Wembley Stadium. The spiritual home of English football in both its old and new incarnations. When the old Wembley, with its famous twin towers, was due for a (long overdue) refurbishment, many argued that it was time to shift the country’s showpiece sports facility elsewhere. But sentiment overrules practicality, and slogans about how footballers grow up dreaming of playing at Wembley, rather than Milton Keynes, won the day.
There’s still a strong argument that a traffic-choked corner of a run-down North London borough isn’t the best place for an England team to play every single game. There’s no shortage of top-class, high-capacity stadiums around the country, and the excitement generated by England games in the regions during the enforced exile suggests that fans respond warmly to seeing the stars come to them, if only for a half-paced friendly against a pre-hipster Belgium.
But there’s also something to be said for that Wembley legend. Since it opened in 1923, it has been at the heart of England’s sporting life. Better still, the decision to stage FA Amateur Cup, FA Trophy and FA Vase finals there means that the dream is open to a greater range of players – and fans – than you might expect. Try telling the players of Bedlington Terriers and Tiverton Town that their FA Vase final in 1999 would have been better at Villa Park. Try telling Spennymoor Town or Tunbridge Wells that Manchester was a better bet for their game in 2013.
Visiting Wembley for these games is a very different experience. From buying a ticket on the door – try doing that for the FA Cup final – to seeing the vast arena half-empty, it’s not exactly as seen on TV. But there’s also a unique sense of excitement. When little Tow Law Town played in the 1998 Vase final, losing 1-0 to Tiverton, the travelling support from the North East was more than double the 2,000 or so population of that wind-blasted Pennine ridge. Tiverton were back the following year, beating Tow Law’s Northern League rivals Bedlington Terriers by the same 1-0 scoreline and prompting a gushing, if somewhat patronising, column from local MP and future Minister of State Angela Browning in her column in the local Mid-Devon Gazette the following month. For Tivvy fans those back-to-back wins were by far the biggest thing that had ever happened in that sleepy country town.
For the North-East, too, Wembley has its allure. Every year, as Newcastle United limp to defeat in the early stages of the FA Cup, there’s a reflexive look back to some grainy footage of Jackie Milburn or the Robledo brothers. In Sunderland it’s all about Ian Porterfield and Jimmy Montgomery, with a side order of the crazy play-off final of 1998. And among the lower leagues there’s a proud tradition. From dominating the FA Amateur Cup, with Bishop Auckland’s unmatched 18 finals and 10 victories, to Whitley Bay’s hat-trick of wins in recent years, a Vase trip to London is fast becoming a regular day out. Spennymoor Town’s win over Tunbridge Wells was the fifth consecutive victory for a Northern League team. Since Whitley’s first success in 2009, the Northern League has been represented in every final. Finally it seems that the old days of FA Amateur Cup glory, abruptly ended when the competition was mothballed in the early 1970s, are back again.
So for many football fans there remains something special about Wembley, while they think of the Twin Towers of old or the modern-day arch. Maybe the problem with England games has less to do with the venue and more to do with the team …
Wembley Stadium, London, England
FA Vase Final, 16 May 1999
Tiverton Town 1 (Rogers, 89) Bedlington Terriers 0
Wembley Stadium, London, England
FA Vase Final, 4 May 2013
Spennymoor Town 2 (Cogden 18, Graydon 80) Tunbridge Wells 1 (Stanford 78)