The new Wembley opens it doors for a match for the first time on Saturday, seven years after its predecessor last hosted a game. It has been a long time in coming, but as Sir Trevor Brooking tells Michael Harrold, it is "worth the wait".
"Your first sight of the old Wembley was as a youngster when you sat down to watch the FA Cup final. It was such a big occasion. I'd go out and replay the game I'd been watching on the TV with my brother. Then there were the England games. It was where all the big matches seemed to take place. All the youngsters loved going there to watch a game and they dreamed about playing there. There's always been that aura about the name."
So many children have harboured hopes of scoring the winning goal in the cup final; Sir Trevor Brooking is one of the few to realise the dream. The former England and West Ham United FC midfielder's past is inexorably linked with Wembley. "We're sitting here 27 years on near enough and I can honestly say not one week has gone by when someone hasn't reminded me about the header," he tells uefa.com, returning to that magic moment in May 1980 when he stooped to put West Ham 1-0 up against Arsenal FC. "When I scored 13 minutes into the game you get excited, but you think there's a long way to go. It's only when the final whistle blows that it all sinks in."
Emotions will run high again on Saturday when, for the first time in seven years, Wembley Stadium opens its doors for a match. Talk of overruns and spiralling costs have haunted the new ground since work began in 2002. But as the inaugural game between England and Italy Under-21s approached – albeit at reduced capacity as final safety checks are completed – the focus shifted back to football itself. Few stadiums even come close to capturing the imagination like Wembley. Most English football supporters, and many more around the world, have their own abiding memories of the "home of football", distinct even from the highlight reels of previous finals and internationals that lit up the old arena.
As England trained on the pitch for the first time on Wednesday, assistant coach Terry Venables looked around the shining red sea of empty seats. It was tempting to think that he was playing back in his mind the FA Cups he won with Tottenham Hotspur FC, first as a player then as manager, or perhaps England's brilliant demolition of the Dutch at EURO '96™ when he coached the national side. The new Wembley looks to the future, yet the past echoes all around.
Visually it is stunning. The arch is visible across London and will surely prove as iconic as the Twin Towers once were. The proximity of the stands to the pitch, now that the running track has been removed, provides an intimacy unusual for a venue with a 90,000 capacity. "Unlike the old stadium you'll be much closer to the action, almost touching what's going on, and I think that will create a much greater noise," Sir Trevor says. "Even though that hit you coming out of the tunnel, I think this will go up quite a few notches when the fans see the players." The tunnel is now on the halfway line, just below the Royal Box. In keeping with tradition, players will pass through the stand to collect the trophy, though things are not exactly as they were. "It's over 100 steps now," Sir Trevor says. "Players need to be pretty fit these days or they'll get half way up and collapse."
As the sun shone down, manager Steve McClaren put his squad through their paces. England are finally home, it seems, after more than six years crisscrossing the country. It was here, after all, that they celebrated their sole FIFA World Cup triumph in 1966, a far cry from the sorry send-off Kevin Keegan's team gave the old lady on her final international on 7 October 2000, a 1-0 defeat, naturally against Germany. The new stadium may have inherited a legendary name but to establish an identity of its own it will need to forge a history, starting with its first FA Cup final on 19 May. England fans will have to wait a little longer, with Brazil or Argentina possible opponents soon after.
'Worth the wait'
"Initially there was all that doom and gloom, 'Oh it's the old Wembley, it will never be the same'," Sir Trevor, now director of football development at the FA, continues. "Then we had a long period getting it rebuilt, with all the upheavals and that roller coaster, and then suddenly it's there. The initial reaction is that it's fantastic and I suppose, after a long wait and the expensive financial bill, it should be. But in the end it will be about the games that take place or the events that happen. I think over the next few years the new Wembley will create its own history, based on what happens on the pitch, although in the early stages everyone will think, yes it was worth the wait."