Wembley: Testaments to its historic past clutter the front entrance like knick-knacks on a mantelpiece

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The Independent Online
Wembley. History. Wembley. History. The words merge into each other.

Those now in charge of the old stadium feel the need to stress the point, styling it "The Venue Of Legends". But even making England's arena sound like the latest challenging bestseller by Erich Von Daniken cannot spoil the sense of place. Naff veneer over oak.

Wembley is not tacky. Wembley, its twin towers greying like long-kept wedding cake pillars, is shabby.

Testaments to its historic past clutter the front entrance like knick- knacks on a mantlepiece. Either side of the black-and-red bossed doors which have swung open for a generation of team coaches stand marble plinths commemorating the 1948 Olympics.

Craning up at the list of winners last Sunday, I noted the name of Fanny Blankers-Koen, mother-of-two and original housewife superstar, who answered those who said she was too old at 30 to win any medals by taking four on the Wembley track - all gold .

The door itself bore a more transitory memorial left over from last month's match against Moldova - "We'll Do It For You, Diana". Above, the plaque marking the 1966 World Cup finals, with those sweet concluding words. Winners: England.

The 39 steps up which Bobby Moore walked to receive that trophy from the Queen, and the ledge on which he so fastidiously wiped his hands beforehand, are gone. Redeveloped into seating.

Thus, for the 180 children and adults offered the chance to experience the stadium at first hand last weekend through a Coca-Cola competition, the promise of "climbing the famous Wembley steps" was misleading. But all the rest was the real thing. Sorry, I mean the ultimate footballing dream. No, I mean... well, you know what I mean.

For the first time in Wembley's history, Portugal were offered the home changing-room before their match. On this occasion, however, the national title was a badge of convenience for a team of 14 and 15-year-olds randomly combined from the list of competition winners.

As "France", their opponents for the 12 minutes of Wembley action allotted to them, prepared across the corridor, there was a brief opportunity to take in some historical detail.

"Not much, are they?" someone said, looking around.

Blue paintwork, plain cream walls. A clock. Call them old-fashioned if you like - Wembley's changing-rooms are the sort of environment in which you could still imagine the Tottenham Double side preparing.

"Everybody can look at the bath and showers," an official announced. Everybody did.

Burgundy tiles you would want to take a mallet to. And a strong smell of toilets. So this was where our England heroes wound down.

"It's nice round the back here," said a lad with ginger hair. But it wasn't, partic- ularly.

As the teams stood beside the pitch awaiting their cue, one of the Football Association coaches who had helped in their preparation shouted out to them. "Come in the tunnel boys. Let's do it properly." Back they filed into the white, caterpillar tent which ushers Gascoigne and Co into the stadium on noisier occasions.

"Go for it, boys," said another coach. "Full out attack. We are at Wembley, probably for the only time in your life."

The main stand was sprinkled with friends and relatives. The MC commentating on the matches was relaxed - "so here come the blues... blues attacking now.. Oooh! I thought that was in!". But there was no mistaking the nervousness in the faces of those who waited, bouncing footballs, blowing out air sharply. They were doing it properly.

Celebrations were also observed properly throughout the afternoon. Some teams favoured the mass sprint in a line and dive. For individual goalscorers, shirts tugged madly up over the face were de rigeur - that Fabrizio Ravanelli has a lot to answer for. One scorer did a Ravanelli to reveal a specially prepared T-shirt of Ian Wright. That Ian Wright has a lot to answer for, too, come to think of it.

When Wembley is reduced to its listed towers and rebuilt as the National Stadium - it could happen any millennium now - the Sunday footballers who got to tread its steeply cambered pitch will retain something precious.

The events which took place will also prove richly rewarding for photographic developers around the country - there were probably more pictures taken than on a big international night.

"Mind my grass, Mum," said one of the Romanian team - under-16 girls - as they left the field, handing over a handful of sacred turf before climbing Wembley's - relatively - famous steps. "Well done, Vicky!" shouted another Mum as the rest of the players filed by.

Wembley. History. Vicky. It was a good mix.

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