I’ve been to Wembley – it was on a tour that was given as a Christmas present given to Mrs Marco, it was a lot of fun and there’s a photo of her holding the FA Cup on our mantelpiece now (as well as a smaller photograph that I use as a bookmark); the tour of the stadium was really interesting, and for those of you who enjoy cabling, that was an utter delight, too. Mrs Marco had been before (for a game) and I think she probably got more out of it than I did as a result.
Somewhat controversially, I decided to turn down the opportunity to visit to see my team Huddersfield Town’s playoff final there, which would have been my first attendance to a game there, though I’ve subsequently considered going to some of the more minor games there, including tonight’s game against Ukraine.
I was listening to Alan Green’s 606 debut for the season over the weekend, and as much as some of the things that went on just plain annoyed me (the first caller, a man called Steve, who came from Liverpool, told us he had a season ticket at Goodison, though the rest of the callers continued to trash him using arguments against that city’s red team) whereas others made a certain amount of sense.
I don’t often think about the international game, and when I do, its seldom about England but something Alan said chimed true with me about the FA’s representative XI. They play all their home games at Wembley. That limits the amount of people who would be willing to see them, and the 68,000 tickets sold (according to the latest report I’ve seen) certainly does not represent a sell-out of the new Wembley (some 20,000 shy, to be honest).
I know why England play at Wembley, and I can see the FA’s rationale behind it. What I don’t see is why England don’t take a lead from the NFL (to whom they lend their stadium for one week per season) and take their team on tour, as they did in the years between the destruction of the old Wembley and the finish of the new one. It wouldn’t have to be for a competitive game, but if England played one international per calendar year at an English ground outside of Wembley (be it St Mary’s, Old Trafford or the Stadium of Light) and selected it on a relatively random basis, they would be able to take the team to play in front of different crowds, in different cities and in front of different people who would most likely not otherwise go.
The Italian national team don’t have a home stadium, and nor does the Spanish (indeed a friend of mine nearly ran into the Spain squad in Santiago de Compostela the other day – one day he’ll meet Iniesta), nor the Germans; nor even the French (who have a home stadium, but recently played in Le Havre, of all places). They don’t struggle for crowds, or success.
I did a little bit of research into this, and at the new Wembley, England average 87.48% capacity for friendlies (against 88.6% overall). When England were on tour, that total average was as high as 91.3% (friendlies were no lower at 89%), though, because England ended up playing so often at Old Trafford (14 times), figures were somewhat warped – remove the Manchester Utd venue from that list and the games were 93.9% sold out – admittedly, then, fewer fans, but 6% fuller grounds.
The FA could call the one non-Wembley home international per year the ‘Travelling International’ and, though it wouldn’t be at Wembley, the crowd would be just as partisan and just as loud. I realise, and I’m sure, there’d be some issues with sponsorship and companies who have paid to be associated with the team at Wembley, but in order take the national team back to the nation, surely these kinks would be worth ironing out?
I know, also, that fans are regularly told to put club loyalties aside when they’re watching England but can you imagine, Liverpool fans, seeing an England play (for example) Bulgaria at Wembley or at Anfield, and think which game would be more exciting to you? Can you imagine, Leeds Utd fans, seeing England play (for example) Moldova at Wembley or at Elland Road, and ask yourself the same question? Wembley is the home of English football, and the venue for its greatest moments, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the idea of ‘minor’ games being played at other grounds.
I don’t see England’s national team as a distant thing; I live in Kent now, but even when I was in Huddersfield, London didn’t feel a long way away, and I went to many games in the capital. The only times I saw representative games was an Under 21 game at the then McAlpine Stadium, and England B at Turf Moor – both close to home. For those fans in Carlisle, say, or Hartlepool, it’s a long way to travel to see your team at home. Though I don’t think using Brunton Park or Victoria Park is likely for the full national team, if, one year, there was a game at St James’ Park, I could imagine being straight on the phone to get tickets.
So yes, I think England should take one game on tour every year; sell out the ground, and take the team to the nation. I would love to see the FA arrange it (even just as a test).