If you sleep under a Cross of St George duvet, you probably had a restless night on Friday when news of Wembley’s fate emerged. Last night the nightmare will have properly taken shape but this Scot, anxious about the future of Hampden, isn’t gloating. Or at least not too much. The dread scenario for English football goes like this: Shahid Khan doesn’t just buy the spiritual home, he ships it to America where he owns the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sound familiar? Read this and greet, Ingurlanders: it’s 50 years almost to the day that London Bridge was flogged, making the same journey.
Icon is a word thrown around incessantly. Once, while waiting to interview Michael Caine, I was passed between three different PR girls, each one closer to the movie star than the last, each inviting me to sit on progressively plumper cushions, but all of them trilling the same message: Caine was iconic.
Now, it’s a stretch to describe Wembley as iconic when you’re watching on TV as a game resumes after half-time and, ten minutes later, the laziest, fattest corporate swillers still haven’t returned to their seats. If there’s a more disillusioning sight engendered by the middleclass-isation of the sport in the era of what The Fast Show dubbed Roger Nouveau Football Fan, then I haven’t yet had the misfortune to glimpse it.
But Wembley is still Wembley, or as Scots know it, Wembulee. Though it’s been knocked down and rebuilt, it remains on the sacred land where Bobby Moore hoisted the Jules Rimet trophy. The 1966 hero is now immortalised in bronze, but as one headline – dreadline – put it on Friday: “Horrid vision of golden jaguar next to Moore’s statue must be avoided.”
There’s no suggestion at all that Khan will uproot the stadium and float it across the Atlantic to a new locus in a Ye Olde Englande theme park just as happened to London Bridge. In the bridge’s case there are Landseer lions, silver griffins, a red phonebox and an archetypal pub which, archetypally, has hit hard times and closed.
Still, it’s easy to imagine the imagery which might surround a Wembley plonked somewhere completely alien, such as the bridge’s western Arizona. The playing surface would have to be the cabbage patch of the 1970 FA Cup final which players in their slipper-boots with their heavily-insured limbs would baulk at now but which couldn’t halt Eddie Gray’s beautiful ballet. Glance at the touchlines of the relocated Wembley and you might be able to spot waxwork likenesses of Bill Shankly in a porkpie hat and Tommy Docherty in a trophy-lid titfer. Goal frames? Maybe the crossbars should have been scaled, sat upon and split in half by fans who’d paid subs of a few bob a week to be members of the Wembley Club in howffs right across Scotland. But perhaps there shouldn’t be posts. As Stewart Kennedy can testify and Health & Safety could rule, you can bang into them and hurt yourself.
I should stress this is merely mischief on my part: Wembley isn’t going anywhere. Khan, pictured, a Pakistani-American tycoon who’s amassed an estimated £5.2 billion fortune from car parts, would instead bring his Jaguars to it. The American football team play their matches in the autumn which would force the Three Lions on to the road.
But, while it seems our English cousins have just commenced the same angsty debate we’re still having about our own national stadium, there’s one fundamental difference: money.
Khan’s Wembley deal is worth £900 million; we don’t know how we’re going to pay for even a modest re-configuring of Hampden. Assuming Hampden stays where it is and remains the cathedral of the Scottish game, former national team manager Craig Brown has joined the discussion by proposing the two ends are squared off to form a box-style stadium.
He said he was “surprised and disappointed” Hampden’s future was still in the balance when it was the spiritual home. “It needs a wee bit of revamping if we can afford it,” he added. But can we? Bringing in the ends is likely to cost £100m. That is pie crumbs as far as England’s FA are concerned, though that sum and a bit more is public money still owed for Wembley’s rebuilding and would have to come out of the £900m. The bulk of this windfall should go into grassroots football.
There isn’t much love for Hampden or Wembley as they are now. Traditionalists and nostalgists pine for the great bowl in the case of the latter with its record crowds, vertiginous vantage-points and all that history. The re-build has been a minor disaster but was very much of its time when architects got things hopelessly wrong. Really, there’s no excuse for Wembley failing to thrill or even make Ingurlanders feel at home, as it only opened in 2007, after Kevin Keegan’s resignation in the cludgies had been the Twin Towers’ final act. The demolition of the Towers. The removal of the long walk – inspiring and intimidating in turn – from the tunnel in the corner. The removal of the 39 steps to the Royal Box. The lack of atmosphere, the low raking, the oppressive corporateness – these are just some of the grumbles which for a stadium of such recent construction, and such stature, simply shouldn’t exist.
Khan’s takeover – and private ownership of Wembley – will probably bring more. Maybe there will be a hike in ticket prices. Maybe some branding or naming rights which are difficult to stomach. But think of all that loot if it’s spent in the right way and new state-of-the-art pitches and facilities produce the homegrown talent England have craved since ’66 – a Harry Kane who concentrates on what he does best which is not corner kicks, a Dele Alli who concentrates on what he does best and doesn’t lose his nut, a Jack Wilshere who doesn’t get injured for 15 months after tripping over one of his own fag butts.
Ingurlanders may not love Wembley but it’s not going anywhere. I half-wish it was, so we could find all the Saltires, Lions Rampants and dark blue shirts buried by Scottish workies in the foundations during the rebuild. No sign yet of the curse these were supposed to inflict on England, who’re still qualifying for major tournaments but we live in hope.