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!

*    *    *    *    *

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

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