Goodbye 39 steps, hello 39 games

February 13, 2008

With football saturating every section of the newspapers last week (even the women’s pages were asking whether Cheryl should take him back), I finally went to the new Wembley. Not to watch a meaningless and disinteresting friendly against a team ranked 44 in the world, but for a tour of the most expensive stadium ever built (not something that was mentioned during my visit), and the largest at which every seat is under cover (mentioned several times).

On an eventless Saturday more than 1,000 people take the 90 minute tour – which at £15 per adult (plus booking fee) must help pay back some of the £798 million that the new venue cost.

“..Ucking hell”, I blurted out to the woman at the reception desk when she told me the first of these facts. “That’s incredible.”

She looked shocked. Ok, so it was probably inappropriate to curse, but I was having a swear day, and this was a football stadium. Swearing is permissible.

That, however, is the thing about the new Wembley. Proud of containing more toilets than anywhere else in the world (2,618 – useful when they can hold a drinks reception in one of the restaurants for up to 3,250 people), it simply doesn’t feel like a football stadium. Already the new venue has seen rugby league, nfl, rally driving, Muse, Metallica and Michael, as well as odd concerts for Earth and Diana.

All of which makes perfect sense, especially as the stadium is only likely to host a dozen football matches in the next six months, the bulk of them squashed together in May. It is a hugely impressive venue, but getting to your seats by escalator just isn’t football – and neither is expecting someone who has just lost the most important game of their life to walk up 107 steps to pick up a losers medal (no surprise that West Brom didn’t bother after their 2007 play-off defeat).

On heading back to Wembley Park underground station, I was struck by the misery of Wembley Way and its environs. Finally it felt like football. The immense statue of Bobby Moore watches over the ‘Moore Spice (1966)’ restaurant, where it’s just £6.45 for a Chicken Vindaloo. Perhaps the tour should end here.


I doubt it is the removal of the 39 steps to the Royal Box which gave the Premier League the idea to play one additional game per season overseas, but their announcement was just as mysterious as the Hitchcock film. The 39th game, as it has since been termed, is an idea so bad that it must surely have been thought up in an attempt to hoodwink the public into accepting a compromise.

For teams in any league not to play the same opposition the same number of times is clearly unjust and frankly ludicrous (even playing disproportionate home and away fixtures undermines the validity of a league – Six Nations rugby take note). What odds that, due to apparent ‘fan pressure’, the 39th game goes the way of the 39 steps, but a decision is taken to play a couple of the 38 games abroad each season? There is some logic to the idea. After all, few, if any, clubs have an English manager, English owners and a first choice team which is mainly English. So why play in England?