For as long as I can remember, Liverpool fans, especially Scousers, have had a sniffy attitude towards Wembley, or Wembley Stadium, to give its erstwhile, grander title.
The Reds’ annual visits for FA Cup Finals, a succession of League Cup Finals, innumerable Charity Shields and even one of our European Cup triumphs made the epicentre of English football almost a second home. However, it was Liverpool’s largely successful record there, rather than a deep-rooted affection for the place that gave rise to the nickname, Anfield South.
Even in those heady days, Wembley’s uniquely lush green turf, mown into military lines and the aesthetically pleasing masonry of the old Twin Towers didn’t quite float the boat of every Liverpool fan. A friend of my Dad was notorious for his Wembley early dart; as soon a winning position was established he’d be back in the car and only a few hours later in a pub, bragging he was the first fella back in Liverpool. Every year.
The chaos of the North Circular road and the surrounds of a joyless concrete jungle deglamourized the occasion, not to mention the struggle to obtain tickets from legions of London touts. Resorting to foul means over fair – for some – to liberate those treasured tickets entered the Liverpool travelling legend but it was a stress most of us could’ve done without.
In particular the contrast three days apart in May 1977 summed it up. The usual parsimonious FA Cup Final allocation meant thousands missed, or should we say were spared the pain of defeat to Manchester United, but when it came to Rome in midweek all and sundry were there to decorate the Stadio Olimpico in red and white check. In a move that set the tone for decades of Scouse fan culture, Wembley’s traditional, dated cup-final banners were eschewed for continental flags.
Anyone who went to the old ground – opened in 1923 for the British Empire Exhibition – will remember that by the 1980s it was a crumbling relic; its inadequate toilets the estuaries for rivers of p*ss. The steep steps of the Upper Standing Enclosures actually afforded a great spec but with the architectural curve of the terracing if you were unfortunate to be in the shallow lower standing areas all the excitement of being part of 100,000 crowd was lost as soon as the inevitable big oink in a cheap cup final cap stood in front of you.
The new place; all clean lines and pristine tiers of seating ensures that you can see but still you’re a millions miles from the blood and thunder of the action. And, while the old stadium rocked to a thud of bouncing fans on concrete, new Wembley has little in the way of natural acoustics. Perhaps it is too vast but singing seems to exist only in pockets as though contained within the blocks numbered on your ticket. Seldom does a song sweep round the ground in unison.
Mystique has truly been lost with the surfeit of games staged there; semi-finals, play-offs, you name it. Suffice to say the Wembley legends of Stanley Matthews and Bobby Moore, and our own Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish have been somewhat tarnished by practically every average Joe footballer in the country at some stage ripping his studs through once-hallowed turf.
Any lingering sentiment for Wembley isn’t helped by our dubious record since the place reopened in 2007. It took us five years to get there, and even then Cardiff City took us to penalties. The highlight – of course – was shattering a cocky Everton dream in the 2012 FA Cup Semi-final. Ironically, Andy Carroll – in the main an expensive flop in a Red shirt – was a Wembley hero that day and very nearly again against Chelsea when a crossbar denied him a memorable brace and possibly Kenny Dalglish a cup double.
Losing to Aston Villa in the 2015 FA Cup semi-final was a nadir for Brendan Rodgers and penalty heartache at the hands of Manchester City a year later, not only completed an inglorious trio of defeats but also set the narrative for Jurgen Klopp’s cup final hoodoo.
Putting a tin hat on our recent record at Wembley is the 4-1 drubbing last season at the hands of this weekend’s Premier League opponents. Tottenham have had the indecency to not have their new house ready to receive their guests and are metaphorically still paying keep to their parents. So, back we go again to this ugly part of North London.
But, our weekend excursion still represents an opportunity; to buck a worrying Wembley trend and change perceptions of a place – whether we like it or not – where much of football’s loot is on offer.