On July 26, 1998, plans for a new Wembley were revealed to the world, promising a national stadium that the country could be proud of for decades to come as the new millennium dawned. But the state-of-the-art designs did not include one of the most characteristic features which had been part of this famous old ground since it was built over 70 years before; a decision which would shock and anger many at the time.
After its construction, to mark the Great Exhibition of 1924, Wembley would go on to host almost every big football game played, not to mention pretty much all the other big sporting occasions on the calendar, before it was eventually torn down in 2001.
The stadium was built by Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons and work began in 1922 at a cost of £750,000 and was completed in time for the 1923 FA Cup final between West Ham and Bolton Wanderers; a game which attracted more than 130,000 spectators as a white horse called Billie was used to keep the vast crowd off the pitch. So efficient was the process that the stadium was finished on time and on budget, before being tested by 1300 builders who stood up, sat down, swayed sideways, backwards and forwards, jumped up down while shouting and waving and running up and down several flights of steps in order to recreate the raucous behaviour of a football crowds of the time.
Key to the ground’s iconic status were the two huge towers at its front that would become one of the most recognised symbols in world football; standing 126 feet high and complete with flagpoles topped with ornate concrete crowns. Initially the towers were only intended to be a temporary feature and the plan was to demolish them after the exhibition, but the chairman of the exhibition committee Sir James Stevenson requested that they be preserved as they had become a feature of the local area, framing the approach to the stadium from Wembley Park tube station to the north.
In their time the towers looked down on no fewer than 77 FA Cup finals, the Olympic games of 1948, Live Aid, concerts by the likes of Queen, Wham! And The Spice Girls, not to mention Evel Knievel’s attempt to jump over 13 London buses in front of a crowd of over 80,000.
As the towers were originally built as short-term structures, and only designed to “resemble masonry," several alterations were required over the years to preserve them while in 1976 the structures were granted Grade II listed status such was their popularity. So when it was announced that the Twin Towers would be demolished to make way for the new 90,000 capacity stadium there was outrage among football fans and architectural enthusiasts alike.
English Heritage responded critically to the plans, writing to Brent London Borough Council and stating that they expected the Twin Towers to be preserved while agreeing they would not object to the rest of the stadium being demolished. Astonishingly, Minister for Sport at the time, Tony Banks, dismissed the towers as merely, "concrete blocks," as experts claimed that it would be impractical to move them due to the fact that they would crumble easily, making it impossible for them to be dismantled and reassembled somewhere else.
Brent Borough Council stated that they would not approve any new stadium that did not include the "iconic" Twin Towers and would only grant planning permission on the understanding that they would be preserved in one form or another. But despite a number of consultations the final designs for the new stadium reverted to the originals without the Twin Towers and when English Heritage withdrew their objections, it paved the way for one of the most iconic structures in the sporting world to be razed to the ground.
Demolition work began in December 2002 with the concrete crowns being removed from the top of the flagpoles before the towers were demolished in 2003 by a large excavation machine called "Goliath" which had been built in Germany especially for the task. When the newly built Wembley Stadium opened in 2007 after eight years of delays, rising costs and legal wrangles, it was seen as an arena for the next century, a template to which future stadiums would be compared rather like when the original opened on the same spot some 80 years before.
And although the queues for the toilets might not be as long, the views from behind the goal may be slightly less obstructed and the food choices on the concourses more on the exotic side, for the purist, the latest version of the national stadium could be accused of lacking the character and charm that made the previous incarnation so recognisable.
Like the dog track that hugged the hallowed turf, the ridiculously large dugouts, the gaping tunnel behind the goal, the most famous goal nets in the world and the famous 39 steps leading-up to the Royal Box; for generations of football fans across the globe the Twin Towers were Wembley and encapsulated everything that was magical about the most famous stadium in the world.
This article first appeared in The Sportsman on 26/07/19