One final squelch for Wembley's hallowed turf

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The day should have provided memories to treasure for years - a chance for the ordinary football fan to set his studs on the most sacred turf in the English game.

The day should have provided memories to treasure for years - a chance for the ordinary football fan to set his studs on the most sacred turf in the English game.

But the pub-league players filing away from Wembley yesterday seemed less than enchanted. Behind them, a once-great stadium had undeniably outlived its life expectancy. Tiles detailing the 1948 Olympiad were held in place by tape and the surprisingly modest plaque for the 1966 World Football Championship was tarnished. Even the towers looked squat and exhausted under an overcast sky.

The architecture was not the reason the players had come, though, it was for grass - and there simply hadn't been enough of it left. The teams - winners of a competition sponsored by Bass - had been promised an hour on that magic rectangle on its last day in use but had got less than they had bargained for.

Gary, from Manchester, said: "It was... only 15 minutes-a-side and they narrowed the pitch... and there were people stealing from the ground!" There was a gleeful burst of laughter from his friends at the mock indignation of the last remark as they displayed the "compensation" they had exacted for their disappointment: "Chip-oil" unzipped his windcheater to reveal a plastic seat and another supporter showed off a bit of Wembley signage. Others grumbled at a prize that fell well short of fantasy - with the playing area marked off by traffic cones and the teams reduced to seven-a-side. Another supporter said: "It's not even a quarter of the pitch."

Journalists could not say whether that was accurate or exaggerated by disappointment, since those who had turned up at Wembley to cover the valedictory matches were barred from the stadium.

"They" was the best description given of the authorities, so naming those responsible was difficult. Was it Bass, demonstrating it should never try to organise a piss-up in one of its own breweries, or End of an Era, the Wembley department that managed the final days of a once-great national stadium?

Later Martin Corrie, a Wembley spokesman, said that for "health and safety reasons" the pitch had been deemed unplayable - and, apparently, unreportable too.

Two weeks ago, at the time of the England-Germany international, extra police were hired in anticipation of a turf-poaching invasion. In the event, England's performance proved more dampening to the spirits than a police water cannon and the grass was left alone.

Since then, 40 charity and celebrity matches have been played, raising money for good causes and no small amount for Wembley, which charged up to £28,000 per game for a brief assignation with the venue of legends. Like a once-great courtesan reduced to quickie knee-tremblers, Wembley was thrashing everything it could get out of its declining assets and the result, after last week's torrential rains, was entirely predictable - a pitch that looked like a hotly contested sector of the Somme.

The pub teams that made it to the final can't even console themselves with the thought that they were the last to play on that sacred ground. Though Wembley announced at midday that two afternoon matches had been cancelled because of rain, a little later one was on again - the publicity consequences of turning away a team of Daily Mail journalists apparently having proved even more terrifying than the danger of a quagmire-induced injury.

So the decree was issued that one quarter of the famous pitch could turn one last trick - that the ground would go out, not with a whimper but a squelch.

Down Wembley Way, across the tracks from the Tube station, a group of Sunday league players were undeterred by a drizzle so light it barely had the weight to fall. Their pitch appeared to be in good condition - if you were prepared to overlook a gentle slope and a complete deficiency of footballing history - and their version of playing at Wembley seemed a more cheerful one too.

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