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This is a mixture of a diary account of my trip to the 2007 FA Trophy Final, travel tips and my own personal opinion on Wembley. Whilst not a regular at the old stadium (I’m a Scottish Southampton supporter!), I have been perhaps 12 or so times to a variety of matches/concerts, so I do have some previous experience to relate it to. It may be helpful and interesting to other people, it may not…

FA Trophy Final 2006-2007, Saturday 12th May 2007 (first competitive game at the new Wembley!)

Kidderminster Harriers 2 – Stevenage Borough 3

Attendance: 53,262 (split perhaps 45% Stevenage, 35% Kidderminster and 20% neutrals)

The attendance is significant, as is the competition – the atmosphere was pretty laid back, friendly and family-oriented (and correspondingly, so was the policing and stewarding). I would imagine things would vary depending on the circumstances! Bear in mind that although the stadium can take 90,000, a good 17,000 of these are in “Club Wembley”, so well away from the likes of you (probably) and me (definitely). This even goes as far to a dedicated train service to whisk the captains of industry back to their luncheon clubs without having to risk brushing up against a commoner on the tube!

We were in the East Stand, Lower Tier (or Level One) – that’s behind the right-hand goal as you see it on the telly. Our section was actually full, meaning that the strain on our facilities is probably a decent indicator of how things will be when the whole ground is sold out.

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Ever since Wembley began taking shape, Helen and I were keen to get along, although we figured that tickets would be hard to come by for a couple of years. Two of the ramp-up events (an England U21 game against Italy, and a schoolboy international) clashed with other commitments, however an offer from a fellow Scot to get hold of FA Trophy Final tickets was too good to refuse. They were sourced by a friend of friend for the Kidderminster Harriers end (lower tier behind the goal), and we were quite happy to be cheering on the team in red (fits with Saints, Worthing, Fortuna and Helen’s Middlesbrough!)

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In their wisdom, South Eastern had re-timetabled the trains through Nutfield without telling anyone, so we cut our losses and drove to Redhill, only to catch a packed train that had been diverted along our branch line from Hastings (hence the changes). It was standing room only when we boarded, but a quick chat with the guard (to ask if South Eastern did the same Annual Gold Card 1st Class upgrade that Southern do - £3 per journey) and he let us sit in First for free!

We changed at London Bridge onto the Jubilee line, and although there are faster ways to Wembley (for example, Thameslink from London Bridge to Faringdon, then the Metropolitan Line, or simply changing to the Metropolitan Line at Baker Street or Finchley Road, or overground from Marylebone to Wembley Stadium, and so on...), we had a seat in a near empty carriage, and were in plenty of time, so why rush? We also knew that this route would lead us down the famous Wembley Way.

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We got to Wembley Park around 12.10pm (for a 2.15pm kick-off), and after a few photos (the Police don’t like people standing at the top of the stairs!) made our way slowly south towards the stadium down Wembley Way (or “Olympic Way”, to give its official name). Disappointingly, almost all of the kiosks were firmly closed, with just two programme stalls (£3 for a decent glossy affair) the only official ones open. One burger van with a steady queue of around 30 people, and 3 or 4 vans with decent quality (but unofficial) souvenirs were all that was on offer. There was a noticeable police presence on Wembley Way, but they were happy for everyone to go about their business or drink their carry-outs and seemed in a pretty genial mood.

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Having just started on a new course of medication, and with Helen having the car at Redhill station, we thought it best to avoid temptation and didn’t seek out any pubs around Wembley (which has a reputation as a bit of a beer desert anyway). There is a new Sports Bar / Indian Restaurant called “Moore Spice” facing the arch across the coach park, but no idea of the practical details, I’m afraid. To be honest, the police were incredibly laid back about people drinking in the vicinty anyway.

(From ScottK, who did seek out a couple of pubs): If you walk away from Wembley on arrival at the underground station (over the bridge over the tracks), you will find a couple of boozers. The so-called Crock of Gold was actually a wee crock of sh*te. It is too small to cope with the numbers and we had one (poor) pint then gave up trying to get served. We heard they locked the doors later and were getting themselves ready to host the Celtic supporters club that is based there. The next one up is called John Barrasl the garden was busy and it was impossible to get served there either. We just bought some cans from the offie over the road and sat in the beer garden and had them.

Note: you could always try Fancy A (search by station for Wembley Park or Wembley Central) or Beer In The Evening for suggestions.

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Outer concourse

Wembley Way still forks into two ramps that converge on the stadium’s lower outer concourse. What has changed is that one must now proceed up one of two new ramps to the upper concourse. This upper level (which effectively used to be the outer steps leading to the stadium entrances) is very wide and spacious, with wide turnstile bays and toilets dotted around the exterior of the stadium. One area of interest is the Arch, or specifically, where the arch meets the ground and is anchored by a huge concrete support (which seems to make a popular photo-stop).

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The entry process was very laid back, but then we were very early (90 minutes before kick off). There were a handful of stewards milling in front of the turnstiles, a turnstile operator tearing off the ticket stub (tip: fold the ticket stub over several times to make it easier to detach – this preserves the portion of the ticket you get to keep as a souvenir) and allowing the waist high stile to turn, then a bag/pat-down search area behind the turnstiles inside the concourse.

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Policing & Stewarding

As mentioned above, the policing approaching the ground along Wembley Way was very laid back. This extended to the policing and stewarding inside the ground; in particular, the search was very lax – I walked in with a 500ml plastic bottle of water (this may actually have been permitted, given similar bottles are sold at the refreshment kiosks) and Helen’s handbag wasn’t even looked at.

My favourite story related to the Kidderminster fan whose seat was broken before kick-off (given the seat portion was completely undamaged, it appeared to have not been fastened correctly in the first place). Having seen him stood in the aisle before kick-off waving it a steward to attract attention, I then passed him on the way back from the Gents at half-time, where he had it tucked under his arm explaining “I’ve already told four people about it, and no-one seems to care…”. I just hope he managed to take it home as a souvenir!

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Stadium Layout

“Level One” (the lower tier) is split into four coloured quarters, using the half-way line and the penalty spot as the demarcation. The concourse has segregation fencing (with gates) between each, and each quadrant can also be split in half again. We were in the blue quadrant; our seats were for 115, but we wandered around between 112 and 119.

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Inner Concourse

The concourses are a different world from what went before. I can only speak for the lower tier of the new stadium, but it’s incredibly wide and spacious, with an airy feel (there is daylight shining in above the turnstile blocks) and a good use of colour, with a montage of famous photos (not just football matches, but concerts also) surrounding the interior of the outside wall. There are numerous food and drink counters (see below), frequent souvenir kiosks (some selling t-shirts, Wembley scarves, pin badges and such like, others selling just programmes) and a sprinkling of bookmakers’ counters. The bookies had notices up stating that they close at the start of the second half; winnings are to be picked up on your next visit or at any BetFred shop nationwide. One notable absence is television screens, either tuned to Sky or closed circuit of the stadium itself.

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Food & Drink

Each “bar” (read: counter) is named after a famous year, such as “Bar 1985: Live Aid” and so on. A rudimentary queuing system is in operation (queue to the left approaching each till, move away to the right) and seemed to work well. Prices have caused much controversy, but were not as bad as we feared: £3.50 for a pint of Carling or Tetley isn’t that much dearer than central London. Fish and chips clocks in at a weighty £7, but for an extra nugget you can get a medium soft drink (£2.20 on its own). The “Meal Deals” offered some semblance of value, but this is very much a relative concept!

As I did actually need to eat (keeping those sugars level), and Helen wanted to try the pies, we plumped for a Pie & Drink Deal (£6 – a £4.50 pie with what turned out to be a large Diet Coke for me), a single cheeseburger (£5) and a Carling for Helen. Helen’s pie was a decent beef offering, with tender beef, light pastry and a nice gravy – far better than the usual microwaved muck, but not to the tune of £4.50. My cheeseburger came in a toasted ciabatta bun, with fresh tomato relish and a decent slice of mature cheese (proper, not processed), although the leathery, think, overcooked burger was itself a bit of a let down. All in all, whilst it is indeed pricey, as a one-off treat it’s justifiable.

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At over 2,600 toilets (a world record for a single building, apparently!), you’d think there’d be no queues… think again! The toilets, at least in our section of the lower tier, are pretty badly spaced – 1 minute before half-time saw a queue snaking out of the gents next to Section 115. A brisk walk round to Section 117 and there was no queue whatsoever (despite that section’s seats also being at capacity). There are also too many Women’s toilets – no doubt good for concerts, but not for sporting events where women still make up less than 20% of the attendance.

The interior is decorated with a trendy black / white marble effect, with sleek black Xcelarator hand-dryers, and surprisingly few sinks. A separate In and Out door system is in use and signed, but wasn’t fully enforced. Strangely, the cubicles are almost at the Out door, the other side of the sinks.

Its worth bearing in mind at the end of a game that there are toilets on the outside wall, however these are smaller and do not have the In/Out system, which led to gridlock as it busied up.

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Inside the arena

The seats seem to be a generous width, and the much touted extra legroom is very much in evidence; you almost feel that an extra 10,000 could have been accommodated if the architects had shifted the seats a little closer. One throwback to the old Wembley is the shallowness of the “rake” (the angle of the stand) on the lower tier; whilst this doesn’t affect perspective in the higher seats (we were in Row 37), the view in the lower rows does suffer. Intriguingly, the upper tier looked impressively steep, but lacked the safety railings many steep European stadia have in place. For a stadium that does not have a running track, there is also a fair distance between the stands (particularly the south stand, which is slightly curved) and the pitch.

The lower tier is effectively split into an upper and lower section by the stairs (you enter around row 29 – this is level with the outer concourse, and the height achieved through the ramps from Wembley Way). It’s worth noting that the access to the upper rows is by a quite tight stairway and a relatively narrow aisle.

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The Game

For a variety of reasons we were rooting for Kidderminster, which was handy as that was the section our seats were in. They romped to a 2-0 half-time lead courtesy of the lively James Constable, surely a player with a bright future ahead of him. Kidderminster’s dominance in the first half was pegged back in the 51st minute, and twenty or so minutes later, Stevenage were level through their substitute and man of the match, Craig Dobson. Stevenage then dramatically snatched victory in the 88th minute, but there was still time for a goalmouth scramble to send a powerful drive inches wide of the Stevenage post.

We stayed for the presentation of the Trophy, and it’s a long, long way up those steps. The Royal Box is at the front of the second tier, and this is reached through two flights of stairs up the lower tier, a set of steps up to the middle tier, then dropping down to walk along the front of the stand.

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Many Kidderminster fans had headed for the exits at the final whistle, so staying the extra 25 minutes or so staggered the rush. The queue for the Gents was pretty bad, so this was swerved in favour of the outer wall toilets (also busy, and quite grid-locked on the way back out).

The ramp leading from the upper outer concourse level towards Wembley Way suffered from people stopping to chat or take photos, as well as disorientated coach travellers struggling to find their way out. If you’re heading for the coach park, you have two options – either stick close to the wall of the stadium as you head around the upper concourse and you will come across a flight of stairs heading down to street level, or simply follow the ramps down to Wembley Way, then turn sharply back on yourself at the bottom of the last ramp (i.e. head back, between the fork of the ramps) and turn into the coach park that way.

The Police had blocked off the steps leading to the road alongside Wembley Park tube station and were operating a smooth crowd control operation to block access to the station periodically, ensuring the crowd were kept waiting on the level ground and not on the steps up to the station. It’s worth noting that there is no other access off Wembley Way; if you’re walking or want to take a bus, keep to the left and peel off once through the police roadblock and before you ascend the Wembley Park station steps.

Once through the ticket barriers at Wembley Park, we found ourselves cordoned off – don’t worry, we were still able to access both Jubilee and Metropolitan lines from the “Jubilee” side of the cordon (although presumably this could be used as a segregation measure).

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Transport Home

We had opted for the Metropolitan Line to get us back into central London – this is by far the fastest Tube option, but still slower than taking a Chiltern Railways service from Wembley Stadium station (the closest to the ground) to Marylebone. The other clincher was the programme information on passenger numbers per hour: Wembley Park can handles 37,500 people per hour, whilst Wembley Central (Bakerloo Line and Silverlink trains to Euston) manages 12,000 and Wembley Stadium struggles behind with just 7,000!

By walking to the end of the platform, we hopped on an incredibly quiet waiting carriage for the journey back into the city centre. In the end, with the lack of direct London Bridge services to Nutfield (and the car in Redhill), we stayed on the Metropolitan Line to Kings Cross, walked to Kings Cross Thameslink and caught a First Capital Connect train south to East Croydon (we could have changed at Farington with less hassle, but as it turned out, we’d have struggled for a seat), connecting with a Redhill train there. Just under 90 minutes after pulling out of Wembley Park station (or 2 hours from leaving our seats in the ground) and we were back in Redhill

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Overall impressions

Despite the stadium not holding the same level of personal importance to me (i.e. it wasn’t my team playing today, and I’m not English), I did find the experience of being part of such an historic moment quite emotional. As an arena, it is quite simply breathtaking in both scale and structure, and is far and away the best stadium I have ever seen a football match in (not necessarily my own personal favourite, mind!).

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