Saturday, May 19, 2007

Wembley beckons at last for the FA Cup Final

After six years in exile in Cardiff, the FA Cup Final comes home to Wembley today. The new Wembley Stadium has its official opening for its first major competitive game with today’s FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Manchester United. A capacity 90,000 crowd will be at the game to see the first cup final at the North London venue since 2000. The stadium has been completely revamped at the cost of $US1.5 billion after a long, complex and controversial re-building project.

It is fitting, albeit unromantic, that the showpiece game features England’s two top sides. Manchester United go in as slight favourites having won the league at Chelsea’s expense two weeks ago. English online betting agency Bet365 offers United at 11/4 to win in 90 minutes with Chelsea and the draw both at 3/1. If United win, it will be their fourth league and cup double under manager Alex Ferguson matching the achievements of 1994, 1996 and 1999 (the latter when they also won the European Champions League). Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho will be keen to claim a double of sorts having won the League Cup earlier this season. The FA Cup remains the only English domestic trophy Chelsea have yet to win under Mourinho’s stewardship.

The cup final promises to be an expensive day out for the team’s fans. The cheapest tickets at $US70 and go up to $US185 (black market values will be considerably higher). Meanwhile match programmes cost almost $US20, a burger with chips and coke $US16 and a bottle of water $US3.20. Fan groups of both clubs have urged supporters attending the game to boycott official merchandise and catering stalls in protest at the cost of tickets and the 25,000 ticket allocation to both sides. A batch of 20,000 leaflets distributed to fans of both clubs read "It appears to us the FA is making the ordinary supporter pay in hard cash for what was the farce that took place over the budgeting, planning and completion of the new Wembley Stadium."

The old Wembley stadium with its iconic Twin Towers was demolished in 2000 after a 77 year life. As well as hosting 77 cup finals (including 5 replays), the ground hosted the 1948 Olympics and the 1966 World Cup final. But by the end of the century the famous old ground was a crumbling wreck and an embarrassment to officials. In the final game at the old stadium old rivals Germany spoiled the party. In pouring rain, they beat England 1-0 in a World Cup qualifying game that saw Kevin Keegan replaced as England manager.

After they closed the gates for the final time, the Football Association said the new stadium would open in three years in time for the 2003 FA Cup Final. That date quickly proved hopelessly optimistic. The contract to build the new stadium was awarded to Australian company Multiplex. They were able to point out they successfully built the Sydney Olympic stadium under budget and ahead of schedule for the 2000 Olympic Games. But New Wembley proved a greater challenge. The project was dogged by delays and cost blowouts. Multiplex blamed the FA and the stadium owners for constantly changing the design. The 2003 deadline was rapidly changed to 2005. That became early 2006. Then the 2006 cup final was the new target; that was missed too. Multiplex was sued by its own shareholders for not disclosing the true state of their finances. The companies total losses from the Wembley project have now totalled $Aus 364.3 million.

Now that the keys have finally been handed over, those involved will be hoping that today’s final will not be marred by the problems that plagued the first final at the original Wembley. That game took place on 28 April 1923 between Bolton and West Ham. The first stadium was built in just 300 working days at a cost of £750,000. The workmen had made use of 25,000 tons of concrete, 1500 tons of steel and half a million rivets. Officials grossly underestimated the interest in the occasion. The ground capacity at the time was 127,000 and it was full to capacity. But there were another 100,000 crushed outside the stadium desperate to get in. They rushed the gates, burst the barriers and swarmed onto the field of play. The eventual crowd at the games has been estimated as somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 – an unofficial world record.

With the playing field almost swamped by spectators, some of them injured, the FA considered calling the game off. But the prospect of 200,000 angry people in front of King George V in the Royal Box caused a change of heart. Police cleared the field of fans and the game started after a delay of 45 minutes. A few mounted policeman led by an 'inspector on a white horse' pushed their way to the centre and helped other policemen to force the crowd back to the touchlines. The 'inspector' was in fact a constable - PC. G. A. Storey riding his horse 'Billie' - and they became a legend of the Cup Final's history. Though they didn’t fully clear the pitch the match was allowed to start. Playing remained difficult and Police had to clear a path for players to take a corner. Neither side could leave the field at half-time. West Ham were a man down after a player fell into the crowd and took several minutes to extricate himself. Bolton took advantage of his absence to score a goal. They went on to win 2-0.

With today’s game an all-ticket affair, it is unlikely to generate the same level of chaos as in 1923. But the level of excitement surrounding the game is unchanged, despite the recent downgrading of the tournament compared to the Premier League and the Champions League. As well as admiring what they hope to be an exciting game of football, patrons can marvel at the architectural wonder that is New Wembley’s arch. At 140 meters high, it is already a distinctive part of the London skyline and can be seen from Canary Wharf, 20kms away. The arch weighs 1,750 tonnes and has a span of 315 metres. It supports all the weight of the north roof and most of the weight of the retractable south roof, thereby eliminating the need for view-restricting columns at the venue.

As well as the imposing arch, Fans arriving at the ground will see a new statue of England World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore. Last week a group including Tony Blair and Moore’s fellow world cup winners Geoff Hurst and Bobby Charlton unveiled the bronze statue which overlooks Wembley Way. Two years before winning the World Cup, Moore lifted the FA Cup trophy for West Ham at Wembley in 1964. He died of bowel cancer aged 51 in 1993.

For what little it's worth, the neutral Woolly Days tips Manchester United to win 2-1 after extra time.


nebuchadnezzar said...

mixed record on the tip. It did go to extra time but Chelsea nicked it with Didier Drogba's only goal of the game after 116 exhausting minutes.

Joestoke said...

Thing about Wembley is it looks state of the art and everything BUT access is still a nightmare. Difficult to get to and from.

IMHO the national stadium should have been built in Birmingham. The centre of the nations population.