Saturday night, I witnessed a right shambolic rabble at Wembley – disinterested, easily distracted & disappeared when they were most needed. Not the team (necessarily) but actually England ‘supporters’ - for want of a better word - showing just why the national stadium, built as a shrine to English football, is fast becoming just another place to buy a ticket for in Leicester Square if you want to lord it in hospitality with an important international qualification match as a mere sideshow.
We’re only 2 weeks on from Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho bemoaning the lack of atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, comments which prompted debate on talkSPORT about so-called ‘football tourists’ who travel over to the UK, spend 4-figure sums on match ticket deals to top Premier League grounds (mostly, it seems, in London) and spend most of the ensuing 90 minutes taking selfies without a great deal of interest in the action unfolding in front of them. Well, it seems the problem extends beyond the domestic front.
When Stan Collymore and I got to Wembley mid-afternoon on Saturday prior to the England v Slovenia game, we set our equipment up in talkSPORT’s own dedicated commentary box that sits on the halfway line at the top of the lower tier, directly behind the 2 dugouts. It’s a perfect position to observe the game – indeed Wembley boast that every seat in the house affords a quality perspective on the action – but it’s also a perfect place to see the worst excesses of corporate hospitality that means the place will never ever be the ‘cauldron of hate’ that Roy Hodgson expects Celtic Park to be on Tuesday.
Just over 82,000 were there, but as the game began, 5 gents directly in front of our commentary position, all clearly under the influence of too much Dom Perignon already, were busy taking pics, standing up, sitting down & generally horsing around, utterly oblivious to the game in front of them. Worse still, when they looked round and saw Stan next to me in our commentary box, they showed even less interest in England/Slovenia and merely stood up all the more with their backs to the action to try and take pics of Stan, blocking our view in turn.
Stan asked them to sit down and the V’s were immediately flicked in our direction – we called over a steward to ask the gents to sit down and calm down. Eventually, their interest in us waned – not that their interest in the game increased any - and they sloped off back into the warm bosom of the corporate lounges a good 10 minutes before half time.
A complaint often levelled at Wembley is that those seats directly behind the dugouts take an eternity to be re-filled by ‘fans’ after the 2nd half starts. Well, sometimes they aren’t filled at all, as these 5 gents who’d been so absorbed in their own self-importance during the first 45 didn’t reappear at all in the 2nd half, preferring to remain close friends with their mates Pinot Grigot and Jacob’s Creek than provide partisan support for an England side that needed encouragement.
Other European nations must look at an attendance such as 82,000 at Wembley with envious eyes. It’s great revenue, without question, but with numpties like those in front of Stan & I on Saturday, you simply cannot generate an atmosphere that a crowd like that frankly should. The whole feel was somewhat soporific, muted and almost apologetic for Wayne Rooney’s 100th appearance wearing the 3 Lions.
Compare that with the white-hot atmosphere Rooney encountered when he made his first start for his country in 2003 up at the Stadium Of Light, Sunderland against Turkey. Rooney responded from moment one that night, terrorising the Turkish defence with his runs from deep, egged on by a totally committed sell out crowd of over 40,000 that would have easily beaten Saturday’s attendance using Hughie Green’s old ‘Clapometer ‘from Opportunity Knocks.
With the NFL moving inexorably towards a London franchise, and an increasing use of Wembley as an American Football venue in the Autumn months up until Christmas, maybe now we should consider taking England internationals from August through to November back around the country, as we did in the years that the national stadium was demolished and rebuilt at an exorbitant cost to the FA.
It’s clear from the heavily pock-marked pitch we saw at the weekend that it is simply not possible to maintain a slick playing surface for Association Football whilst American Football is also on the agenda. If London does - as seems somehow inevitable - take an NFL franchise, that would mean a minimum of 8 games in a regular season. You’d also have the potential for post-season playoffs into the New Year (you wonder whether the Superbowl may even make its way over the pond one day) that could take NFL fixtures into double figures at Wembley.
There is simply no way that Wembley’s groundstaff could be expected to continuously turn the pitch around between codes and provide a playing surface that satisfies everyone. You could still clearly see the yardage markers on the pitch on Saturday, fully 7 days on from the 3rd NFL game played there this season. It looks embarrassing that our national side play on a surface that shows evidence of America’s national sport wherever you look.
Now, once you get into the March/June internationals that England could be scheduled to play at Wembley, such concerns are long gone with the NFL season finished, so the only concern then is how the pitch recovers from the rock concerts that take place in summer months – Foo Fighters have just announced 2 successive dates at Wembley Stadium for late June 2015, for example.
So, whilst the FA can happily recoup the revenue from the full stadia and the ‘take me out to the ball game’ atmosphere that NFL games clearly create at Wembley, surely they can consider not over-using the place and instead utilise Old Trafford, Anfield, Villa Park, St James’ Park et al for Autumn friendlies and qualifiers. There’s no doubt that such top-flight venues were a terrific success when hosting England matches in the early 2000’s. Let’s do it again – that way, the FA not only get revenue from the NFL, but also get the goodwill of England fans back onside. Plus, Roy Hodgson will no longer have to field questions about the questionable state of the pitch which so clearly irked him in the run up to the Slovenia game.
Mind you, I’d take it further – with 8 sell out NFL crowds that a London franchise would provide, is there really a financial need to keep the FA Cup semi finals at Wembley anymore? No one really likes the use of the stadium for those games do they? The incentive should always be that Wembley is at the end of the FA Cup journey, not one stage prior to it as well. We should return to the idea of a stadium for semi-finals that suits both teams geographically, and with so many Premier League stadia well in excess of 50,000 capacity, then size is not an issue.
Of course, some will complain that you’re preventing fans from getting to see a semi-final by holding them away from Wembley – well, we’ve seen enough empty seats there in recent Wembley semis to tell me that demand doesn’t necessitate a 90,000 seater venue to play such games in. Save it for the final – and then you can only hope that the fans who travel to North London in the hope of a major trophy make the atmosphere what it should be, and get a bigger proportion tickets that prevent the likes of the idiots that Stan & I witnessed right in front of us on Saturday getting in to show about as much interest in a game of football as I have in X Factor.