Last week saw me heading along the North Circular orbital road en route to a gig. Before the much delayed M25 'beltway' around Greater London finally got built, driving through the grey industrial wasteland of NW London 30 years ago was a truly ghastly experience. While traffic flow management has improved somewhat, the landscape remains dispiritingly grim. The North Circular's capacity to cast a pall of despair on the poor motorist still reigns supreme.
Along its route we pass by England's national stadium. Shoehorned between industrial parks, railway lines, shuttered factories, furniture megastores and proletarian housing estates sits the new Wembley Stadium. Such is the over-development of the district, you get no sweeping vista of the behemoth from the highway. Just the electric blue glow of its roof supporting arch – the largest single span structure of its type in the world – alerts the passing motorist to the proximity of one of football's great sporting icons.
The original Wembley Stadium had provenance, pride and a place in people's hearts. Built in 1923 as the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition parkland promoting British trade, the design, with its six stone lions and twin crown-tipped towers, symbolised the self-confidence of a powerful nation at the height of Empire. The build, and self-regarding subtext, was one of smug prestige from the country that assumed it had 'given' the game of football to a grateful world. I still recall the visceral thrill of attending my first match there as a schoolboy, my first taste of a 100,000-strong crowd.
The "new" Wembley, or rather the fraught, chequered chapter chronicling its plan and build a decade ago, would happily stand test today as the perfect metaphor for a nation that within a generation had lost both national cohesion and its direction along with its dominions.
The FA executive at the time bungled the thing at every turn, all but bankrupting English football in the process. In the modern era the national stadium is simply in the wrong place. As every honest scribe, including myself, wrote at the time, to serve the needs of our entire footballing culture, England's new national stadium had to go on the greenfield site near Birmingham airport it was earmarked for.
Canvass supporters of Wigan and Manchester City after their recent trek south for the Cup Final, or any northern members of the English Supporters Club who strive to make mid-week international games. See what they make of the vested interests that swayed the FA's thinking in rebuilding on the original London suburban site. The locality has changed somewhat since 1923. The mandarins implored the local council to build a short link road to the M1 motorway. The cash-strapped council told the FA where to go.
The mistrust among all parties engaged on the project was monumental. Government despaired at the in-fighting and demands for taxpayers money to shore up the ballooning budget. The enterprise saw all three firms engaged to do the work – the designers, steel suppliers and project managers embroiled in hugely expensive legal disputes as to culpability for the over-run on costs and a catalogue of critical errors. The stadium was delivered two years late and will never make a profit.
Contrast this lack of joined up thinking with how the DfB runs the game in Germany, and the discomfort for our long-suffering supporters in the UK shows neglect and contempt on a criminal scale. As I meandered from stop light to stop light in the shadow of the beast, my thoughts turned over the two big games just hosted at Wembley within three days of each other. There's a morality tale coming, can't you sense it? The standard of football played embraced both ends of the spectrum, but at the end of the day it was all about the money.
First up was this season's Champions League Final – back at Wembley for the second time in three years. Bad luck for the two sets of supporters who were bled dry in their quest to make the game. The FA had pulled off a masterstroke with UEFA by landing the big prize again. Running contra to all the principles of 'taking the showpiece game' to the masses, this was apparently to mark the FA's 150th anniversary (1st international ever 1872, Scotland 0 England 0 – how did it ever catch on?).
Dortmund and Bayern served up a footballing master class. I drooled over the technical quality on display. Bright, inventive, quick, and, above all, intelligent football. I counted more precision passes curled with the outside of the boot than I have witnessed in a season of Fulham games. Bayern did just enough to deserve their win, but Dortmund pushed them all the way. Yes, the state of German football is healthy. Those lucky fans will already have secured season tickets for another scintillating Bundesliga campaign. They get to follow their idols at prices 30-50% lower than here in the EPL, in vastly superior grounds with integrated mass transport links. Even better, many of them are given the liberty of permitted standing sections to enhance their enjoyment should they wish.
That kind of behaviour is anathema of course to the nanny state mentality prevailing in the UK. We naturally must soldier on with the paralysis that routinely permits whole sections to stand – directly impairing the sight lines of the old, infirm, children and the timid who must suffer in silence while stewards look the other way. A national campaign to bring back standing only sections is long overdue.
I digress. Back to the football. Well I think that was how they billed it. Three days after the Teutonic triumph – served up by both the teams and their impeccably behaved supporters, Wembley gave us the £120 million game as Watford and Crystal Palace contested the Championship play-off final. Never surely has a match earned such a grotesque soubriquet.
The honest journeymen professionals of both sides strived to the best of their ability. But what they were doing barely held my attention. It was light years away from what we'd seen on the Saturday. As if two donkeys had sneaked into the field for the Kentucky Derby. So Crystal Palace made it to the land of milk and honey. They can lose all 38 matches next season and drop a division with £60 million to bank, knowing they have the same again coming their way in parachute payments.
You might say football is in danger of losing its head. Two teams in the past 10 days have triggered a cash windfall in excess of £100 million pounds – Bayern Munich and Crystal Palace. Both at the same venue, both playing a game known as football. A game that money is corrupting beyond all recognition.
The Palace board paid us a compliment this week. "Fulham is the kind of club we aspire to be," they claimed, citing our stability, prudent spending and longevity in the top flight.
But the EPL is in real danger of becoming as boringly predictable as the Scottish scene if only one or two clubs can ever lift the title. Now that Bayern have landed the historic treble, many are talking of a new super club era. Press reports suggest Bayern Munich has now overtaken both Barcelona and Real Madrid as football's premier brand. Seismic shifts across the fault lines of European power bases are about to radically alter the landscape, and English clubs will be the ones to suffer.
Although they got headed off at the pass in the 1990's by UEFA, I see an elite league of European clubs forming their own breakaway competition in the next five years driven by stellar TV deals. While removing Man United and Chelsea from the mix might make the Premiership less predictable and give the rest of us a fighting chance, the financial implications are obvious.
More on how I see this operating, and who might be invited to join the golden few, in my next post.