Magic of a visit to Wembley completely lost in the Covid era

Without the lifeblood of fans, famous venue is eerily silent and Wembley Way lies dormant

The  empty stadium as England’s Mason Mount prepares to take a corner during the international friendly against the Republic of Ireland at Wembley Stadium, London.  Photograph:  Nick Potts/PA

The empty stadium as England’s Mason Mount prepares to take a corner during the international friendly against the Republic of Ireland at Wembley Stadium, London. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

 

The ‘new’ Wembley isn’t very popular among the supporters who get to visit. Grand outside but soulless within, it rarely delivers an atmosphere fit to match the romance attached to it.

Despite this, going to a big match at Wembley remains an event. There is pageantry and a sense of prestige in going to the ground which stems from more than the 90 minutes played on the pitch.

It is the day itself – picking your pubs and plotting a route on the tube or overground. It’s arriving at Wembley Park and descending onto a packed Wembley Way, songs of scarlet or yellow ribbons and Que Sera, Sera filling the air.

Granted, international friendlies tend not to be the most stirring fixtures in the world. But Ireland against England is always an occasion. In normal circumstances Thursday night’s game would have drawn a big crowd, created a big buzz.

So what is it like if you strip all of that away? Well, it’s weird.

It’s 5.15pm at Baker Street on Thursday evening, two stops from Wembley on the Metropolitan line. The tube is quiet by rush hour standards, never mind for a matchday.

The Ireland team warm-up ahead of their friendly defeat to England. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
The Ireland team warm-up ahead of their friendly defeat to England. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

There are no queues getting off, the walk to the barriers is serene. At the top Paul, who works at Wembley Park tube station, says his last match with supporters was the 2019 FA Cup final. “Commuters and school children” have replaced the usual match day crowd.

Descending the steps, Wembley Way is desolate. On the right hand side sits a branch of Black Sheep Coffee. Not your traditional pre-match haunt, but somewhere which would normally do well off the back of games at Wembley or events at Wembley Arena.

“England are playing tonight?” asks manager Rafar as he prepares to shut up shop for the night.

There might be nobody about but there is still a queue to get into the ground – only this time for a medical screening. Emily, who works as a steward for events at Wembley, says they are now “uneventful”.

Temperatures and pulses are taken, forms filled in and facemasks handed out.

Inside the ground there is an eerie silence, which can’t be masked by the chart music blaring out of the stadium’s PA system. England warm up with a game of boxes, Ireland doing passing drills. You can hear every meeting of boot and leather.

The sides disappear down the tunnel to get ready. There is no sense of anticipation waiting for them to return. When they do reappear and line up for the anthems, God Save the Queen sounds like an instrumental without thousands of voices singing along. Perhaps not the worst thing.

Before kick-off the players line around the centre circle and clap in a minute’s applause for the late, great Nobby Stiles. When it ends the guttural roar, fitting for a World Cup and European Cup winner, is sorely missed.

A tribute to Nobby Stiles at Wembley. Photograph: PA
A tribute to Nobby Stiles at Wembley. Photograph: PA

Then comes the strangest moment of all. The music stops and the teams are lined up for kick-off. But there is no surge of noise from the terraces. There are no nervous last-minute urgings for 22 players to get stuck into each other.

Instead all you can hear is the silence. The whirring of generators, the occasional cough. It’s surreal and it is a relief when the referee finally blows his whistle.

The match itself is relatively good fare for an international friendly in the depths of November, but a non-existent atmosphere means there is never a chance for Irish-Anglo rivalry to affect the outcome.

After the match the players shake hands and amble off the pitch. There are no fans to applaud, no travelling green army to acknowledge before disappearing down the tunnel.

Achingly empty

Normally it takes an age to get away from Wembley. Wembley Way after the big games is an ocean of emotional fatigue – queuing for an hour to get away is a bit easier if you’ve just won the cup.

But on Thursday night, nothing. It is achingly empty. There is no emotional exhaustion, win or lose. No decision on where to plot up in town after. No nervous clock watching as you weigh up if there’s enough time to buy a few cans at Euston Station and still make the last train north, south, east or west.

Instead, there’s tumbleweed blowing across the famous walkway. It takes 20 minutes to get from a seat in the ground and onto the tube. There are five people on the entire train – pick your seat.

It had been seven years since Ireland last played at Wembley. Nobody could have envisaged they would have been returning on these terms.

Let’s hope, by the time Ireland next travel to London, Wembley Way will be full again, with the sights, sounds, smells and the people who give football its lifeblood.

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