I never went to the original Wembley. It sits as one of my greatest regrets of all time, but I do not want to make this a pessimistic posting. The closest I got, was planning a trip to see England play Saudi Arabia in a friendly back in late May 1998. I was going to organise a trip down with some of my college friends, but it just did not happen. In the end, I remember watching the match on Sky and then going online to have a major argument with an Arab in some chat room. For the final game at Wembley, I was at University, in Leicester, so not really in a position to make the pilgrimage down to North London.
Felt strange waking up this morning, knowing I would be heading back to the spiritual home of football, the national stadium, our national stadium. I got up just before 9am, and was out the door promptly at 10am. I did not want to leave it too late. I got to the station platform two, just in time to see the 10.13 service pull away from platform three. Never mind, the next train was only seven minutes, so I made my way over to platform three, only to discover the next train would not stop at Wembley Stadium. So I headed back down the subway to platform one and boarded the waiting train. The service would not depart until 10.31 but I knew it would be stopping at the right place. I plugged myself into my Zen and tried to relax. I was on my way. The carriage slowly began to fill and by the time we were at Northalt Park, there not even standing room. I put my mp3 player away at this point and just looked out of the window, waiting for the landmark to appear. It was a strange feeling. For five months I had gone past the construction site, twice a day. From time to time, I would look up and look forward to the day when I would eventually be allowed in. That was in 2004, some three years have passed and plenty of football has been played since then, along with all the talk, discussion, argument, opinion and money. I could see the Arch, it was partially lit and as the train began to slow, I felt funny. A mixture of excitement and apprehension. I got up off my seat and was surprised that most of the carriage did the same and headed off the train. Heading up the stairs, onto the new White Horse bridge. Then around the corner, I saw the stadium close up for the first time. There were thousands of people heading in the direction. I stopped by one of the street lights, coming out of the ground and got my camera out. It was time to get snapping and recording those all important memories.
As I went up the walkway, I noticed the queue for turnstile L was crazy. It was 11am, exactly, I had checked my watch the second I had got off the train. They had not yet opened, to let anyone in and the queue had worked itself around and was about 150 people deep (at least). I joined the back of the queue and waited. They had some Asian guys playing the dhols, which added a strange atmosphere to the setting. You would expect to hear the big drum banging along the score to The Great Escape but a desi vibe was different but nevertheless nice background entertainment. There was a big contingent of Asian families around. I mean the whole family, kids, grandparents and goldfish. This is understandable, consider that the tickets were mainly for Brent residents and only 30% had been issued to englandfans. On the BBC web site, it had said that they expected 60,000 football fans through the turnstiles, but it felt like there were much less outside waiting to get in. About 11.18am, we started to go in and the queue slowly started moving. I called Chris, I had text him on the way but he had not replied. Someone answer the phone but cancelled the call. Ten minutes later, he called me back. He was still half asleep and in bed. Oops. Half the day had gone and I explained that I was waiting to go back in but explained how impressive the stadium looked close up.
Not sure why but today went like clockwork, at 12pm I was through the turnstile. I was padded down and my bag checked before heading for the escalator. There are three which take you up to the upper tier. I was at block 536, which was just a few blocks down. I headed for my seat which was half the way down the tier. A couple were in my seat, they quickly realised my mistake and moved along. I was sitting next to a father with his son. They had come down all the way from Redditch this morning, which made my thirty minute train ride, feel completely insignificant. The celebrity match had just started but I was not really paying attention to the PA giving the names of the players on either side. I was too busy taking in the stadium, the structure, the television screens and the fact that it was now at 90,000 capacity. I am not in a position to compare with the original stadium, but in terms of world stadia, just the following phrase comes to mind.
After the first match, the local school kids came onto the pitch for a soccer skills session. After this, there was another match, this time featuring a Soccer AM team. Tim Lovejoy had mentioned this to Helen Chamberlain on the show earlier this morning, the brief glimpse I had caught. The Sky Sports television show beat the Geoff Thompson Charity XI team, coming back from 1-0 down to turn it around to 2-1. After this match, there was a break and I headed onto the concourse to get my free drink. I opted for tea, but they had run out of Wembley Stadium cups, so I had to live with a large Coca Cola cup instead. Never mind. I then decided to take a walk around the stadium and take some pictures on the way. Usually the division between each quadrant would be securely closed. There were steel gates in place but they were open, giving unrestricted access to the entire upper tier. I walked around in one full circle, taking photos and stopping to take everything in. I returned to my seat to watch the final few minutes of the final match and witness Soccer AM take the crown.
The true test will be next weekend, which I am really looking forward to. Oh, did I mention, the tickets arrived this morning. Sometimes I find it very hard to truly appreciate the fact that I am such a lucky man.