x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The venue for all occasions

From Matthews' magic and Trautmann's bravery to Live Aid and boxing, Wembley Stadium is a place rich in history.

Billy, a 13-year-old grey charger, ridden by George Scorey, helps push the crowd back before the 1923 FA Cup final, where an estimated 250,000 people turned up. Getty Images
Billy, a 13-year-old grey charger, ridden by George Scorey, helps push the crowd back before the 1923 FA Cup final, where an estimated 250,000 people turned up. Getty Images

Since the opening in 2007 of the new Wembley Stadium, the sporting drama that has unfolded there has yet to live up to the wonder of what passed before in the old Empire stadium. How can it, competing with such events as the 1948 Olympics, the 1966 World Cup final, five European Cup finals and some of the most dramatic league play-off finals in football history?

The new Wembley, built at a cost of around £800 million (Dh4.8 billion) rose out of the wreckage of the old in the five years it took to build.

The twin towers of the 80-year-old stadium were reduced to rubble by a German digger called Goliath in 2003 but the debris was mixed with concrete to create the foundations of the new stadium. In contrast, it took just £750,000 and 300 days to build the first Wembley in 1922-23.

Such was the anticipation to witness the inaugural FA Cup final at the venue between Bolton Wanderers and London's West Ham United in the presence of King George V in 1923 that an estimated 250,000 people turned up on the day.

As supporters climbed the outer walls and 104 turnstiles leaked people, fans spilled out of the open air terraces and on to the running track and pitch before kick off.

Organisers were at a loss at what to do. While they were considering calling off the match, the fearless pair of George Scorey and his accomplice, Billy, a 13-year-old grey charger, proceeded calmly to lead a mounted constabulary through the throng to clear the pitch. The game kicked off just 44 minutes late.

Bolton won the match 2-0 and although Billy was commemorated when the footbridge outside the new stadium was named the White Horse Bridge, not everyone felt the horse's exploits were for the best.

"It was that white horse thumping its big feet on the pitch that made it hopeless," said Charlie Paynter, the West Ham trainer. "Our wingers were tumbling all over the place, tripping up in great ruts and holes."

As time passed, Wembley's twin towers proved to be sturdy yet regal totems of Wembley's standing as an amphitheatre of sporting prowess.

The modern Wembley pitch has its detractors, and has been re-laid 10 times, the latest last season, and yet the term "hallowed turf" was invented for the lush greenery that acted as the stage to some of sport's greatest feats of skill and even heroism.

Manchester City's long wait to reach the FA Cup final stems from their last success 42 years ago against Leicester City, but in 1956, their third win in the most famous of all knockout competitions had foundations in the grit of one man, the goalkeeper Bert Trautmann.

City led Birmingham City 3-1 with 17 minutes to go when Peter Murphy outpaced Dave Ewing to close in on the German goalkeeper. The bravery displayed by Trautmann to come off his line is standard for the profession, but in the ensuing collision Murphy's knee hammered Trautman's neck and knocked him out. Minutes later Trautmann was awakened with smelling salts and, as no substitutes were permitted, he insisted on continuing.

Two spectacular saves later and a clash with Ewing which knocked out Trautmann again, he completed the match. As Trautmann and his team climbed the 39 steps up to the Royal Box to receive their winners' medals the crowd sang For He's a Jolly Good Fellow, the least they could do for the German who had literally put his neck on the line. At the medal presentation, Prince Philip asked: "Why is your head crooked?" Said Trautmann: "Stiff neck." Three days later X-rays showed that Trautmann, now 87, had broken it.

Two storylines that will always grab attention are triumph over adversity and any fairy tale. One individual performance that acts as the template for sporting excellence at Wembley came during the 1953 FA Cup final.

Blackpool were one of the driving forces in English football, after the Second World War, and Queen Elizabeth became the first English monarch to witness a football match when the Tangerines reached their third FA final. Having lost in 1948 and 1951, Blackpool were staring at a hat-trick of woe when they trailed 3-1 to Bolton in the 55th minute.

It was then, however, that the 100,000 people in attendance saw into the soul of Stanley Matthews and marvelled at what he could produce at an age that would be the twilight of even the longest careers.

Matthews, 38, who was later knighted, orchestrated the comeback that defined his career when in the 68th minute his cross was met by the boot of Stan Mortensen, who scored his second goal of the game. Mortensen became the only man to score three times in an FA Cup final at Wembley when he notched a free kick in the 89th minute before another dead-eyed cross by Matthews eluded him for Bill Perry to drill the ball home with only seconds remaining.

It was the first time any side had clawed back a two-goal deficit to win the coveted cup without the need of extra time.

In 1966, Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick at Wembley to propel England to their only World Cup success as they beat West Germany 4-2. But like Matthews and Mortensen, it is Bobby Moore, the captain, who eclipsed his teammate in the memories of football fans. It is Moore's statue that stands outside the new stadium, gazing down Wembley Way.

Wembley, of course, is not restricted to football. Live Aid sent a message around the world from the old stadium in 1985, while rugby league, rugby union and even the NFL have also been hosted in north west London.

Memory is generally defined by success, but occasionally the vanquished are inserted into the pantheon of sporting greatness. So exalted is Muhammad Ali that even getting beaten by him rubbed off on those whom he overcame. In 1963 when Henry Cooper floored the great fighter with a left hook of such staggering visceral beauty in front of 40,000 people, he encapsulated everything that characterises a Wembley performance.

Ali's head was to connect with some of the hardest-hitting punchers of all time, such as Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Ali maintained long afterwards, however, that Cooper's punch "shook his relations back in Africa".

And that says it all. Every sportsman who has taken part in a contest at Wembley, every artist who has showcased their talent and every fan who has witnessed the electricity of it all realise that even to get there is a significant achievement. From there a sportsman must muster the courage and have the presence of mind to deliver his finest moment on the most renowned of stages.

Wembley fuels dreams, and then it realises them.

 

The top 10 Wembley moments


European Cup final, 1968, Manchester Utd 4 Benfica 1
Ten years after Manchester United’s squad was decimated by the Munich air disaster, redemption came in the shape of the Red Devil’s first European Cup success. That it was England’s first win in the competition, and on home soil, only made it sweeter.

European Cup final, 1978, Liverpool 1 Brugge 0
Liverpool were the reigning European champions having beaten Borussia Monchengladbach the year before. There were 92,000 fans in Wembley to witness a sublime Graeme Souness pass that found Kenny Dalglish. The goal proved enough to make Liverpool the first British team to retain the Cup.

FA Cup final, 1958, Bolton 2 Manchester Utd 0
Lofthouse played in the Sir Stanley Matthews final in 1953 and scored for Bolton in their 3-1 defeat to Blackpool. Despite the wave of sympathy directed at Manchester United due to the Munich air disaster three months previously Lofthouse scored both goals in the match.

First Division play-off final, 2008, Charlton 4 Sunderland 4
The score stood at 4-4 after a nip-and-tuck 120 minutes and the game headed to a shoot-out. Penalty after penalty went in until the score stood at 7-6 in Charlton’s favour. Michael Gray stepped up for Sunderland but his shot was dramatically saved by Sasa Illic.

FA Cup final, 1989, Liverpool 3 Everton 2
Five weeks after the Hillsborough disaster that killed 96 Liverpool fans, the Merseyside club were up against local rivals Everton. Every time Liverpool scored, Everton replied, a sequence which continued into extra time when Stuart McCall cancelled out Ian Rush’s goal. Rush, however, had the final say when he headed home a John Barnes cross.

London Olympics, 1948
There had not been an Olympic Games for the previous 12 years due to the Second World War. Because of rationing and a tough economic climate, the Olympics were billed as the ‘Austerity Games’. Wembley hosted the football final, with Sweden comfortably accounting for Yugoslavia 3-1, while Matt Busby’s Great Britain side lost 5-3 to Denmark in the Bronze medal match.

Rugby League World Cup final, 1992, Great Britain 6 Australia 10
Wembley had proved something of a thorn in Australia’s side and 73,631 turned up to watch the final – still a record for the event. Great Britain led 6-4 with 12 minutes to go, but Steve Renouf found a gap and Kevin Waters slipped him the pass. Captain Mal Meninga made no mistake with the kick.

Rugby Union Five Nations, 1999, Wales 32 England 31
Wales had relocated to Wembley while the Millennium Stadium was being built. England were heavy favourites to win the tournament and the Grand Slam in the ‘away’ fixture. England led the match by six points going into injury time but hulking centre Scott Gibbs bounced off several English tackles to touch down. Neil Jenkins did not miss with the conversion attempt which meant the title headed to Scotland.

FA Cup final, 2007, Chelsea 1 Manchester Utd 0
Chelsea had won the last FA Cup at the old Wembley and lined up against Manchester United in the first final in the new stadium. The competition had developed a reputation of being boring as the previous three finals had all gone to penalties and it looked to be the case again as both sides played tight. Step forward Didier Drogba, who played a quick one-two with Frank Lampard before he slipped the ball past Edwin van der Sar.

FA Cup final, 1988, Wimbledon 1 Liverpool 0
Liverpool had just secured the league title when they came up against unfashionable Wimbledon, known as the ‘Crazy Gang’. Liverpool dominated but Wimbledon took the lead when Lawrie Sanchez headed home after 37 minutes. On the hour mark, Dave Beasant, the Wimbledon goalkeeper, become the first to save a penalty in an FA Cup final, and his team held on to record one of the greatest shocks in the tournament.

 

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