I Was There - The Day Football Came Home To Wembley

On 24 March 2007, the new national stadium finally opened its doors
10:00, 24 Mar 2020

The closest I ever got to attending the original Wembley Stadium was on its final day in operation in October 2000. Helping out with some interviews down Wembley Way for my job in radio, I got my first and last glimpse of the famous twin towers which had become the symbol of English football over a 77-year period.

By the time I finally got to see a game of football when the new national stadium opened on 24 March 2007 a hell of a lot had changed. England had moved on from Kevin Keegan to their first-ever foreign manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson, and subsequently appointed Steve McClaren. David Beckham had had his entire run as the Three Lions’ captain away from England’s spiritual home and was now an ostracised figure, dumped by McClaren as part of a desire to turn a new page.

Off the pitch there had been delay after infinite delay as the construction timetable became nothing short of a farce. The initial idea was to begin demolition immediately after England’s 1-0 loss to Germany in the 2002 World Cup qualifier which had brought down the curtain on the old stadium. The new building would be open for business by 2003, so the plan went, but it would take two years for work to even start.

With the opening date moved back to 2006, England’s home friendly against Hungary ahead of that summer’s World Cup was meant to be the big unveiling, with the opponents picked deliberately to commemorate the 6-3 victory of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ in 1953 which was one of the first stadium’s most memorable games and became dubbed far and wide as ‘The Match of the Century’. But further delays meant it would be another 12 months before the Three Lions would eventually tread the new hallowed turf.Before England could play in the new 90,000-capacity three-tier structure, test events had to take place in front of reduced capacities so that a full safety licence could be attained. And the first of those was played on this day 13 years ago, with England’s under-21s taking on their Italian counterparts in a friendly which would attract a crowd of 55,700.

Walking up Wembley Way that day I started to feel like I was Charlie Bucket, clutching tightly onto the ticket I’d spent hours queuing online for as I craned my neck up to see the sheer scale of the new 134-metre high arch. My head was dizzy with anticipation at the prospect of getting that first glimpse of English football’s answer to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It was a step into the unknown, a look at the future.

Inside it was everything I had heard the old stadium not to have been. The first Wembley, I was reliably informed, was a relic. It was knocked down 10 or 20 years after its time, with its archaic, smelly concourses doing nothing for the matchday experience. But the new building was space-age in comparison.

There were escalators up to the top tier and wide, spacious concourses once you got there. Toilets were plentiful, memorabilia outlets well stocked, and countless food and drink stands had all sorts for sale at very… VERY… 21st-century prices. The stadium had cost almost £1bn to build in total, and when inside it was clear to see why so much money had gone into it.

Some fans were still taking their seats when the very first goal at the new stadium was scored, Italy striker Giampaolo Pazzini netting with a speculator from 20 yards just 28 seconds after the opening whistle. He’d score twice more in what was a thrilling inaugural fixture.

England came from behind to lead 2-1, with David Bentley equalising from a Beckham-esque free-kick before Wayne Routledge struck at the near post, and Matt Derbyshire briefly gave the home side the advantage once more after Italy had levelled. But Pazzini would get the last word just as he had got the first, netting from Alessandro Rosina’s brilliant first-time pass to make it 3-3.

This was stadium tourism at its finest. A game few would have seriously considered attending at any other venue had done more than its share to entertain in an arena everyone spent at least part of the 90 minutes staring at in awe. This was the new home of English football, and we had been privileged enough to be among the first to be there.

Thirteen years on, some still love it and some still hate it. For the former it remains the big day out, the turf you long to see your team grace at the end of the season in a cup final of some description. For those at the opposite end of the scale it is the very essence of British football gone corporate, a stadium too difficult to reach and almost impossible to leave in reasonable time.

But, like any troublesome teenager, it is ours. And it is 13 years old already. Where does the time go?