This summer’s London Olympics has reminded me of my family’s history with Wembley Stadium, which began when my dad attended the first FA Cup Final held at Wembley in 1923. I remember my Dad (born 1903) talking about ‘Watkin’s folly’, which was the tower built by the railway director at the end of the 19th century on the same spot. This was meant to be London’s answer to the Eiffel Tower and when the first stage was completed it was opened to the public with the idea that the money raised would pay for the remaining structure. Not enough people came, despite the advantage of a local train station and the iron base stood idle for some years until demolished (I think in 1907). John Betjeman famously talked about the ‘folly’ in his legendary film, Metroland. (See the 12th minute for his reference to Wembley). There was a legend that a train used in the destruction of the tower (or possibly the construction of the Stadium) had been buried on the site. However, the Australians who built the new Wembley from 2000 sadly didn’t report of any such discovery.
My dad also attended, with my brother Ken, the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 1948 and the famous England v Hungary match in November 1953. Ken remembers the crowd’s disbelief as the Hungarians performed tricks with the match ball before kick-off, plus the fact they actually passed the ball backwards when in the England half (unheard of at that time and previously thought akin to retreat). Although his favourite memory is when in the second half and with the Hungarians in total control, Billy Wright lumped the ball straight up in the air and my Dad – exasperated – thundered ‘Haven’t they learnt anything from the first half!’
I started going to Wembley in the late 1970s to support England, although one of my earliest moments of note there came at The Who, AC/DC, Stranglers and Nils Lofgren concert in 1979. This was such a rough and ready affair, I thought they would never hold live music events there again. Especially as most of the crowd were hammered on cheap cider (the only drink available) and fights regularly broke out from late afternoon.
How wrong I had been. Live Aid on 13 July 1985 was probably the best crowd atmosphere I have ever experienced. Buying face value tickets on Wembley Way (£25 each, with £20 going to the cause), it was hard to believe that only the week before my girlfriend at the time, Liz Fitzgerald, and I couldn’t gain entry to Bruce Springsteen’s gig, but somehow there we were at half eleven – at the back on the inside – as Status Quo got the throng bouncing with Rockin’ all over the world! What a day.
Supporting England live became a regular highlight for me during the follow years. Although there have been as many lows and highs. I particularly recall standing alone in a section at the old tunnel end while Terry Venables’ line-up beat Greece 5-0 as a warm-up match for the Greeks who had qualified for the World Cup in 1994. Where were all the supporters then who came out of the woodwork just two years later for the 1996 Euros? However, my wife-to-be Julie and I were present as we destroyed the Dutch 4-1 during the group stage that year.
With my long-standing England-going friend Peter Brown, I was present at the last major match at Wembley when we lost 0-1 to the Germans in the World Cup qualifier of October 2000. A Scholes foul and Seaman misjudging a long free-kick combined to see us defeated. However, despite England flourishing under new command and qualifying for the tournament, we were eliminated when the Brazilians benefited from another Scholes’ foul and Seaman misjudging another long free-kick in the quarter final! Didn’t we learn anything? I guess not.
I now take my son Ben to the new Wembley. We first visited for a Stadium tour in December 2011, when he stood alongside the FA Cup at the top of the steps – but the official photographer’s picture of this moment didn’t develop! We made up for this last month when Julie, Ben and I were there on 2nd June to see England beat Belgium 1-0 in the pre-tournament friendly with Danny Welbeck scoring right in front of us. A lovely afternoon in the sunshine.