Sport: Book of the Week - Darkest recesses of Wembley laid bare

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The Independent Online
Wembley: The Greatest Stage

Tom Watt and Kevin Palmer

Simon and Schuster pounds 20 hardback

IN PREPARATION for the 1948 Olympics, they dug up the old running track at Wembley and relaid it using 800 tons of ash from fireplaces in Leicester. "Why Leicester's cinders should be preferred remains an Olympic trade secret," says this history of the stadium's first 75 years.

Probably some hefty pay-offs involved. It is around the margins of the Wembley story that this account is at its strongest.

The most familiar Wembley images - the policeman on the white horse, the Matthews final, England's World Cup and Matt Busby's European Cup - have been dissected in detail elsewhere.

It is in exploring Wembley's darker recesses that it excels. Wembley has plenty of dark recesses. Although it is the big football set-pieces that dominate the national memory bank as the bulldozers prepare to move in, it was greyhound racing and speedway that paid the bills.

The book also gives acknowledgement to the fact that, in most years of its existence, Wembley's second-biggest event has been the Rugby League Challenge Cup final. Not that its significance was appreciated. When Wakefield Trinity beat Wigan in 1946, their scrum-half, Herbert Goodfellow, earned pounds 15. But he was docked pounds 7.50 from his wages as a miner and only avoided the sack for missing his shifts because his pit manager had been at Wembley.

Some of Wembley's most illustrious figures have played some less well-known roles at the stadium. Busby, just a few weeks after his first great Manchester United team had won the Cup final, was honorary, unpaid team manager of the amateur Great Britain side in the 1948 Olympics. They lost in the semi-finals to a Yugoslavia team markedly similar to the one that represented them in internationals.

Wembley has not always been kind to men who should have achieved the crowning moments of their career there.

Those who never saw him play still refer routinely to the Matthews Final of 1953 - although Sir Stanley himself has always insisted that it should be known as the Mortensen Final - but 1954 should have been the more alliterative Finney Final. Instead, Tom, the Preston plumber, had what he regarded as the worst match of his life as North End lost 3-2 to West Bromwich Albion.

Football has debased the currency by playing the final of every tin-pot competition at a ground which has now largely sacrificed its air of mystery. With the old place now on borrowed time, anyone who has rubbed shoulders with it will have their own ideas of its most memorable year.

How about 1985? Within a few weeks, we had one of Wembley's most compelling contests when Wigan beat Hull 28-24, Kevin Moran became the first man sent off in an FA Cup final at th stadium and the bizarre event that was Live Aid. All human life was there.