Football: Wemba-ley? Wembley!

By London_Duncan Last edited 118 months ago
Football: Wemba-ley? Wembley!

Picture of the old Wembley as recreated at Legoland, Windsor, via Draco2008's Flickr stream.

Contributor Chris Roberts explores how our national stadium came to attract its special brand of immortality,

Wembley - a clearing in the woods named after a man called Wemba and once the proposed site of London’s equivalent of the Eiffel Tower (known as Watkin's folly). Today it is best known as the spiritual home of English football and is once again the venue for the final of the World’s oldest knock-out competition, the Football Association Cup, this afternoon being contested between Chelsea and Everton.

It wasn’t always this way as Wembley, built for 1924's Empire Exhibition, was never the front runner to be the FA’s chosen neutral venue. Chelsea's own Stamford Bridge had been used for the first three post World War I finals, Crystal Palace was a regular host pre-war, as was The Oval, and another potential rival in the capital was White City, or The Great Stadium, which was used in both the 1908 Olympics (though the football was actually played on Shepherd's Bush Green) and the 1966 World Cup (because Wembley's owners refused to cancel some greyhound racing).

Wembley's triumph owes a good deal to the peculiar tale of its first FA Cup final in 1923, the White Horse final. The stadium was finished only four days before and the curious, over-capacity crowd of probably more than 200,000 spilled all over the pitch. To the rescue came a hero policeman on a white charger called Billie. The horse led the way in gently easing the masses back beyond the touchlines so the game could take place. Aside from the connotations this has with knights and St George and other heroes on white chargers, it taps straight into the ancient British cult of the white horse whose chalk effigy adorns the hillside at Uffington, Oxfordshire.

In the 1950s another great cup final (the Matthews one) settled Wembley's position - that and the media. In a religious sense, Wembley is a TV evangelist success story. In the distant days of limited football on television, it was likely to be the only ground that most football fans saw, other than their own, and in comparison to virtually all other stadia in the country it shone out. So alongside the football itself came the daft banners, jokes and eulogies to the great stadium and the games played there. It became a place of pilgrimage, a Mecca, which finally delivered its own miracle when England won the 1966 World Cup there.

Today's is the third final in the rebuilt Wembley which has a slightly larger capacity than the original in its ultimate all seater guise. The new stadium, built for just under £800 million and taking four years to complete does boast much better sight lines, acoustics and catering than the previous, and the transport around the stadium has improved hugely. The pitch however, has often left something to be desired and some have complained about a blanding effect from the corporate seats in the middle tier - necessary to aid the venue's turnover - and the heavy use of the stadium for smaller matches, potentially undermining its mythology.

Not that supporters of Everton or Chelsea will be worrying about that. For both teams the name of Wembley carries great symbolism and especially so for Chelsea. Images of 1970's drawn FA Cup final with Leeds eulogise Chopper Harris and Peter Osgood and their team-mates, while 1997's victory over Middlesbrough marks the beginning of them being taken seriously as a modern top club. They also won the last final at the original Wembley and the first at the new one, while the 5-4 victory over Manchester City in the 1986 Full Members Cup, brainchild of former chairman Ken Bates, is still rated as one of Wembley's most exhilirating football occasions. Certainly their fans would settle for a victory over a north western side in the same manner today.

Last Updated 30 May 2009