It’s extraordinary how emotive, even now, the subject of bulldozers in the vicinity of Wembley Stadium can be. You would think that we had gone through every possible emotion on that topic and duly exorcised them all in the early years of this century, when, amid much wailing and rending of garments, the historic but battered old version of the ground was razed, pepper pots and all, and the shiny new version rose in its place.
Yet even now, clearly, to mix fresh concrete in that area is to meddle with the very fabric of the national game. Certainly some of those old protective feelings seemed to surge again this week with news of the plan to demolish the twin pedestrian walkways which currently carry you up and over Wembley’s service road, and replace them with a new set of ‘Olympic Steps.’
Going in hard, the developers were describing the dual overpass as ‘an awkward relic of the old Wembley Stadium’ and maintaining that it is entirely without ‘structural or architectural merit.’ Which I believe is what we call, in urban planning circles, a burn.
Yet the response in some quarters was wistful lamentation at yet another blow to the spirit of football’s home. One report with this flavour referred to the overpass as Wembley’s ‘iconic pedway’ – a bit of a stretch, perhaps, for two rather unlovely strips of slowly rising, plain concrete, and strips of plain concrete which were only added in the mid-1970s, making the ‘preservation on the grounds of heritage’ argument a little tricky to mount.
Also, has anyone ever used the term ‘iconic pedway’ in conversation, at any point in the last 50 years?
‘Where shall we meet before the game?’
‘What about at the foot of the iconic pedway?’
I may go out of my way to apply the term, and as frequently as possible, when we’re up at Wembley for our FA Cup semi-final next month. Given that time seems to be quickly running out in which we can legitimately do so, it only makes sense.
Reports also seemed to suggest that work on the steps would cause Wembley to close for three months in the run-up to the 2020 Euros, when the stadium is down to host some group matches, plus the semi-finals and final. At this particular detail, the ears of Chelsea fans might well have pricked up. Obviously, it’s all entirely hypothetical at this stage and nothing about the schedule is set for certain. Yet you had to wonder where that need to close Wembley for three months in two years’ time might leave the plans of any Premier League club currently intending to redevelop its own stadium, and looking to spend seasons using a temporary home.
Anyway, no doubt all this will shake down in due course. Meanwhile, we can work out exactly how much we’re going to miss the old overpass when it’s gone. And, let’s be fair, it does hold at least some kind of historic standing as the famous ‘parting of the ways’ – one team’s fans going left, the other team’s fans going right.
However, the developers are promising, by way of compensation, ‘a stunning new set of steps’ and there seems to be no reason to doubt them. Iconography and tradition are, at least, on their side. The old Wembley was always about the steps – in particular the 39 ones leading up to, and down from the Royal Box, a symbolic journey which rather lost its simple power in the new venue, where climbers intending to reach the summit must go up one flight, turn right along the corridor, go left past the boiler room, walk up another flight to the landing… not unlike the timeless scene in the movie ‘This is Spinal Tap!’ where the band struggles to find the stage. (It’s 107 steps to get to the Royal Box these days – three times the voyage which, in an age in which inflation in real terms has been more or less stagnant, is surely unacceptable.)
Apparently the development of the steps will also give rise to ‘a major new urban space’. Does that mean burger vans? We’re not told. But many among us, I’m sure, would like to see at least a token return to the days when the whole of Wembley Way, from the tube station to the bottom of the ‘iconic pedway’, was lined with food stalls, enabling the pedestrian with time on his or her hands to take a gourmet tour of some of north-west London’s very finest pop-up cuisine. That grand parade of casual eating opportunities was swept away in the new, more streamlined and less messy arrangements, and it was undoubtedly fine dining’s loss. Indeed, I sometimes think I can still taste the par-boiled hotdog with onions I bought from one of those concessions on the way, in the sunshine, to our 1997 FA Cup final victory against Middlesbrough – but perhaps, on reflection, not in a good way. Ah, well. Bring on the steps, anyway.