One can’t talk about Wembley Park without talking about the Stadium. The FA has a critical part to play given this is, effectively, the home of the game.
Whatever people’s view of the Stadium, it was – and is – the catalyst for regeneration in this area. I’m responsible for the day-to-day operation of Wembley Stadium. I work for both the Stadium and the Football Association as one and the same thing.
Growing up in South West England, we looked at Wembley as a magical place. In 1985, when I was 22, a college friend played in the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final. A bunch of us organised a trip to come up and watch, with a minibus and lots of beer. I remember walking up ‘Wembley Way’ towards the Pedway, looking at the Arena, the old conference centre and, obviously, the Stadium. Having just finished a degree in leisure and recreational management, I can remember thinking how amazing it would be to work here. A year later, the opportunity arose and, thanks more to enthusiasm than skill or experience, I found myself working in this incredible place.
Like the perennial bad penny, I’ve left and come back numerous times. I’m now in my fourth spell. I joined as an assistant event manager at the Conference Centre in 1986. Over ten years, I worked up to a senior operational role in the Conference Centre, the exhibition hall, the Arena and then the Stadium. It was an astonishing training ground. I packed 20 years of experience into ten, simply by virtue of the scope, scale and mix of events we staged. Even the Conference Centre held impressive events like the Benson & Hedges snooker.
After a year away, I was invited back to help with delivering the European Championship in 1996. Those were some of the most magical experiences of old Wembley. England almost won, like we always do. Afterwards, I became involved with the FA, developing the design brief for the new Stadium. The building was designed to accommodate, broadly speaking, three sports, namely football, rugby league and athletics, due in part to the conditional funding from the then National Lottery. The athletics track could be overlaid on top of the pitch in the same way as at Hampden Park for the Commonwealth Games.
After working with the London Olympics in 2012 – when I was back here again as one of 31 venues I was managing – I was approached by the FA to help advise other stadiums around the world. That was my third post, acting as a stadium management consultant. I left to run muddy obstacle races for a year, on Tough Mudder, before taking up with Tottenham to help plan the operation of their new stadium. Once there I was sidetracked because, as White Hart Lane was being semi demolished, Spurs were playing their Champions League matches at – where else but – Wembley. So back I came, to become a customer of both the Stadium and Wembley Park. My decision to come back and work for the FA was a bit heartbreaking but it shows the pull Wembley has over me. It felt like coming home. The Tottenham fixtures have helped from an emotional point of view as Spurs is my team. But precious few stadiums have such a rich mix of football, rugby, NFL, concerts and boxing.
Wembley as a stadium is, I think, pretty good, personally. It’s a hell of a lot better than the Olympic Stadium or, shall we say, Stade de France, which is a compromise. Without it, there would be no transport links, and without the transport links, there would just be this great big lump of North West London. The building itself is a totally modern, state-of-the-art, world-leading icon. Stadiums aren’t too complicated. You want to get in quickly, buy something to eat or drink, go to the loo and have a decent view. The new Stadium addresses all those directly, a fantastically appropriate environment, I think, for the world-class events we host.
The other huge improvement is the hinterland of Wembley Park. Ten years ago, Wembley Stadium was an oasis in a horrendous desert of industrial space. A town has been created. It’s as simple as that, with residential accommodation, offices and, for our visitors, the entertainment and leisure facilities.
The residents, visitors and ourselves are all living in Europe’s biggest building site at present. That brings real challenges. We’re going through some pain, as are the residents, to get the long-term gain. For example, there are plans to knock the (fairly ugly) Pedway down and replace it with monumental stairs. The Pedway may be ugly but it has worked safely for 50 years, an effective way of bringing people in and out. The replacement staircase will have to be safe, requiring careful management to ensure no one slips, trips or falls, particularly when there are 80,000 people involved. Long term, I do believe it will look much more impressive, undoubtedly, and aesthetically more pleasing.
As the Football Association, we don’t always agree with the Council, nor with Quintain. I’m sure they’d say the same of us. But I think we have a very good working relationship now. We work as a tripartite group to address the challenges of managing the Wembley Park estate and to make event days better for everyone. We talk to the residents too with a residents' committee that meets every so often a useful interface between the parties. Being fair, for the last two years we’ve pretty much doubled the number of events and that’s not been easy for the residents. My hope for the future is to get the job finished.
While the Stadium is my favourite feature of Wembley Park, the area around it is now undoubtedly better. You used to come to an event, your event, arriving late because there was nothing to do. You would leave as soon as you could to go off into town or wherever. Now Wembley Park is becoming a true destination venue. People come and stay the night. There are numerous hotels, restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Quite rightly, a stadium of this stature has become a place where you can spend a couple of days to take in a show at the Arena, watch a football match and perhaps a concert. I’m astonished by the number of tourists who now choose to stay at Wembley for their trip, rather than in central London.
I still love watching football. I’ve had two years of watching my football team play here. I still get a tingle when I see that arch. It’s a magical place as far as I’m concerned. I encourage my staff team to get out of the Stadium and walk around. I love walking down the road from Wembley Park station with the Stadium as a backdrop. There can’t be too many more impressive arrivals.
I would miss the full house, magical event days most. FA Cup Final Day is probably the pinnacle, but the semi-finals are incredible with more genuine fans inside the Stadium. The noise, just before kick-off, is amazing. Without the pomp and ceremony of the Final, there are just two teams, equally matched, fighting it out in front of the faithful. Incredible. I would sorely miss those massive sporting occasions (and we haven’t even touched on concerts which used to be my forte).
I had thought to mention Sid Franks as the embodiment of Wembley. A retired local resident, Sid was a Wembley Stadium Community Officer, appointed by the entrepreneur, Sir Brian Wolfson, in the 1980s. Previously a fierce critic, he became a poacher-turned-gamekeeper and the inspiration for better traffic control, litter picking and street stewarding on event days.
However, my pass-it-on choice is much more contemporary. When we start to move 75,000 people out of the Stadium after a concert, most of them go up to Wembley Park Tube station. They need controlling, as we can’t just let them all walk onto the platforms which would be dangerous. So we hold and pulse them safely into the station, which can take an hour or more. Among the stewards who look after the public, there’s this brilliant guy called Shaky (his real name is Shaied Afsar). A staff supervisor, he’s introduced post-concert karaoke at the Tube station. He uses his phone to play music to the crowd while they’re waiting. The sing songs that result, at the end of a concert, are just great, great experiences. Shaky gets them all singing and it’s just magical, a genius piece of positive crowd control. It’s a brilliant way for an event to end and the crowds go home with this amazing memory of Wembley and Wembley Park. Which, of course, they can pass on.
An extract from PASS IT ON...Voices from Wembley Park originally published in 2019. View the full book here.