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Bowler's Delivery: National Treasures

12 May 2015

Dave is on the road, again

FORGET for a minute the excellent results that got us over the line to Premier League safety, and just reflect for a moment on the places to which Albion have travelled in the last couple of weeks.

Those of you who have joined the players on the road will have taken in the majestic surroundings of St James’ Park in Newcastle and Old Trafford in Manchester. You might well be looking forward to concluding the campaign with a day trip to the Emirates in London too. 

Going a little further back in the season, you might have stepped through the portals of the Etihad, currently being feverishly redeveloped, or Sunderland’s impressive Stadium of Light. 

These are world class stadia, to which we can add the newly redeveloped Anfield, Villa Park if we must, the soon to come on stream Olympic Stadium.

In terms of the facilities and the levels of safety that are on offer to football fans today, we are light years away from the twin tragedies of Bradford and Heysel that are both 30 years gone this month, and of the Hillsborough disaster from four years later. These are big modern, comfortable football venues that offer good atmospheres, house big crowds and are perfect showcases for the biggest occasions in the modern game.

So on this, the eighth anniversary of the first competitive game at the new Wembley Stadium – Kidderminster Harriers 2 Stevenage Borough 3 in the FA Trophy Final fact fans – it does make you wonder why the FA bothered building it in the first place.

Certainly in financial terms, it has proved something of a millstone around the neck ever since, leading to the need for England to play big international games on a pitch wrecked by American Football just days earlier and for FA Cup semi-finals to take place there too, something akin to sacrilege to many traditionalists. Next Monday marks another anniversary, that of Albion winning the FA Cup by beating Everton 1-0 in 1968. 

Would going to Wembley have been quite so special if we’d already beaten Birmingham there in the semi-final? I doubt it, don’t you?

Obviously, it is far too late to revisit the muddled thinking that eventually led to rebuilding a new national stadium on the site of the old one, ignoring all the geographic and logistical arguments that were against it, while refusing to make use of any of the existing features, such as the twin towers, that had made Wembley such an iconic venue. 

But what we must surely do is start to question the way in which football utilises the stadium, particularly once the debt has been paid off. 

For too long, the national team, the England team, has been, in effect, London’s team, not the nation’s. That brief period when Wembley was being rebuilt, when the England team was forced to go on the road and play around the country, saw football fans around the country actually getting a chance to see their side at close quarters without having to trek to London with all the costs inherent in that. It brought England closer to the fans and that surely helped foster a better atmosphere, the kind that helped David Beckham magic up that crucial free-kick against Greece at Old Trafford to take the country through qualifying.

Since then, we’ve seen Wembley half empty on occasion as promotions and giveaways have been employed to fill the void. Surely it would be better if some of the internationals went to the more provincial outposts where there might be greater enthusiasm for them, rather than always playing to the jaded London palette? After all, 50,000 in St James’ Park would look, sound and feel a whole lot better than the same number in Wembley Stadium. 

And, following a General Election in which the Chancellor made such a point of creating a “northern powerhouse”, might it not be sensible for football to play a part in trying to decentralise and take us back on the road again?

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