By Tony Attwood
It is, by any standards, a grotesque and appalling place, made worse by the avarice of capital and the incompetence of inefficiency. But its foundations show something far more sinister and dispiriting.
In a week when we learned that British industry and commerce is now so inefficient that the French as a nation could take Friday off and still produce more than the British, one could see in the glimpse of an eye at Wembley what is wrong.
Emerge from Wembley Park station and descend the steps and you have the choice of looking for a pub or heading for the ground.
We tried the pub we went to last year for the semi-final, but big, and I mean VERY BIG as in
men barred our entrance snarling “Reading only”. As if middle aged guy and an older man armed with nothing more than, well, nothing, were going to start fighting other people because they were Reading. Of course we’ve got used to this sort of thing and trudged on, and that’s really the point. We get used to it. We submit. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with us.
The first Arsenal pub we found was one we’ve used before at Wembley, and we entered (paying £5 for the privilege of going in to pay for over priced drink) the Watkins Folly, a pub which in any other situation we would walk 500 miles to avoid.
It has a beer garden – concreted over and tiny, and of course full of smokers. Inside it is tatty furniture and some TV screens. There are within the one low ceilinged bar at least nine large cameras watching those inside.
As we entered a half-hearted song arose from the Arsenal fans, and the immediate response of the management was to turn up the Irish music they had on their audio system to such ear shattering volume that at even shouting in each other’s ears from a distance of a couple of millimeters did not aid communication. At times we sent each other texts, sometimes semaphore. The management’s spy cameras must have seen us, for the volume went down a little and they put on some modern jive dance music. Ah well, no one is all evil, I guess. But it was still utterly impossibly loud.
Backsheep and I were joined by Andrew of ref preview fame, and Stefan, another season ticket holder. Stefan is the one of us who is not English and I was, I have to say, utterly embarrassed by the sort of place we’d arranged to meet him. This is, sadly, Wembley Park, and it is disgraceful.
Even the “99”s from the ice cream van outside were horribly over priced, but I think by then we had succumbed like the beaten down workers of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and we trudged to Wembley, to be greeted by… unmitigating gross incompetence and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis on a digital scale.
The Metropolis style gates designated for Stefan and I had vast crowds milling around – too many people to turn into queues in the concourse space allowed. Maybe when they built the place they didn’t know that you might get 80,000 turn up for a match. Pesky business this planning.
So we joined the throng, and after half an hour or so approached a gate. It was an electronic device as at Stadium Wenger, but here, the system doesn’t work. People were standing pushing their digital tickets into the digital slot machines but mechanical opening of the turnstile was there none. We did finally get through but having done so looked back to see turnstile operatives just standing there on the inside fear and loathing in their eyes as they looked at supporters outside shouting that their tickets would not let them in. Those within looked out, those without looked in. The communication level was due south of zero.
Inside… there were as feared the banks and rows of empty seats which even allowing for the first fifteen minutes after kick off (during which time the crowds outside must have quelled, and entry been gained) showed that no, they hadn’t sold out.
At each end of the ground their are replay screens – but one of those was in direct sunlight, and even with my newly repaired eyes, was largely invisible. No one at the planning stage ever thought of the sun, probably because in this world of despair, there is no sun.
Apparently there are 39 steps to go up to the Royal Box for the Cup winner each season – it confirmed my thought that the whole place, if not imagined by Laing, was sketched out on an envelope by Alfred Hitchcock on a bad day.
Leaving is far worse than arriving. Stadium Wenger takes 60,000 to Wembley’s 90,000, which suggests that you need around Wembley 50% larger than the one around the Emirates, to allow us to get out. Blacksheep and I leave the home ground after the match and are onto the road within minute or so. Here because instead of building concourse areas 50% larger than at Stadium W they have built them smaller, with fewer exits there is no hope. You leave and are in a crowd that hardly moves.
The helicopters circle menacingly overhead, men and women stand in front of the crowd with huge signs saying “Stop” (and occasionally “go”) and behind them the serried ranks of unsmiling coppers. It can take 90 minutes to walk a few hundred yards.
To have built this appalling stadium the FA must have hated and feared us with a vision that defies words; I mean really feared and really detested us. Treat animals like this and government inspectors would be down on you like a ton of bricks.
The only thing that really works is the Underground. Trains to Stanmore were every three or four minutes, the Oyster system lets everyone flow through, the car was still in the car park, the M1 just three minutes away.
One day, in a magical land, far from here, I will find a place where there is a Football Association that sees the people who turn up at games as regular people following their hobby and paying the wages of those employed to run football.
But for now, it is fear and loathing. You can see it written all over their concrete.
19 April 1972: Arsenal 2 Stoke 1. FA Cup semifinal replay. George and Radford scored and took Arsenal to successive cup finals for the first time ever.
19 April 2006: Arsenal v Villareal, Champions League semi. Toure scored the last Highbury goal under floodlights while a squirrel on the pitch led to comments about the squirrel having more Champions League experience than Tottenham.