Britain: We're on our way to Wembley - the Sistine Chapel of football

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The Independent Online
A tour of Wembley stadium may be a football fan's idea of heaven. But how about other members of the family who are dragged along as well? All the Muirheads, winners of a day out with `The Independent', were unexpectedly impressed, as Alister Morgan observed.

If football stadiums, as communal places of worship, are modern-day churches, then London's Wembley stadium is the equivalent of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.

Images of Wembley, filled with 70,000 screaming fans, are commonplace, but its daily tours attract considerably fewer visitors. For pounds 21, a family of four can take a tour that includes lifting a replica of the Football Association Cup to a background recording of crowds roaring over the loudspeaker system.

On the day we were there, the tour group included a cosmopolitan mix of parents, foreign sightseers and football pilgrims. Mr and Mrs Muirhead took their two teenage sons, John and Neil, and signed up for the tour with only a quarter of the family fully expecting to be impressed. As an enthusiastic football fan, Neil was typical of many visitors, but it would be fair to say that the rest of the family was equivocal.

The tour lasts around 90 minutes (the length of a football match) and provides enough variety to keep the congregation interested. It begins with a chance to decide whether Geoff Hurst's famous "goal" in the 1966 World Cup final against Germany did indeed cross the line, before leading the group into the Wembley Stadium control centre. What the tour guide doesn't know about the facility is probably not worth knowing and, in tandem with Des Lynam's smooth prerecorded interjections via video, a steady stream of facts is provided.

A short trip to the stadium cinema illustrates the overriding sense of history. Over the years Wembley has housed much more than football matches; this glimpse into the past portrays the twin towers in the same light as Big Ben and Tower Bridge.

For Mr and Mrs Muirhead, their elder son John and other visitors who would not list football as their favourite pastime, the most successful sections of the tour were behind the scenes.

Viewing the minuscule, untidy box where Des Lynam and guests work during big games revealed the true wonder of television, while a visit to the Queen's private box was highly entertaining. The lavishly decorated room, while modest in size, set a thousand images running through the mind. When our guide explained that one particular door led to Her Majesty's private bathroom, and then told us that we were forbidden so much as a glimpse inside, the mind began to boggle.

The non-football-loving members of the Muirhead family were visibly engaged by the tour. Despite Wembley's unimpressive location and its ugly, concrete foundations, it was hard not to be impressed by the sheer size of the venue.

"That's where Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones performed `Start Me Up'." the guide would point out. "This is the spot where the flame was lit during the 1948 Olympic Games in London"; "The stage for Live Aid was over there."

For football fans such as Neil, every room, seat and corridor conjures up images of countless matches watched on television. If you have attended a big game at Wembley the sounds, smells and sights (and the outrageous prices) come flooding back. The players' changing rooms, adorned with replica England football shirts, are immaculate. As the sacred retreat of the players, you would never see pictures of these rooms on the TV, and the effect was not lost on Neil.

Fittingly, it was in this room that he plucked up courage to ask two footballers, from Tromso in Norway, for an autograph. They were playing against Chelsea FC the following evening in the European Cup Winners' Cup but they had come, like pilgrims, to Wembley (if they were looking for inspiration they weren't entirely successful, as their side lost 7- 1 the following night). In addition to signing their names they also took photographs of one another in the changing-rooms.

Everyone, though, was disappointed when told that they were not allowed to tread the famous Wembley turf or so much as kick a single football. "It's a bit rubbish to come all this way and not be allowed to touch a single blade of grass," was Neil's comment.

But this was not enough to spoil the tour. "A surprisingly good time" was Mrs Muirhead's sporting verdict on the day's outing.

Wembley Stadium tours (0181-902 8833) are held 10am-3pm daily except match days: adults pounds 6.95; children and OAPs pounds 4.95; concessions pounds 5.95

The Muirhead family was invited to participate in a day out for `The Independent' after sending us their nomination for the Independent/English Tourist Board Family Holiday of the Year award. Their suggestion - The Flower House, Goongillings Cottage, Constantine, Falmouth, Cornwall (01326 340630) - was announced as the winner last week.