09 April 2019
As is increasingly common in the modern footballing world, positive stories have been a little hard to find these last few weeks. Increased crowd trouble, Championship clubs heading towards a near half a billion pounds loss for one season alone, the bar room brawl that passed itself off as the Old Firm derby and the dispiriting increase in moronic racist abuse are just some of the downers flowing through the media.
Interestingly however, two more positive news items may have a connecting thread that needs the FA to have a rethink about its crown jewel, Wembley Stadium.
The first item was that of Raheem Sterling’s gifting of 550 tickets to pupils at his former school, London’s Ark Elvin Academy, for City’s FA Cup semi-final with Brighton. Now Sterling isn’t the most popular of figures, primarily down to the manner of his move from Anfield to the Etihad. However, it’s a positive sign of his continuing maturity that he is so keen to get involved in speaking out against the racist abuse he and many of his colleagues continue to suffer, while at the same time trying to give something back to the community where he spent his education. Noting that it was a visit to Wembley to watch Chelsea take on Manchester United that pushed him in the direction of a footballing career, it’s a shame more players with his levels of personal wealth don’t follow suit.
However honourable Sterling’s approach, the secondary impact of that story is why such tickets were available. The immediate thought would have been that money talks. Sterling has plenty to go around, so had somehow skipped the ticket queue containing ordinary Joe Public and used his contacts to get the kids’ tickets. But that isn’t the case. In reality, Manchester City couldn’t sell their allocation, so nobody went without in order for the youngsters to enjoy their day out.
Indeed City, whose Etihad home is packed to the rafters with around 55,000 fans every game, returned a significant number of tickets to the FA unsold. In fact there were nearly 19,000 empty seats on Saturday. Nothing unusual for Coventry matches at the Ricoh, but rather strange for a club with such a following at an occasion so close to a trophy. So why the lack of appeal for the FA Cup semi-final?
City have of course already been there and done that. League Cup final triumph, plus journeying to London to visit Tottenham means that maybe the appeal has gone. Quite likely there will be more appetite for the final, but it does raise the question of whether Wembley should now be ditched as a semi-final host.
Six days prior to City’s semi-final win and Sunderland and Portsmouth packed into Wembley for the Checkatrade Trophy final. Two sides who have experienced dizzy heights in their distant past are just two of the many down-on-their-luck ex-Premier League teams in need of a morale boost. As such, more than 85,000 took the opportunity to show just how good a showpiece venue Wembley can be when it is more of a novelty.
The other positive news item was Tottenham’s opening league match at their new home. Opening significantly later than planned, it seems the occasion was worth the wait. The beaming smiles of the first goal-scorer in their new home, the seemingly ever-happy Heung-Min Son, were matched by the Spurs faithful who now can justifiably claim to being able to call their new home one of, if not the, best in the world.
Now ask any fan of Watford and Wolves, who made a rare visit to Wembley for their semi-final, and they would most likely argue that they will have loved their day out. But is it time Wembley was allowed to be just a bit more special once more?
With the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium containing such grand things as an on-site craft brewery and a long overdue responsible approach to tackling the problem of single-use plastics, allowing semi-finals to be played at such a venue could be argued to be giving fans an even better day out than Wembley can offer.
If 71,000 is the best a semi-final at Wembley can muster for Manchester City’s visit, now could very well be the time to turn back to neutral venues. The Etihad itself, along with the improved Anfield and of course Old Trafford, offer ample options for the northern half of the country, while Cardiff, Tottenham and Arsenal offer opportunities for those in the southern area. It’s a cheaper day out for travelling expenses, and arguably a more enjoyable experience than Wembley, which remains a difficult place to access in comparison to some of its peers.
Wembley Stadium’s owners, having failed to sell the ground to raise money allegedly for grass roots football, may well argue that the venue needs to maximise its fixture list in order to recoup the rebuilding of the famous stadium. But familiarity breeds contempt. With Spurs now back in their own home, and so many fine alternative venues for semi-finals, perhaps the wonder of making it to Wembley should now once again be reserved for those now contesting a final showpiece.