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seany t

May 11, 2006
As a stadium, I still feel entirely undecided about Wembley.

It's most impressive outside, lit up at night - a glowing beacon calling sports fans to its central hub. And it's a very slick operation, delivering colossal volumes of food and drink at breakneck speed, being very sensibly laid out and with a tube exit strategy that is remarkably quick given the 80,000 people using one mere station. But it lacks charm throughout; soulless signs direct you around the glorified industrial estate innards and the arena itself, whilst breathtaking in scale and scope, feels detached and otherworldly compared to the far-off dots circumnavigating that once 'hallowed turf'. The sound is hardly deafening - more abstract and as if it's being filtered through water from lands afar - with chants from the crowd reaching the opposite side a fair few seconds after instigation.

But glory will ultimately come to this excessive shell, and great Cup Final's will grace it - of that there can be no doubt given the life it has ahead of it. What I fear will not ever be addressed, is the social divide cutting through the very centre of the stadium.

For at the centre of Wembley's design, is a middle tier given over to corporate hospitality. And it's in this Club Wembley tier that I sat last night thanks to a client of ours, which - despite the negativity of this post - I was genuinely very pleased about, even if I did feel like I had little right to be there. And whilst I understand that it's a necessary evil in the modern game to have these exclusive areas, it really does create an 'us and them' mentality in this new(ish) arena.

Having sat in both sections now, the fans have got it good and bad. They get to be right next to the pitch, there's a far greater atmosphere amongst the throng though they have a far longer wait for refreshments and get packed in like sheep.

But the Club Wembley area is a whole other affair. You arrive at the equivalent of an airport, get shown past a gloriously decadent restaurant as if to say "For a mere £1000 more YOU could be eating in there with Mr Andrew Lloyd Webber" and are in the midst of a Westfield Shopping Centre wannabe within a minute or so. Stunning looking 'hostesses' a la the recent Virgin ads are around for support / perving, there is a carvery in full swing and the champagne & oyster bar is overflowing with trade. A few people brave the pie and a pint offer with me and my work colleagues or frequent the betting booths, but there seems little interest in anything resembling the traditional football pre-match buildup.

It's not my scene personally, but each to their own. Football has changed, and I guess the fans must do so with it. What really bothered me about this premiumisation of the football experience was the sense of the evening being so 'throwaway' to the assembled guests. Some of the padded seats remained empty until the 5th minute or so of the game. Many were deserted 5 minutes or so prior to half time and remained unoccupied for the second half. With 15 to go, there was a mass exodus. Perhaps most damningly, a fair amount remained empty all match.

Most of the corporate boxes lining this middle tier remained closed all match. Indeed the ITV commentary team, positioned right behind our seats, failed to make an appearance from their booth barring Teddy Sheringham. And looking around, I longed to be downstairs with the band and passionate fans.

I had a 'supporter' whinge at me for standing up to applaud Crouch off. I got several dismayed looks from neighbouring visitors to the section for joining in with the singing and clapping. I saw many elder men on Blackberries facing away from the pitch and their bored looking son, 35 years or so their younger. Several hardcore fans tried to get an atmosphere going, and were quickly glared at. Even looking around was telling; when the first goal went in, the bottom and top tiers erupted in a sea of red and white. Our middle stand rose to its feet briefly in a polite and somewhat stilted manner and adjusted their black suit jackets and overcoats.

Perhaps worst of all, was the decision to put the super exclusive seats right next to the tunnel, meaning that the very first images of both halves always show a huge, empty area from where guests are still occupying the bar. A quarter or so of these remained in this state for the entire game.

It didn't help admittedly that the game was poor. Or that Ukraine aren't the most flamboyant opponents and were trying to frustrate and stall the English side. But the sense of divide seemed damning, with the fans packed into the 'cheap seats' far, far away. Some people had come here for the football. Most had come here for a night out.

The team left the field largely without applauding the fans, seemingly scared by this stadium which many managers to date have said intimidates them. My tier was predictably empty by this point. But I didn't blame the players for their swift exit. When you play for your club and have 40,000 passionate fans willing you on, you play your best. When you get trotted out at a giant arena for the whimsy of the middle class with the real football fans largely watching the match down the pub, I guess it's hard to really care...

Wembley will likely host great games. Whether it ever has a truly great atmosphere to rank alongside these forthcoming matches remains to be seen.