England on tour attract new breed of spectator

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The Independent Online

For a fixture that was supposed to have long since sold out, it was something of a surprise to see queues streaming back from St James' Park's ticket office in the morning sunshine. England's staggering victory over Germany had averted a potential embarrassment at Newcastle, where they faced staging a game against Albania that had supposedly "sold out" months ago, with a quarter of the seats empty.

The tickets sold yesterday morning were part of a huge allocation returned by the England Members Club, made up of those who regularly follow the national team. As Steve Beauchampé, formerly the international co-ordinator for the Football Supporters' Association, remarked: "They would go to Munich or Paris but they wouldn't dream of going to Manchester or Newcastle."

If you look out on any bank of England fans in a corner of a foreign stadium, you would notice the St George's banners emblazoned with the names of the owners' home towns. They would invariably be places like Maidstone, King's Lynn, Ilfracombe, Woking... usually in the south and often with little footballing pedigree.

They are people for whom the concepts of England and Wembley are inseparable and they are unlikely to want to slog up to Tyneside on a Wednesday night to watch Albania, which is of course what everybody from Tyneside has had to do in reverse for the past 50 years.

The concept of a national stadium is one that does not extend much beyond Britain, France and Belgium and Wembley was designed to host the FA Cup final rather than England. From 1923, when it famously opened its doors with the "White Horse Final", until 1951 England hosted 51 internationals of which Wembley staged 11 – all but one against Scotland.

Virtually every major club ground was given fixtures and if England had a special venue it was Highbury, where the world champions, Italy, were overcome in 1934 and a Rest of Europe team was contemptuously brushed aside 3-0 in October 1938, days before Newcastle put on its last international.

However, in 1951 things changed. Wembley found that putting on one cup final every year and hosting the Scots every other April was not paying the bills and signed an exclusive contract with the FA to move England games to this unlovely corner of north London.

"There was a boom in attendances after the War and those for speedway and greyhound racing, which Wembley also staged, began falling off," said Simon Inglis, author of The Football Grounds of England. "It was also the year after the Maracana opened in Brazil and staged the World Cup final and the feeling was that England needed somewhere like that."

The age of Wembley began on 28 November 1951 with a 2-2 draw against Austria in which a certain Alf Ramsey scored and for the next 44 years just six matches were staged away from the capital. "London has been indulged over the years," said Beauchampé, who, coming from Birmingham favours a national stadium in Coventry. "They have had their chance."

Since Wembley was shut down, England has become a touring company and a highly successful one with occasional blips. Neither the FA, the media nor the public, who had to struggle to a ground without adequate public transport links, was much impressed by the manner Tottenham hosted last month's friendly with the Netherlands, where Sol Campbell was "rested" in case his presence at White Hart Lane provoked a backlash. Outside the capital, supporters can be more generous.

Alan Shearer, a bogeyman on Wearside, was given a generous hand when he led England out at Sunderland in October 1999, while David Beckham said he dates his new rapport with his country's football supporters from the victory over Finland, achieved at Anfield, where Manchester United players are despised. "When England games are taken outside London, you have more people who are watching them for the first time," Beauchampé said. "And they have more respect."

Why, then, spend £650m on a national stadium, especially when Arsenal will have a 65,000-seater stadium in five years' time to give London a significant venue? "It is a question of what sort of statement we want to make about ourselves," Inglis said. "We need somewhere to stage the FA Cup final and if we ever want to host the World Cup, we will require an 80,000-seater stadium. Holland decided it would not build a stadium bigger than the Amsterdam ArenA, which is too small to stage a World Cup final. Do we want to be a Holland or are we are a Germany or an Italy?"

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