James Milner, the member of Fabio Capello's squad who worked harder than any other in Sunday's Carling Cup final, yesterday declared the state of the Wembley pitch to be worse than non-league standard and "one of the worst" he has played on all season.
Milner struggled to keep his feet on the surface on Sunday, as did most of the Aston Villa and Mancheter United players, and said it reflected poorly on the English game. "It was very difficult. It's slippery and cutting up so hopefully it can improve because it wasn't good," he said. "You work as hard as you can to get to a Wembley cup final and it's probably one of the worst pitches you play on all season. Hopefully it can be rectified because growing up and watching games at Wembley everyone's says it was like playing on a carpet. Obviously in a cup final you want to be playing in a great stadium – which it is – and on a great pitch."
Privately, Fabio Capello believes the state of the pitch is desperately poor and is surprised that the Football Association allowed a rugby match to be staged on the pitch so close to England's final pre-World Cup warm-up game at Wembley. Saracens played Worcester Warriors in the Guinness Premiership on 13 February. If a World Cup qualifying match were being played tomorrow, Capello would be prepared to take issue with his employers and refuse to play on the surface, though since the match is only a friendly, he is willing to accept the pitch as it is.
Though the FA is taking encouragement from a dry, bright day in London yesterday, which it believes will improve the quality of the surface for the match with Egypt, Milner said Sunday's final had taken its toll. "Speaking to a few of the lads who are here who played yesterday – they are feeling sapped because it's heavy. But it's been raining a lot as well so you have to take that into account," he said.
The FA was yesterday reviewing all aspects of Sunday's final, though the 80mm rain-levels in the week leading up to the event plus heavy overnight rain on Saturday, will be factored it. Wembley attempted to contend with the rain by experimenting with an inflatable tarpaulin overnight, which prevented any risk of the game being cancelled. The possibility of the pitch being relayed for April's FA Cup semi-finals has not been ruled out. It was the way the pitch played in those fixtures last year which prompted the outcry preceding the last re-lay.
There was a view from within the groundkeeping fraternity yesterday that the severity of the toughest winter in 30 years, with a snow covering preventing access to the turf for long periods, should be factored in and that Wembley has actually shown more respect for the ground staff by limiting sporting events on the pitch to just four since England last played on it against Belarus on 14 October.
Milner has been called up by Capello as a defender for tomorrow's game, though reflected yesterday that he much preferred the central midfield role which, to his mind, has made this his best club season. "Centre suits my game more because I can use my work-rate and influence the game," Milner said. "Sometimes out wide you have to be patient and wait for people to bring you in. That's part of the role to keep that discipline and keep that shape. There is competition for places all over the pitch which means that it probably helps to be able to play in a number of positions."