The Good, The Bad, and The eTicket

FA Cup Semi Final – Everton FC v Liverpool FC
Thursday, 14th April 2012, 12.30pm
Wembley Stadium
Distance 14 miles, Attendance 87231 (naturally, I was the one)
Printing one’s own ticket is probably the least satisfying football experience EVER. I can’t be alone in thinking this. Forget bread queues, in my life there was football, baseball, music, theatre, literally anything… it really didn’t matter; I love the live experiences and to get them, there was a time when I’d stand in queues for endless adrenalin-fuelled hours just to get passed that magic ticket; a wonderful full-colour uniquely-numbered pocket-size voucher giving those there the keys to heaven (mostly). Don’t get me wrong, there were “tickets” for the match yesterday, it’s just I didn’t have one. I stared enviously at them, in others hands. In mine was a full-colour, laser-printed, A4 sheet of 90gsm paper. WHOOP!

This was my first trip to “the new Wembley” and arriving early, I emerged from Wembley Park station, intent on soaking up the atmosphere on the stroll up Wembley Way (actually called Olympic Way, Wembley Way is a small residential street a mile south of here). The sea of red and blue jovially moved south as one, towards the arch, beneath which their dreams would naturally be realised. To the sides food and merchandise stalls, but in the centre banners, and flags, and scarves, and endless photo opportunities for friends and loved ones. Was it the same? Sadly not. True I was, for once, totally neutral, but this wasn’t the way I remember it. I’ve done this walk countless times. The first was the 1979 League Cup Final, naturally supporting Southampton after Forest had cruelly knocked Watford out in the semi. That time I was totally in awe of The Towers. There followed trips with friends to Cup Finals, and replays, and Play Off Finals, the FA Trophy, and some incredibly wonderful now legendary concerts, the height of all was Queen in ’86 (just to be there, we were champions). On each of those occasions I rode on a high, throughout the day (sometimes without alcohol) but here I was on my own cup run, on “a mission from God” as Elwood would put it, circumnavigating the stadium anti-clockwise and it just didn’t have the same buzz.

   

With a light and happy stadium filling, club announcers were given the chance to stir their masses. Clubs songs were bellowed, and booed, as expected, by sections of the 2008 European Capital of Culture. To the east the reds held their scarves aloft, to the west hands pointed skyward. Club Wembley was a melting pot. Allegedly no club colours were permitted, but you can’t stop children can you, not on days like this. Neutrals aside, on the rest of the Reds and Toffees scarves were proudly adorned, side by side. When respect was needed the crowd became one. First, in applause for Gary Ablett then, as the teams lined up, in complete silence for The 96, the Hillsborough victims.

Everton kicked off. Seconds later the ball struck Howard Webb in the head. A roar of approval went up from the red half, the blues instead cheered their heroes who were (Andy Carroll chance aside) having the best of the opening exchanges. As the Goodyear Blimp hovered overhead I wondered if it was possible to see The Final from up there. Below Tim Howard, in camouflage gear, focussed his mind instead on a Liverpool free kick. The chances had been few in the opening quarter of an hour but Everton were clearly on top. Looking for an opener, Leon Osman breaking well made a hash of a pass when bearing down on goal. Then Phil Neville’s tidy wing play, and deflected cross, was met by an ambitious overhead kick from Nikica Jelavic only for it to go straight into the arms on 3rd choice Liverpool keeper Brad Jones. In contrast to the Toffees, Liverpool’s attack was completely ineffectual in the first half. When The Reds did get forward, play was often interrupted by free kicks, and offsides, and Luis Suarez’ insistence on comparing handbags with John Heitinga. As the team on top, it was no surprise therefore that Everton were first to breakthrough on 24 minutes. Schoolboy defending from Daniel Agger and Jamie Carragher, left the latter hitting the ball against Tim Cahill, which rebounded into the path of the unmarked Jelavic who calmly slotted home. Jones didn’t have a prayer. The People’s Club erupted in joy, The Reds sat head in hands. As I was checking out the empty seats in club, and wondering why football kit was now “tailored by Umbro”, around me fans chanted of Everton being by “far the greatest team the world has ever seen” (aren’t all our teams?). With few other opportunities to talk of, shortly before the break Glenn Johnson sent a great cross over from the right which was missed by all in the box. The frustration of Liverpool’s supporters was audible. It summed up their half. With that the fire drill began (before the halftime whistle) as fans dashed off to queue up for something.
Before running though the Club Wembley halftime experience I’d like to take you back 15 minutes… Now, those of you following my journey will know what I think of advertising in grounds, but nothing I’ve seen, or said before, could prepare me for Budweiser’s announcement today. There was I waiting for the usual early vote for Man of the Match nonsense, when suddenly up popped, “SECOND HALF COMING UP”. I’m no historian but I believe that for at least a century football’s been a game of two halves, and from experience everyone attending games, over the age of four, knows this… So exactly who is this announcement aimed at? And why does a beer company think we don’t know this already?

It was only when I saw the queues in Club Wembley that my mind was dragged from Bud’s patronising message. Admiring the hoards, claimed one senior steward to his underling “Not too bad is it?”… Ten minutes later, having given up on any kind of refreshment or toilet usage, I returned to my seat. A very nice padded seat with lots of leg room and arm rests, a good distance from the pitch and (when the irate Liverpool fan in front was seated) a wonderful view of the action. There are great things about Club Wembley but if I’m ever fortunate enough to be here again I need a better strategy to improve halftime service.
A minute into the action with many seats still unoccupied, Carroll missed a sitter in the six yard box. A beautifully weighted cross floated over to him at the back post, leaving Howard and his defence stranded, and Carroll headed wide. The message was clear, Kenny Dalglish had not been happy half time; earn your wages and pull your socks up (sorry I cannae do the accent). A few minutes later Jay Spearing trying to send Suarez clear hit the ball too hard. Liverpool wanted the game and Everton didn’t want to give it up. The tackles started to fly in and Howard Webb, who despite some fans’ claims, got busy in a fair and reasonable manner. Ten minutes in Bud first asked for “your” Man of the Match though no-one about me reached for their laptop to log on. With pressure on the blues increasing it was another defensive blunder which let Liverpool in on the hour. Sylvain Distin hit a weak back pass, Suarez intercepted and duly slotted home; again no keeper error. With their tails up, Liverpool had the next chance with a low shot through a crowded box but Howard was safely behind it. The substitutions started, attendance announced, and I rushed for the toilet (desperate to make Hendon FC for a 3pm kick off I needed to ready myself). In the concourse there was sadly no sound of the game outside. Staff stood about watching silent screens whilst soft rock piped from the speakers (I’m not sure I could work there). Back in my seat and fans were talking of penalties, but The Reds were still on top and it only felt like a matter of time before another goal arrived.  The action was increasing. Webb played advantage, Carroll shoots wide. Cahill stirs his side and Marouane Fellani shoots wide. Craig Bellamy (not everyone’s favourite) comes on and Gerrard is hacked down near the corner flag by Everton substitute Seamus Coleman. Three minutes left. Now I wouldn’t say it was intentional but as the free kick came over Carroll jumped highest and flicked the ball on, and past Howard. 2-1, game over. Before the whistle could go Liverpool hit the post but the blue half were already leaving the seats. Bidding my farewells to Dave & Graham I dashed for the exits, clutching my eTicket that would see me get in to Hendon FC v Kingstonian FC for a discounted fiver. There was 40 minutes to kick off and I was on (another) mission from God.

Whilst walking I mulled over the new Wembley experience. Why weren’t teams listed on programmes alphabetically as they once were? Why aren’t their more bars and toilets in Club Wembley? Why can’t I stand at football anymore? Why hadn’t it raised the hair on the back of my neck? It had been a new experience but not one to rival those I had as a teenager. I don’t like semi finals being held at Wembley. I missed the architecture of the Empire Stadium and the feeling of overwhelming history that soaked through your pores as you walked up Wembley Way, and I missed not having a proper ticket. No, today was not my day.

It wasn’t Allan Smart coolly scoring, nor Freddie Mercury hitting sublime notes, but as Liverpool hit the winner a dad next to me proudly raised his young son aloft, cheering in joy. Sharing the great moment. For that boy, that goal, in his first visit to this new Wembley to see his heroes… In years to come, this would be his nostalgia. All his future experiences would be based on this day. I envied him this.

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