"Wonderful" Wembley

Now, at last, the new Wembley Stadium is open, a sight for sore eyes, an architectural splendour.

Worth the wait? Arguably yes, though the pitifully slow erection of the gleaming, hyper modern, breathtakingly conceived Wembley Stadium had echoes of the gestation of an elephant. Or even a herd of elephants. Between the Football Association, the Australian Multiplex company, which has lost a fortune on the deal, the various contractors and the sporting authorities, the wrangling and confusion was such that you tended to wonder whether the stadium would ever be finished, or if it would forever loom on the horizon, the subject of successive court cases, like some gigantic mirage. Time and again, rather like Waiting for Godot, we were told that the new arena would be ready for the next, the very next, FA Cup Final. But one Final succeeded another, and we were still all traipsing down to Cardiff, to see it played in the Millennium Stadium. As was the final of the Football League Cup and the curtain raising Community Shield which used to be the Charity Shield.

Even this year, there were doubts almost up to the safety deadline on whether the stadium would be ready on time, whether, the various late stand-offs between the far from convincing controlling body and Multiplex could be in time to secure the safety certificate it needed from the local council. But breathlessly and finally all was ready; at a figure stupendously higher than the initial estimates. A few miles away, in Highbury, in mute reproach, stood the massive new, so-called Emirates Stadium, built across the road from their splendid compact 1913 stadium (frequently modernised) by Arsenal.

True, while Arsenal's new ground could harbour 60,000, Wembley's has a capacity of 60,000. But the contrast in speed and efficiency was embarrassing. Even now, it appears that Wembley have got their car parking wrong. For some reason, the designers utterly miscalculated the size of the parking areas, which are now not remotely as big as the huge expanses which existed before. If ever there were a recipe for chaos. And though the nearby Wembley Park underground has been radically rebuilt, vehicles must still come to Wembley along the narrow road which leads from west London, always a nightmare.

It's been mooted that the new Wembley will stage the opening and closing ceremonies for the ill-fated Olympic Games of 2012, whose immense costs accelerate day by day. Back in 1948, Wembley successfully put on the first Olympic Games after World War II, which in retrospect seem like a cosy, nostalgic, almost domestic interlude. The original plan for the new stadium included a running track and a huge subsidy was obtained from the Government via the sporting authorities in consequence. But the football people dug their heels in and, to cries of outrage, accusations of bad faith, the running track was abandoned. Otherwise perhaps the grotesque costs of the new Olympic Stadium in the remote East End might have been avoided.

So Wembley will again become the home of the England football team and the venue for the FA Cup Final, which it first so memorably and chaotically staged in 1923. West Ham versus Bolton. Tens of thousands of fans pouring unchecked over the walls, though, marshalled when they invaded the pitch, on by the all but mythical policeman on the white horse. There were over 200,000 in the stadium, crowding round the very touchlines when the game at last began. Jack Tresadern, the West Ham captain, would joke that the best pass he received was from a spectator! Different days indeed. Can you imagine today's rumbustious West Ham fans dutifully and meekly staying off the pitch, while their team went down to a 2-0 defeat? But the legend of Wembley, still called not long ago by Italian players `The Temple of Football', had begun.

Five years later came another game to go down in football's history, that of the Wembley Wizards, a Scotland team whose tiny forwardline — right-winger Alec Jackson, at 5 foot 7, scorer of three goals, was the tallest — thrashed England 5-1.

Chief executive of the stadium was one Arthur Elvin, who, when the stadium known as The Empire Stadium was originally built for the Empire Exhibition, owned a modest tobacco kiosk on the site. Relations with the Football Association were close. Too close, some would feel, in later years.

Pre-War, many an England international was played away from Wembley, which had a monopoly only of the April match every other season versus Scotland. Several London club grounds, not to mention Birmingham, Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester, had their turn, but gradually, in the post-War years Wembley got their grip on every England home game. A poor deal for the provinces and a sheer fiasco, when a less attractive opponent would play England before a minuscule crowd.

When, in 1974, the late Ted Croker took over as FA Secretary, I remember him telling me over a lunch how shocked he had been to read through the dossiers of the FA's relation with Wembley and to see how subservient the Association had been. This, he assured, us, would change, but it didn't.

And gradually the old stadium deteriorated till, as football correspondent of the `Sunday Times', I received endless letters complaining of the problems; of seats that didn't exist, shocking food and toilet facilities, endless queuing for tickets in the cold. The stadium itself kept changing hands, sometimes with dubious owners, till its hour had struck. Even then administrative chaos was such that it stood empty and available for a substantial period in which it could well have been used. But now, at last, it is open, a sight for sore eyes, an architectural splendour. With all its accretions of history; above all England's 1966 World Cup triumph. But was that third goal valid?