexham supporters celebrate winning the 2013 FA Trophy

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

Figure 59.9: Wrexham’s player-manager Andy Morrell with his successful team

Copyright © 2013 Julian Finney/Getty Images

Figure 59.10: Even the tickets are hi-tech. Each has a chip, designed to prevent fraud, which is scanned at the turnstile.

Copyright © 2013 Football Association

Each time I have left Wembley, I have wondered, ‘When will I be returning?’ If my son has his way, I am sure it will be sooner rather than later.

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Gold ... Beans ... AK-47 ...

A former flatmate of mine, circa 1989, made Private Frazer from the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army sound like a dreamy optimist. I even dubbed him ‘Frazer’. The end was always nigh – in some direction or other. I recall once discovering that he had packed one of the kitchen cupboards with nothing but cans of baked beans, even though he rarely ate them. When I laughed and asked for an explanation, he said, simply: ‘Inflation.’ At that time, the rate in the UK was around 7%. It peaked at 10% two years later. Frazer’s doom-laden logic behind his stockpiling was that by the sell-by date, the price in the shops would be 7 to 10% higher. ‘Beans are a good investment,’ he insisted, ‘if you buy enough of them.’

Looking back, the crazy fool seems to have been way ahead of his time. What happened last weekend in Cyprus is shocking, albeit not surprising, given both the economic catastrophe that is the Eurozone and the devious, autoocratic nature of the EU. The Cypriot government, backed by the EU and IMF, served notice on private citizens that it intended to raid their bank accounts. This was immediately recognized by the rest of the world as naked theft. They have since backed down, and been rebuffed in a parliamentary vote, but it is too late: the EU’s thought processes have been disclosed. An ominous precedent has been set. The EU can now, by its own admission, ransack people’s savings whenever its debts threaten to overwhelm. No one with funds in any Eurozone bank is now safe (Figure 58.1). State guarantees? Deposit insurance? Such fundamental banking principles are no longer valid.

Figure 58.1: A typical scene in Cyprus earlier today, where cash withdrawals have been limited to €260. When all its banks reopen, there might be a ‘run’ severe enough to bankrupt them and, just maybe, force Cyprus out of the Euro, spread contagion to Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain, and bring the whole house of EU cards crashing down. Could this be a modern-day David and Goliath?

Copyright © 2013 Ekathimerini

There are British citizens currently resident in Cyprus. These include a significant portion of the Armed Forces, all of whose personnel are advised, purely for practical purposes, to open accounts in local (Cypriot) banks. As they would stand to lose, the UK’s government stated that they would be fully compensated from public funds. In other words, the taxpayer would be forced to shell out as a result of the EU’s act of legalized embezzlement.

Since the storm broke, the Prime Minister, his Deputy and the Opposition leader have remained silent, conspicuously so. Why have they not been consumed by fury and indignation? Perhaps they were waiting to learn whether or not the plan would succeed – that is, without prompting a run on Cypriot banks. Would UK politicians ever consider following suit, if they could pull it off? Bear in mind that its national debt has quadrupled in little more than a decade.

The truth is, the British government is already stealing from its people, on a monumental scale, as I write. It is subtle and indirect, but at the same time far more brutal than the Cyprus proposal. Since 2009, the Bank of England has purchased £375 billion worth of debt – or ‘gilts’ – via quantitative easing (QE), or ‘printing money’. The prudent are, in effect, being forced to rescue the profligate. History has proved that such a strategy always results in rampant inflation, the Weimar Republic (1919-33) being the most infamous example (Figure 58.2). At the height of the between-wars crisis, its paper currency had become so outrageously devalued by inflation that a single ounce of gold could purchase an entire street in Berlin.

Figure 58.2: Germany in 1923. Hyperinflation made bank notes a cheaper source of fuel than firewood. Here, ‘millionaire’ children play with worthless money.

Copyright expired

The government’s QE programme will undoubtedly have a similar effect. The British people are, to quote Tocqueville, ‘sleeping on a volcano’. Runaway inflation is now building momentum in the UK pipeline. When I was a schoolboy, the annual rate reached 25% (1975). This meant that, after just a year, savings and pensions had lost a fifth of their value. To put it another way, a cupboard chock-full of baked beans might have cost £20 one year, £25 the next. You see, old Frazer knew what he was about. By stockpiling for twelve months, he could beat the inflation trap and save a few pounds on the following year’s beans.

It will pay, therefore, to invest in anything that will hedge against inflation. Saving money in a bank deposit account might earn 2%, but high inflation will slash its buying power by a far greater percentage. As paper currencies lose value, owing to increased supply, smart investors will look to something that cannot be made out of thin air at the whim of desperate politicians and central bankers. Precious metals – gold, silver, platinum, palladium etc. – are of finite quantity and arguably the most effective anti-inflation measure (Figure 58.3), even better than beans. Invest now, do not leave a paper trail, and watch their market prices skyrocket during the coming decade, as inflation annihilates savings, and politicians consider confiscating whatever remains.

Figure 58.3: Frazer, if you are reading this, it might not be wise to store bullion in your kitchen cupboards. If you do, and economic and social collapse follow, you might need serious security measures.

Copyright © 2013 Reinder Dijkhuis

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery