Saturday, 18 April 2009

Another Wembley let-down

I'm not talking about bombastic Chelsea sneaking it over cultured Arsenal, either. I'm thinking of the lumpy pitch and the empty corporate seats. As Arsene Wenger observed, the turf was in a gruesome state even before the FA Cup semi-final began. Why semis should be played at the national stadium anyway (other than to grub some more money), I've no idea. But the fact that this overrated, over-hyped, overpriced, over-budget gleaming barn of a structure can't even provide a decent playing surface tells you all you need to know about post-Thatcher England's inability to do anything more competent than line the pockets of private interest groups when it comes to undertaking major projects. I can't imagine the FA World Cup bid will be aided by today's show, either.

When I first went to the 'New Wembley' two years ago, it was the first competitive professional game there - Exeter City versus Morcambe in the Conference play-off final. The Grecians got the opening goal, lost 2-1 and then came back in May 2008 to win promotion to Football League Two by beating Cambridge United. Its conceivable that they might be back in '09, but the hope is for one of the three automatic spots to go into League One this time.

Anyway, first time round the pitch was poor, but that was put down to insufficient time for the grass to 'bed in' and to successive waves of re-planting. Since then there have been repeated problems and multiple relayings. It turns out that the micro-climate created by the stadium's design, its lack of sun and its permanent shadows are the enduring problems. The BBC tried to interview the head ground keeper about the situation this morning, but he had been instructed not to speak to the media. Another fine mess.

As if that wasn't enough, when the second half of today's high-profile match got under way, the corporate area which sits smack in the main camera's eye-line was a sea of red plastic, being two-thirds empty. Twenty minutes later there were still massive gaps. Presumably the fat cats were too busy quaffing champagne, sorting out their next bonuses and celebrity networking to actually watch the football that others would have given their right arm to grab a seat for. The argument is that the big bucks hospitality keeps prices down for the ordinary punters. But the tickets are hardly cheap and the catering is of the usual rip-off variety.

The actual stadium is a splendid edifice, it has to be said. But the atmosphere is anodyne compared to some of the other big grounds. Give me Hampden Park any day.

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