`Wembley is not so much the Venue of Legends as the Venue of No Legroom. And it is no good thinking that paying more will help'

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The Independent Online
It costs pounds 6.45 to go on the guided tour of Wembley Stadium, to sit in the very dressing-rooms Everton and Manchester United will occupy this afternoon, to walk up the very tunnel the two teams will emerge from, to take a minibus around the perimeter of the ground and be shown the very offices of Wembley plc, the company which owns the place.

That pounds 6.45, incidentally, could buy you a sizeable chunk of those offices: at current prices, you could snap up 258 shares in Wembley plc for that. Best to stick to the tour, though. Not just because owning 258 doesn't entitle you to act out a life-long fantasy, climb the 39 steps to the Royal Box and lift up a replica of the FA Cup, acknowledged by a huge cheer pumping out from the public address system. But also because 258 shares in Wembley plc are presently about as useful as Halifax Town's back four.

Wembley plc has problems, a victim of Eighties gung-ho expansion which saw the company diversify into everything from greyhound stadiums to electronic ticketing systems. Recent refinancing plans (a euphemism for begging notes to the bank) have promised the company will focus in future on its core business, Wembley Stadium. Which seems sensible advice, except the depressing news for anyone who bought those shares is that no amount of selling itself as the Venue of Legends can disguise the central truth about this core business: as a place to watch a football match, Wembley Stadium is about as attractive as Moss Lane, Altrincham.

This is sacrilegious talk on Cup final day, a bit like suggesting, on the day the new Pope is installed, that St Peter's is a dump. Today much will be made of the place's cachet, of the Twin Towers, of the allure of Wembley Way and the pull of that wide green surface. Indeed the guided tour which 40 Dutch schoolchildren and I joined on Tuesday was full of such mythologising about the place's uniqueness.

There was Des Lynam, on a video screen in the police control centre, welcoming us to the "most famous stadium in the world". There he was again, on a screen in the television studio perched high above the ground saying that "just to walk out on the Wembley turf is the pinnacle of any player's career." And there he was a third time, on a screen in the room which serves as a changing facility for the military band, fronting a compilation of clips from old newsreels charting moments in Wembley history. "Yes, it's Rugby League Cup final time again," intoned a Pathe News voice-over from 1948. "That grand Wembley day out for those plucky chaps from the North."

But history is really all they have going for them at Wembley. Compared to the new stadiums blooming around the country, the place has little to offer for the future. You could see that when, half-way through the tour, our amiable guide took us up to the Olympic Gallery, which runs underneath the stadium roof. Up we went, out of the unprepossessing dressing- rooms, so small and under-resourced the teams have to shower in Wembley Arena when American football is played.

On we walked, past the empty and shuttered-up refreshment stalls which this afternoon will be stocked with warm bottles of lager at pounds 3 a time. Upwards we climbed, past the salty tide-marks on the floor, a reminder of that great Wembley tradition, flash floods of urine cascading ankle- deep down the stairs. And into the Gallery, to take up a position only marginally closer to the pitch than the airship which will be hovering over the ground this afternoon.

"You get a marvellous unrestricted view from up here," said our guide, as the Dutch boys filed into the seats, "and on Saturday tickets for this section will cost pounds 100 each."

He had to take us to the Olympic Gallery because it is one of the few parts of the ground with a decent aspect. Fans going to Wembley for the first time, reared on the magnificent new stands at Villa Park, Elland Road or Ewood Park, would be astonished at how bad the sight lines are at our national stadium. Behind the goal among the cheap seats, where the banking is so shallow you can see nothing except the back of the person in front of you, it is not so much the Venue of Legends as the Venue of No Legroom. And it is no good thinking that paying more will help. At last year's Cup final, pounds 60 bought me a seat complete with a view of a pillar running through one penalty spot.

Not of course, that you would guess this from the guided tour. As it reached its conclusion in the Royal Box (not bad, the view from there, incidentally) the talk was all of atmosphere and electricity. "Imagine what it will be like on Cup final day," said the guide. "With 80,000 people filling the place with colour and noise. There will be no better place in the world to be on Saturday than Wembley."

Possibly so. Until the action starts. And then, if you wanted to see any of it, you would be better off in front of the telly.

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