It was good to be back at Wembley on Saturday. I say “back” because it gifts me the chance to throw in a favourite anecdote fom the annals of my (insert an adjective of your choice) life. By all means skip the next par or two.
The last time I was at Wembley was in November 1999 when I scored the winning goal in the final of a cup competition. Do let that sink in. This puts me in a very rare club. I make no apology for this shameless boast, although it does need a touch of earthing, some qualification.
The final was in a media game. Twenty minutes each way with every player pulling up regularly to gasp for air, hands on hips and face to the scared Wembley turf, before limply booting another misguided pass. I was a ringer for the News of the World and we had got through various rounds to play GQ in the final. I was up front. I can still see all the “action” of my goal now. It was as if it happened in slow motion. In fact, at our pitiful, schoolboy-strength of play, it was slow motion.
In the first half, a cross came over from the right and one of my brilliant team mates – let’s call him Pele – headed it back across the goal. Well, it ricocheted off his shoulder and he fell over, as if hit by a sniper. The ball bounced ahead of me in the six yard box and seemed to freeze. It was an invitation to immortality. A ball, a few yards from me, in front of a goal, at WEMBLEY. I lunged for all I was worth, the keeper scrambled, but I managed to connect with the ball first with toe and studs and gave it a desperate little poke. It dribbled into the right corner, barely troubling the string of the net. But it was a goal. Ultimately, the goal. The crowd (can you call 100-max in a stadium a crowd? OK, the gathering) went wild. The commentator called out my number (8) on the Tannoy and then, after a pause as he looked me up on the team sheet, my name echoed – literally – around the hallowed stadium.
My celebrations were curtailed. There was no excited, fatty-boy jog to the fans because in my desperation to stretch and score I had ripped my right hamstring to shreds. In total agony, I could hardly walk and immediately had to go off. (The sub was the NoTW’s “official” striker and he has – quite seriously – hated me to this day for stealing what he considered his moment in history). Whatever the merits of my skill, that was the goal wot won it. We followed our inspirational player/manager, Jimmy O’Leary, up the famous steps to collect the trophy – bizarrely, a shiny ice bucket – from Geoff Hurst and Jimmy Greaves. Cheers and bubbles in the famous bath and songs and beer on the coach home to Wapping in suits provided by Burton. Thank you for sharing this with me.
Anyway, as I was saying, I was back at Wembley for the community day, and what a stadium. It really is vast, wonderful, and even beautiful, as much as concrete and red seats can be. Even with no more than 20,000 watching a celebrity kick-a-bout, the noise when something happened was tremendous. The steep-sided Coliseum-like bowl seems to make the noise twirl and whoosh up over the crowd with huge force. When full, the atmosphere will be extraordinary and will make your heart pound. I will be back there again on Saturday for the Under 21’s and will report back.
Naturally, there were a few teething problems on this opening day, although it seems unfair to dwell on them. I queued for 45 minutes for fish and chips at a food bar that resembled Gatwick on a strike-hit bank holiday. I gave up when it was clear I had another half an hour to go, so I settled for a bag of crisps (Walkers SnV Big Bag, £1.50). Later I climbed to row 45 of the upper tier to check out the view from what I guess will be the worst seat in Wembley – and one any self-respecting ligging hack hopes never to occupy. Such is the altitude, I half expected to see Ralph Fiennes cavorting with one of the ticketing stewards. Oddly enough, the view of the game is not that bad up there. Maybe, it was an optical illusion caused by lack of oxygen.
During my descent, I stumbled across a queue-less snack stand and returned to my comfy executive seat with a piping hot and surprisingly tasty spicy chicken pie. I then enjoyed seeing Brian McFadden pull a hamstring and my old mate Chris Evans in left back fall on his arse and let a player through to score. A pie on the terraces at Wembley while watching rubbish football. Wonderful. As I said, it was good to be back.