Football: Wembley falls short of Highbury passion play

Richard Edmondson sees a north London street party lose itself in the vastness of an unfamiliar stadium
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The Independent Online
THEY APPRECIATED the game being played at Wembley to accommodate the legions of local north London followers. Highbury would not have been sufficient.

And judging from the streams emerging in team colours from the Tube plugholes yesterday evening the experiment had worked. Panathinaikos fans were out in force.

The green and white stripes you normally see coming out of a different sort of tube seemed to be everywhere. And with the army came the regimental tunes. There may not have been many who had flourished passports on the way to the twin towers, but the melodies on the march down Wembley Way were nevertheless of a foreign tongue. The chants were heavy and rasping, probably too much basso profundo for Nana Mouskouri's greatest hits and certainly too deep to be the work of Demis Roussos. The quality of football chanteurs is the one reliable element in the global game.

The approaches to Wembley were mercifully civilised, free of jostling or aggravation. Those who witnessed Arsenal's ill-tempered barging match with Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday would have been happy to observe that, in this instance at least, life was not imitating art.

Congestion on the way to the ground meant that kick-off was put back incrementally until either 8.10pm was reached or it was deemed that the attendance was sufficient. Some day all grounds will be filled this way.

Ray Parlour, the announcer told us repeatedly as he filled in time, had failed his fitness fight but, by God, he was given every chance to recover.

The entertainers finally emerged to Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff", by which hour it was getting dangerously close to hot chocolate time. Tony Adams, mindful of the fact that he was facing Greeks, had been overtaken by the thoughts of holiday destinations. Within the first two minutes he seemed to be burrowing in the direction of the Great Barrier Reef as he threw himself headlong at Dennis Bergkamp's free-kick.

The visitors, having lost their marbles once, were not, however, in a mood to repeat the loss without a fight. As the red waves were repelled the supporting chorus grew fainter. Despite the fulsome crowd and a thunderous drumbeat in the visiting quarter, a frenetic atmosphere proved difficult to maintain.

Wembley lends the impression of huge acreage even though it is only the width of a stair carpet on either side bigger than the Arsenal's more familiar territory. About 35,000 at Highbury sounds at least as impressive as twice that number at Wembley, where spectators slope some way back from the action. The national stadium offers less of a sense of bear pit than bear's picnic.

Panathinaikos were right to look at home here in both surroundings and tournament. It was back in 1971 that they lost in the European Cup final here to Ajax Amsterdam, at a time when the Dutchmen were the premier agents for cleaning up in Europe. Arsenal may be the best product England can muster, but last night they looked no better than "brand X" for long periods. Adams, ironically, lifted the hangover before Martin Keown made the Gunners feel a lot better.

As the match progressed there was little to fear from the Greeks, who had offered two second-half gifts. Athens will not be so hospitable for Arsenal and the volume button will be turned up much louder than it was following Mauro's consolation. The Gunners will need to keep the composure they laid out before us last night. Patrick Vieira and his fellow World Cup winner, Emanuel Petit both found their way into the book but both will commit fouls worse than last night's without punishment.

As the 73,455 customers (dubiously bracketed as Arsenal's record home attendance) filed out, largely happy, into the cold air, they were shortly to be made aware that a regular form of central heating was to be denied them. It was almost certainly skeleton staff only on the Greek restaurants north of the river last night. Those in red and white who managed to get a meal probably got more sauce than they bargained for.