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Is Wembley Stadium’s poor pitch the result of too much emphasis being placed on additional revenue streams, to the cost of its main business function – to showcase the national game?
There are two facts concerning the mess at Wembley Stadium that cannot be disputed.
First: England’s Football Association (FA) spent £750 million – a good chunk of that from the public purse – to build a spectacular new national stadium.
Second: The venue has proven a wretched place to play football.
Wembley’s pitch was horrible right from the beginning. It is presently being re-laid for the sixth time since the building opened two years ago.
The horrors of trying to play a high-quality version of the national sport in the country’s national stadium became blindingly obvious in April.
Two dreadful semi-finals in the FA Cup competition produced a chorus of complaints from three respected and long-serving managers – Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger of Arsenal and David Moyes of Everton.
Ferguson even admitted that he considered the Wembley pitch so treacherous that he pulled stars Paul Scholes, Dimitar Berbatov and Patrice Evra from his original starting side.
Since the FA Cup semis involved glamour teams – Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton – a good share of the world saw that awful Wembley pitch on TV.
Passes bobbled and wiggled off line. Huge chunks of grass and dirt flew up when players tried to change directions.
And so the sky fell.
The FA, which already had been planning to lay yet another new pitch after the current season, suddenly announced that work would be rushed in order to get a decent surface in place for the FA Cup Final on 30 May.
The organisation also decided it needed a scapegoat, and promptly fired Wembley’s head groundsman, Steve Welch.
For most observers who have watched all the bumps, fits, starts and stumbles since construction began on the stadium, Welch’s sacking was a step too far. It was a crude effort to deflect blame – no more, no less.
Welch was immediately defended by the Institute of Groundsmanship, and speaking for himself, Welch blamed stadium contractor Multiplex – insisting he and his staff were excluded from decisions about laying the pitch.
“We flagged up a number of issues, including drainage and irrigation, but we could make no changes,” Welch said. “In the event, every one of those concerns materialised.”
So where did this whole thing blow to pieces?
Simon Barnes, chief sports writer for The Times of London, wrote a commentary that screeched with disdain for the FA and concluded that the pitch problem was merely a symptom of the need to generate revenue for an overpriced venue. “Sport as whore, part one,” Barnes wrote. “They’ve sacked the Wembley Stadium groundsman, Steve Welch. This was because they had to sack somebody, and he was the only option. Hard cheese on Welch. He has to take the blame for a flawed policy instituted by the suits who put money first and everything else tenth,” continued Barnes. “The problem is not the surface or the drainage or the sort of grass they use. It’s because football is among the many other things that are tenth on the list of priorities.”
And the others?
Concerts, as many as the schedule will hold – and events like the Race of Champions, which required that the pitch be covered in tarmac.
There’s also the bald fact that a stadium built to hold 90,000 must include a giant bowl with sides so steep that there will be difficulty getting enough light and air to the grass.
The truth is that this stadium was constructed to be a mighty icon, and everyone involved in its design understood that with so many events of all possible types on the docket, the price for its size and shape would be mandatory pitch replacement – perhaps even three times per year.
After the FA Cup semi-final fiasco, the FA issued a statement: “The stadium’s unique environment continues to prove challenging.”
No, that message implies this trouble with the pitch is a surprise.
Any architect or turf consultant could have told the FA that there would be problems with the pitch – even in the care of a real professional like Steve Welch. Surely the FA received that exact advice.
Maybe the FA should say it’s terribly sorry, but this is the real world and money from all these events is a financial necessity.
Instead of stopping there, though, the people in charge must assure the country that a first-class pitch will be installed – no matter how often it needs to be changed.
However it’s done, Wembley needs to become a world-class stadium – for football.
Anything short of that and the place will become the sport’s most obscenely expensive joke.
Steve Cameron is a career sports journalist and regular contributor to Stadia, for which he has covered the Wembley project from its inception. Steve is currently writing a book on the future of the sports facilities industry – Temples of Sport: Stadia in the 21st Century.
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