The world's most potent sporting landmarks are consigned to history

A Century Of Wembley Highlights Beneath The Doomed Twin Towers
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The Independent Online
SO IT is farewell to the Twin Towers. The world-famous symbols of Wembley, originally built as a celebration of empire, are to be consigned to the scrapheap of history as the vast majority of Britain's dominions were decades ago.

Instead the brave new Wembley National Stadium, ambitiously dubbed "the best in the world", will boast four giant steel masts that will stand 137m tall and be visible from central London when the ground is completed in 2003.

At the ceremony to unveil the new design yesterday, respectful homage was paid to the old stadium's illustrious past. Images were aired of the inaugral FA Cup Final there in 1923, which became known as the `white horse final' after mounted police had to clear the pitch of spectators before the game. Pictures were also shown of the 1948 Olympic Games; Live Aid in 1985; and of course England winning the World Cup in 1966.

But the main thrust was towards the future, and hopes that the new stadium will attract the 2006 World Cup to Britain, and maybe even another Olympics in 2012. There was simply no room for sentiment about a couple of lumps of early fero-concrete.

"In short, we're going to knock the towers down," said Ken Bates, the famously abrasive chairman of Chelsea and of Wembley National Stadium Limited, and the man attributed with finally forcing through a deal after years of procrastination.

The last resistance to the towers being flattened itself crumbled in the hours before the announcement, when English Heritage announced that it was dropping its objections. The conservation body had previously insisted that they somehow be incorporated into the new design or at least replicated somewhere on the site.

Sir Norman Foster, the architect of the new stadium, explained that it was "simply not possible" to retain them. Because the new structure will be built 25m further north than the existing stadium the current building must be entirely demolished, he said.

"The towers are not bricks, they cannot be taken down and reconstructed elsewhere," said Lord Foster. "They are a few inches of reinforced concrete, and they don't even go down to the ground."

He added that the cost of moving the towers to a new location had been estimated at pounds 20m and that was deemed too expensive. "You've got to have a pretty good justification for doing that, and for me I can't think of a strong justification. The towers were emblematic at their time, but that was a long time ago and things have moved on," he said.

From footballers who participated in some of Wembley's finest hours to long-suffering fans who were forced to shuffle through its down-at-heel facilities, it was hard to find anyone who in the end disagreed with him. Sadness, yes. But no serious signs of resistance.

"When I first went to Wembley as a little boy I was very excited by the experience," said Sir Bobby Charlton, who is part of the England 2006 committee to bring the World Cup competition here and who was at the presentation yesterday. "I've not felt like that for a long time, but I got quite excited today when the plans were unveiled. I can't wait for it to be finished."

Sir Bobby starred both in the 1966 World Cup final and in the 1968 European Cup Final when Manchester United became the first English club to win the trophy.

"The old Wembley is a symbol of football's rich history; the new Wembley is all about the future. It would be a fitting venue for the 2006 World Cup final," he said.

Ian Todd, chairman of the National Federation of Football Supporters' Clubs, said: "The pragmatic view is that the removal of the towers is sad but inevitable, and the fact that Wembley is an extremely uncomfortable place means that a new, super-modern stadium will be very much appreciated."

Wembley Stadium was conceived as the centrepiece to the British Empire Exhibition of 1924, itself seen as a spiritual boost for a nation traumatised by war and wallowing in a world trade slump. Each dominion had its own pavillion to demonstrate their glories, and British industry gained a prestigious shop window.

The entire area was re-developed for the purpose, providing thousands of jobs for ex-servicemen, and the top was sliced off the top of Wembley Hill for the purpose, with the removal of 150,000 tons of clay.

But it was the prospect of a new Empire Stadium that most fired the public imagination, and was used as a major selling point for the whole project when its fund-raising effort was launched by the Prince of Wales at the Mansion House.

In May 1921 a deal was signed that was to ensure the ground's future standing, when the Football Association agreed to stage the FA Cup Final there for an initial period of 21 years. It was finished just in time to host Bolton, West Ham, 127,000 fans and a famous white horse at a cost of some pounds 300,000.

If it stays within budget, the new stadium on completion will have cost pounds 475m as against original estimates of pounds 320m. It was stressed yesterday that improved facilities would be provided that were not in the original design brief.

The new Wembley will accommodate 90,000 fans for football and rugby matches, more than 10,000 more than the current capacity, and is designed to incorporate a track and athletics field on a rigid platform 6.5m above the pitch. This would still leave seating for 67,000, and bids are expected to be made to stage the World Athletics Championships as well as the Olympics. It will also feature a 200-bed hotel, the largest banqueting hall in London, 100,000 sq ft of office space and a museum based on the history of the stadium.

Wembley National Stadium Limited is a wholly owned subsidiary of the FA, and will raise pounds 355m to fund the project through commercial loans, debentures and bonds. The project has already been granted pounds 120m in Lottery funds. Work is scheduled to start in September of next year, providing that planning permission is granted.

"The development of a new national stadium has been a long time in the making," Chris Smith, the Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, said yesterday. "Trying to match a stadium as legendary as the old stadium was some task, but I think that that has been done."