Wembley Stadium, London
Community Open Day
Saturday March 17th, 2007, 1pm
By Colin Peel
At short notice a pair of tickets for the "Community Day" on 17 March came up, a golden opportunity to be one of the first people in the country to see our new National Stadium. Setting out from Ealing with my friend's 8-year-old Brentford-supporting son, we went up on the bus, which dropped us off right by the new "White Horse Bridge" at Wembley Stadium BR. Sat on the top deck, we had numerous glimpses of the stadium on the way, the best being from Hangar Lane tube.
First task was to walk the circumference of the stadium. This is on a raised level and fairly wide, already an improvement on the slopes, angles and grass banks of the old place. It is also quite bare, with just a few discreet signs, air exchange units and of course the concrete anchor points for the Arch. You can also see how the exterior, with its differing hues of grey and blue, has been kept deliberately plain; the idea is that "the fans will bring the colour", although if Newcastle were to play Notts County here, it would be an oddly monochromatic scene.
Some buildings around the stadium are still being demolished, which lent a 'half-finished' feel to the area, and as some press commentators have noted, the bland light industrial units, office blocks and cheap hotels that are the stadium's neighbours do not present Wembley in the best light.
Fortunately, the Arch lifts the stadium in both real and metaphorical senses; as you approach from Olympic Way it frames the stadium with perfect symmetry and really does act as a lure. However, the sun is directly behind it so it's quite tricky to photograph.
We still had half an hour to the scheduled opening, so we mooched down Olympic Way (not much changed, it will surely still be strewn with beer cans, food containers and horse manure come Cup Final Day) and did an interview with Sky News. I gave them a soundbite about this being "a lasting investment in our sporting infrastructure and well worth the wait" and they showed it!
Anticipation mounted as we joined the queue at the turnstiles (nicely conventional, no chip-reading electronic nonsense) but at 11 o'clock the letdown was palpable as some unspecified technical problem delayed entry for fifteen minutes. Once inside, a first look at the lower concourse, also with a deliberately muted colour scheme but with a very spacious feel. Like the old stadium, you can walk all the way round within the concourse, although there are segregation points which can be used. Another vast improvement is that spectators on the upper tiers have separate turnstiles (leading to escalators, can you believe it?!?), avoiding the excessive overcrowding that was a feature in the past. Wembley's function as a concert venue means that women are just was well provided for in the toilet stakes as men. The toilets are pretty much as you would expect apart from the hand-dryers, which make a complete racket.
There are, apparently, over fifty bars and 74 food kiosks, but this didn't prevent the build-up of some hefty queues. Our tickets included a voucher for a complimentary drink, which meant that most of the estimated 30,000 in attendance tried out the service. Much has been made of the prices but what can you expect for a prime venue in London with enormous debts to service? You are, after all, not going there for a pie or a hotdog. The bars are 'themed' after famous Wembley events, but you can tell they were struggling when they named one "Graf Zeppelin hovers over Wembley".
33 'merchandise and programme kiosks' will take more of your loose change, and today a commemorative 64-page brochure was on sale to mark the opening. Costing £3, this was actually good value for an informative, glossy publication containing some stunning pictures. The main 'Stadium Store' will not open until May.
Walking into the arena was a magic moment, as my nominated seat was in line with the penalty spot and the cavernous stadium overwhelms your senses. I hope my pictures do it justice, because you really cannot find fault. Every seat is wide, with decent legroom and an unobstructed view. Wembley manages the difficult trick of seeming huge yet intimate at the same time, and with each tier being a continuous bowl it feels unified. I have no doubt that the atmosphere will compare with any stadium anywhere, and, just like the old Wembley, become the pinnacle for everyone involved in the game.
Out on the pitch, some celebrities, ex-pros and sponsors hacked away (except Graeme Le Saux, who looks like he could still do a job for England), but since the PA had a terrible echo and was hard to hear I didn't know half the players. One feature brought over from old Wembley is the pitch access prevention system of horizontal trip wires set into metal frames; I was hoping that these were going to be one of the items tested but no-one was up for the challenge. I noted that my seat on row 21 was actually on metal terracing, which can be removed to allow for stage rigging when concerts are being staged.
It quickly became apparent that with the stadium never more than one-third full you could move around with ease, so I did just that, taking in the view from various vantage points. This included an extensive walk around the upper tier, where the views are just magnificent, but if I was paying for a seat, I think I'd go for one towards the back of the lower tier, which is close to the pitch but still offering a fine view.
Some other points of note: large (but not very clear) video screens at each end of the stadium, the need for floodlights when the weather was dull, and friendly stewards, though it might be a different matter when two sets of tanked-up fans are in the ground. I don't recall seeing any television screens in the concourses, and there were no bins, but I don't know if this is a permanent arrangement. The upper concourses are glazed to the exterior, offering panoramic vistas as far as Central London and beyond. In some ways, the stadium is behind the times - you can't take the pitch out and you can't fully close the roof - but for the ordinary supporter it is every bit as good as you could want.
Coming away from the stadium there were some road closures in effect, meaning that buses were diverted. I found it annoying and ironic that Wembley now calls itself a "public transport destination" but we ended up walking about a mile to pick up the bus. I have travelled widely in England and I unhesitatingly nominate Wembley High Road as one of my Least Favourite Places; if they can do for this congested dump of a street what they did for the stadium I would be wholeheartedly in support.
So although the gripes about transport will persist, the new Wembley Stadium will take its place amongst the cathedrals of global sport, but this time it will have earnt it. The delays, the huge cost, the financial losses and the lawsuits will all be forgotten once the Cup Final arrives and we finally have a venue to match the events.
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