Magnificent monument to vision of one man

The twin towers have been a home to an amazing variety of events, from a rodeo to ski-jumping in June.
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The Independent Football

Without the intervention of Arthur Elvin, Wembley Stadium would have been dust more than 70 years ago.

Without the intervention of Arthur Elvin, Wembley Stadium would have been dust more than 70 years ago.

Instead, thanks to the businessman's purchase of the building in 1927 and some shrewd investments thereafter, the edifice has enjoyed a 73-year stay of execution and become a world-famous venue for sports as diverse as greyhound racing, boxing and ski-jumping and for events as momentous as the 1948 Olympic Games and the Live Aid pop concert. Some 750 football matches have also been played beneath the twin towers.

Originally built as the centrepiece of the British Empire Exhibition, the Empire stadium was the creation of the architects Sir John Simpson and Maxwell Ayerton and the engineer Sir Owen Williams. It took just 300 days to build, cost £750,000, and staged its first football match, the "White Horse" FA Cup final between Bolton and West Ham, on 28 April, 1923.

The second match, a 1-1 draw between England and Scotland, came almost a year later, on 12 April 1924 and a third, the FA Cup final between Aston Villa and Newcastle, a fortnight later, came three days after the official opening of the British Empire Exhibition by King George V. The football, however, and the two-year Exhibition - which included Britain's first rodeo - was not sufficient to guarantee Wembley's future.

By the end of 1927, with the FA Cup the only event regularly staged there, and with a total of six matches having been played in five years, Wembley had become embarrassing and unviable. Demolition was on the cards before Elvin came forward with money and ideas.

The first sport he introduced was greyhound racing and 50,000 people turned up to watch an animal by the name of Spin win the first race of the first meeting in 1927. The dogs effectively kept the stadium going through Elvin's first few years and continued to attract thousands of paying customers until the 1960s. Racing ended on 18 December 1998.

Elvin also introduced speedway to Wembley, which became the home to the Wembley Lions. The stadium saw a crowd of 85,000 for the 1937 speedway world championship. For one Lions' league meeting in 1948, against West Ham, it witnessed a crowd of 85,000 inside and another 20,000 outside unable to get in.

Wembley's relationship with football's bread-and-butter teams began in 1928 with a deal between Elvin and Dick Sloley, a recently retired amateur player who had made his name with Ealing Association FC, who won the Southern Amateur League and Amateur Cup double in 1927.

Sloley had a plan, he told Elvin, to recruit a team of the country's top amateurs - provisionally name Argonauts - and take them into the League. He struck a deal with Elvin and hired the stadium for four months. Alas, the League voted against Argonauts' application for membership and Sloley was left with a venue but with no side to play in it. Instead, he offered the option to his former club, and on Saturday 29 September, 1928, Ealing met Hastings and St Leonards in Wembley's first amateur match.

Ealing won 1-0 but their short tenure did not turn out to be a success. Their next game saw them lose 4-0 to Ipswich Town - who would lift the FA Cup in the same stadium 50 years later - and they went on to lose six Wembley matches from eight, conceding 24 goals along the way. They returned to their usual ground for the remainder of the season and were relegated. Not a triumph, perhaps (not least with Wembley attendances averaging 50 people per match in a ground built to house 2,000 times as many) but the roots of the people's game in the national arena had been sown.

Football's finest hours at Wembley are dealt with elsewhere in these pages today, as are rugby league's, but the stadium has hosted myriad remarkable events in other sports.

In 1948 there were the Olympics Games, postponed from 1944 because of the second world war. The stars included the Dutch housewife, Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four athletics gold medals, and the great Czech 10,000m runner, Emil Zatopek, who broke his event's world record.

There have also been major boxing world heavyweight fights. The most famous, in 1963, saw Cassius Clay (as Muhammad Ali was then known) against Henry Cooper. Cooper floored Ali in the fourth round, but Ali came back to win. In 1995 Frank Bruno beat Oliver McCall to take the World Boxing Council crown.

Wembley has also hosted American football (60,000 people attended a Chicago Bears versus Dallas Cowboys game in 1986 and Wembley was later the home of London Monarchs for a year), and baseball (two US forces games were played there, in 1934 and 1943, at the behest of the American ambassador) and even ski-jumping when a one-off event in aid of British skiing in June 1961 saw the stadium filled with fake snow.

And then there have been less successful events, at least as far the participants were concerned. The Royal International Horse Shows of 1968 and 1969, for example, churned up the turf so much that the Show was forbidden from returning in 1970.

Evil Knievel, the American stunt motorcyclist, meanwhile, left Wembley with a fractured spine in 1975 having failed in his attempt to clear 13 double-deckers in a single jump.

There have also been pop concerts (Michael Jackson's 12 Wembley appearances outnumber George Best's stadium outings by four to one) and, almost, cricket. Unfortunately, the latter, a planned charity Crickathon in September 1991, was rained off.

Football, of course, is what Wembley will best be remembered for, whether you're Maurice Cox, of Cambridge University, who scored the stadium's quickest goal, in 20 seconds; or Steve Palmer, the current Watford stalwart, who scored Wembley's last Varsity match goal with a last-minute penalty in 1987; or Rubinho of Brazil, the only goalkeeper and only schoolboy ever to have been sent off beneath the twin towers; or David Harvey of Leeds, the first player to miss in a penalty shoot-out, against Liverpool in 1974; or even if you are simply a fan, who has trundled up Wembley Way only to have your expectations dashed in 90 minutes. Without Arthur Elvin, none of the above would have been possible.