Wembley – I, too, am now sold

Pic courtesy of Enguerran Fouchet

If only I could turn on a sixpence this fast in real-life, I might have played at Wembley, never mind be writing about it.

I spat feathers when I learnt of our national stadium being up for sale last week, to the owner of an NFL team, no less. Some old scars were picked at as I heard the FA talk about what the windfall might mean for our national game. The same FA who assured us some 25 years ago what a blessing the Premier League would be for the England team.

And we all know how spot-on that prophecy was.

Even as Ben Ramanauskas attempted to defend the move in an article for CapX, I could feel my fires being stoked afresh. His opening gambits – the need for foreign investment and how this is just the kind of post-Brexit fillip we should welcome – suggested a man who, in Oscar Wilde’ famous words, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

But then Mr Ramanauskas began addressing football issues, and this, I feel, is his killer line…

“It has been claimed that the sale of Wembley could result in England no longer being able to play there. There is no evidence to support this, but it would not necessarily be a bad thing. The idea of having a national stadium is relatively unusual. Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Spain are countries which love football and have enjoyed great success.”

Possibly thinking faster than he typed, he omits the most important part of this point, but the gap is filled when you check off those four nations on Wikipedia’s ‘national stadiums’ page. None of them have one. (For all that Brazil and the Maracana seem synonymous, the venue is not a national stadium.)

And it hasn’t exactly crippled them come tourney time.

The author’s suggestion that England’s national team, should it ultimately become homeless, simply follow the German, Spanish and Italian model and tour the country’s great domestic stadia, reminded me of the last time it did so, when the new Wembley Stadium was being constructed. I seem to remember more than a few people saying how they rather enjoyed the experience. England came to the provinces and the novelty factor made it a genuine occasion, instead of just another Wednesday night in a drab  London suburb.

In the meantime, the FA gets a windfall to devote to tackling, once and for all, why England’s national team is the ugly sister of its national league. Gary Neville finds it “ridiculous” to suggest that the solution to this perennial problem is a one-off large capital investment, but surely that depends on how you spend it? Clairefontaine, anyone?

And while all this goes on, we get an NFL team in London, whose tourism managers now get to sell Americans on the prospect of a great city coupled with an NFL game while they’re here. For reasons stated in a previous post, I’ll reserve judgement on how successful this venture will ultimately be, but if the rest of the world can own our top-flight teams, surely we can at least try hosting one of theirs?

Martin Samuel is one of my heroes in this business, but there’s a stale whiff of the ’50s in his denunciation of the proposed sale. When they can be managing their own Serie A team to Champions League glory via a game console these days (and wait until the VR version arrives) I wonder how many teenagers still buy into the “holy grail” and “stuff of dreams” tropes. In a ‘show me the money’ era, I suspect they have eyes only for the stuff of success. And Wembley Stadium has not been it.

Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of reasons to have one’s heart in the mouth while this potential deal hovers in the ether. Choose your pitfall – the FA’s asking price to prove woefully undervalued; qualification for Euro ’20 to be overshadowed by a nationwide where’s-the-money-gone row; a double-booking scandal that sees England forced to ask if Hampden Park might be available.

Come to think of it, for all Ben Ramanauskas’ persuasion, I may just have isolated the one factor on which this whole idea truly founders.

The FA is involved.

Probably best we just leave things as they are.


Pies? Sutton woes take the biscuit for karma

Pic courtesy of Steven Snodgrass

Until about noon today, you may have shared my view that the worst legacy of last night’s FA Cup encounter between Sutton Utd and Arsenal was the visitors forgetting their pennant. Probably more absent-mindedness than ‘snub’ and quickly and grandly redeemed by Theo Walcott’s post-game sportsmanship and his employers’ largesse.

By lunchtime, though, all this was a mere detail as the horror story unfolded of a substitute goalkeeper and a meat pie. Yes, you did read that correctly.

While rules are rules, they are dwarfed by the bigger picture here. The supposed custodians of football – be it the Football Association, Premier League or Football League – tumble into bed with the betting industry, via a string of club and bookmaker sponsorship deals, and we’re now supposed to take them seriously as they get all sniffy about the game’s integrity?

Where was that ethical concern when the colour of money blinded them to the optics of a commercial alliance that will simply never look right? Professional sport and gambling tie-ins are like a vicar and tarts party without the underlying irony, both sides insisting that they can make a go of it.

So forgive me if I don’t join in with the censorious pomposity as football’s new mate bites it in the bum. Not because a goalkeeper flapped suspectly at a cross any six-year-old could have caught, mind you, handing a dodgy win to his opponents, but because he ate a pie in the dugout.

This used to be exactly the kind of stuff that made non-league football what it is, for goodness’ sake: often a damn sight more fun than its senior counterpart. Not any more, alas. The pursuit of excellence is a humourless thing, so where we might once have laughed off a bit of daft japery from some jack-the-lad on the bench, now it’s breast-beating all round, the Sutton manager talking like there’s been a bereavement, the club’s community and disabled teams now forced to look for a new president. And in the background, the promise of an investigation by the FA, its hands grubby with bookmakers’ money.

Good job the rest of us can still laugh.