“Wembley is the cathedral of football. It is the capital of football and it is the heart of football” Pele
Wembley. The word exudes the highest heights of the football pantheons. Just saying the word is meant to bring a glimmer to even the most downtrodden of football fan’s eyes. The idea of being a football fan and seeing your team run out on the ‘hallowed turf’ is supposed to be the highlight of supporting your team – it may only happen once in a lifetime for many football fans and the opportunity has to be wholeheartedly grasped. Wembley is the best…well it’s supposed to be. For some fans, and players, it is football’s cruellest stage. Ask Alan Shearer about his ‘glorious’ times at the stadium and I’m sure he’ll tell you where to stick it, after Newcastle scuppered two FA Cup finals in a row in 1998 and 1999. I’m sure many Toon fans will hold similar sentiments. Ask a Bolton fan how they enjoyed their trip to football’s very own mega arena and they’ll probably want to punch you, after their big day out was ruined by a 5-0 FA Cup semi-final hammering at the hands of Stoke. Perhaps the strangest relationship with the stadium, especially in its new guise, comes from Cardiff City. The club have played 4 games at the New Wembley, but their big occasions have reaped 3 losses out of the 4 – the only victory being their first visit to New Wembley in a FA Cup semi-final victory over Barnsley. I wonder do Cardiff City fans like visiting the stadium?
I often wonder whether I would have any sentiment for the stadium if I had not seen Swansea celebrate such glorious feats there. Put bluntly, I’m still not sure whether I think Wembley, as a stadium, is that great at all.
My first ever visit to the Wembley (New Wembley to be precise, I never visited the old stadium) came on the 30th May 2011 – just like most Swansea fans, I did not have to look that date up. On that faithful Bank Holiday Monday, Swansea became a Premier League club. The game was truly brilliant and easily the most gutwrenching experience I’ve ever gone through in a football stadium, and probably even outside of one. For those who are not familiar with the game, Swansea propelled into a 3-0 lead over opposition finalists Reading, thanks to two quickfire Scott Sinclair goals and a clever first time shot from Stephen Dobbie. Despite the euphoric celebrations around me at half time, I drank my ridiculously priced bottle of Carlsberg and reminded myself of the fact that there was still 45 minutes remaining – I refused to celebrate just yet. “One goal to Reading and this game is blown open” I believe were my exact words to my fellow Jacks at half-time.
Predictably, minutes into the second half Noel Hunt ducked at the near post to guide a header into the goal via a Joe Allen deflection. My pals’ faces all turned towards me as if I was some sort of doom-monger. Then, Reading captain Matt Mills headed home to make it 3-2 and the Reading players and fans were bouncing. With the momentum generated, it almost seemed a certainty that another Reading goal was coming. I remember actually considering going to the toilet as I could literally taste sick in my mouth. Nerves were decimating my body. Then Reading’s moment came. Jem Karacan unleashed a 20 yard rocket shot towards the bottom corner which Ashley Williams’ sliding tackle diverted onto the post. Swansea’s goalkeeper Dorus De Vries had dived for the ball and remained helpess on the floor as the ball rebounded to Noel Hunt to almost certainly score into an unguarded net. Hunt sidefooted and Reading were going to score to make it 3-3 and surely deflate Swansea and go on and win the final. That was until captain fantastic Garry Monk lunged from nowhere and stretched to block Hunt’s shot and divert it wide. The now iconic “£90million tackle” as it is known in Swansea. This was to prove the turning point of the tie as Swansea weathered the storm until eventually Andy Griffin brought down Fabio Borini in the box to give Swansea a penalty. Borini celebrated earning the penalty like a madman and Sinclair duly put the penalty away to claim a famous Wembley hatrick. Swansea won 4-2 and the Swans were a Premier League team. A rollercoaster of a day. The fans remained in the ground almost an hour after the final whistle having a typically boisterous Welsh sing-a-long to ‘Delilah’ Status Quo’s ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’ and of course, the Swansea City song. One of the highlights would probably be 40,000 Jacks singing the club anthem before the game after Kevin Johns’ prematch speech. Johns’ speech was immense and fired the Swans support up before the game – it’ll certainly go down in club folklore.
The plan was to continue the celebrations long into the night, but after exiting the stadium and looking around me, the Jack Army were clearly utterly shattered after an emotional rollercoaster of a game.
Fast forward to two years later and Swansea are now very much a Premier League team. A very respectable 11th place finish in their debut Premier League season is now being followed up with an even more impressive campaign under the Great Dane Michael Laudrup. Despite two good league campaigns in a row (well, the second season has been good so far), Swans fans did not a expect cup run. Swansea just don’t do cup runs. The Swans have never been to a major final in their 100 year history with the closest the club has ever come to a final being two FA Cup semi final losses: one to Bolton in 1926 and the other to Preston in 1964. Fortunately, for Swans fans, their current manager has a decent record in cup competitions, and after defeating current European Champions Chelsea over two legs in the League Cup semi final, Swansea were off to Wembley for their first ever major cup final. No-one would have predicted it, but the 2013 League Cup final would be contested between Swansea City and Bradford City of League Two.
The Wembley party had started the day before the final. After visiting Brentford’s Griffin Park, where we watched a dire 0-0 draw between the Bees and Walsall, we headed straight into the heart of London for the big Swansea gathering in The Hercules Pillars pub. What a night we had! The pub was rammed with Jacks who sung loudly, drunk a hell of a lot and generally had a very good time late into Saturday night. The drink had even led to me mounting a table and leading a rendition of couple of Swansea chants. It seemed like all of the Jacks I’ve befriended over the years were all here under one roof (including Dai the Spy who I’d met on my visit to the Emirates Stadium and who was very adamant I give him another mention on the blog).
Me and Tom woke up the next morning on the sofas in our friend’s house in Hammersmith (cheers for the accommodation Steve!) slightly hungover, but ready for the big day at Wembley. We jumped on a train from Hammersmith towards Baker Street and who happened to be in the same carriage as us: Dai The Spy and his band of Jacks. Dai could not recall the night before at all, but he summed it up well with “What a fantastic night. There’s something special about our fans and that pub.” I couldn’t agree more.
After breakfast in a Turkish cafe near Baker Street, Tom and me headed to the Metropolitan, a Wetherspoons directly next door to Baker Street It was this Spoons that we spent a lot of our pre-Wembley drinking before the playoff final two years ago, but we decided we were hitting Wembley much earlier this time, so with midday approaching we headed next door to the train station and boarded the Jubilee Line to Wembley.
This is perhaps my favourite part of visiting Wembley: on walking out of Wembley Park station and finding yourself at the bottom of Wembley Way with the colossal stadium imposing on the London skyline ahead of you. The stadium does look truly magnificent from the bottom of Wembley Way. A nice touch for today’s final were the walls at the bottom of Wembley Way detailing both Swansea and Bradford’s route to the final, but we were not to make the long walk up to the FA’s ‘Home of Football’ yet; first – the pub. Swansea City fans had been allocated the pubs on the East side of Wembley, so we had claimed The Torch as one of our main supporter strongholds.
We arrived at The Torch shortly after 12 o’clock and the place was already filling up, even though most of the Swansea coaches had not made it down from South West Wales yet. We found the Cox and Williams family and headed to the bar. I was bracing myself for the price of the beer. The only lagers being served were Carlsberg and Stella; I decided it was a special occasion, so I riskily splashed out on some Stella – £4.50 a pint! And in a crappy plastic glass as well! Finding a space in the pub was hardwork, but we eventually established a spot near the back door. Not long after our arrival we were joined by my groundhopping pal Gibbo. Bolton supporting Gibbo was in his Swansea colours for today’s final, thanks to his Swansea supporting girlfriend, Lucy, who also joined us in the Torch once her coach completed the long journey down the M4 from Swansea to London. Tom was enjoying the music in the The Torch and it was only when I noticed him pulling out his dodgy dance moves that I realised what we had been listening to since we entered the pub: 90s boy band Five’s greatest hits (Google them if you’re too young – or too old – to remember). “Is listening to Five really necessary for a set of fans who have watched their team lose 5-0 the week before?” (Swansea had lost 5-0 at Anfield the weekend before Wembley) I questioned before jokingly remarking “Or maybe it’s just a sign we’ll score five today!” Once Five’s greatest hits had come to an end, I was hoping for an improvement in today’s soundtrack, but to my dismay the opening bars of a Heather Smalls album came blasting out of the sound system. Today was not about music anyway I decided and tried to ignore Smalls’ questioning of “what had I done today to make me feel proud?”
Gibbo had arranged to meet some Bradford fans who he knew from Twitter on Wembley Way, so me and Tom decided to tag along with him and Lucy. The streets around Wembley were now packed with still two hours to go until kick off with many Swans fans dodging the extortionate bar prices by buying cans and drinking in the street. Good idea – I decided a can of Red Stripe from a local shop would help fuel me on the short walk to Wembley Way.
I still did not have my match ticket, so I had arranged to meet the ‘Treharris Caravan’, which today consisted of Lynsey, Kelly, mother Anita and Rhian (cheers for sorting the tickets girls!), outside the BBC hut halfway up Wembley Way. The girls were easily found and my ticket was claimed. As we chatted about the game, I heard a familiar voice behind me. Live on BBC Radio Wales behind us was Merthyr born legend, Owen Money, covering the build up to the Swans game. When he said he needed someone to speak to on air, the alcohol in my system made me shout out “I’ll do it Owen! I’m from Quakers Yard and I write a blog.” Not sure where that came from, but Owen was happy to have me. A swift phone call was made home to tell my parents to switch on Radio Wales and I was ready for my radio debut. I did not really have a clue what I was saying at the time but I nattered on about Lost Boyos, Quakers Yard, my trip to Brentford the day before, Merthyr Tydfil FC’s Penydarren Park football ground and how I did not want to predict the Swansea score. My 60 seconds of fame were over.
We eventually caught up with Gibbo and Lucy who were with the Bradford contingent (which included Ben Hall who I realised I followed on Twitter) halfway up Wembley Way. I should say now that the atmosphere on Wembley Way was superb, largely because of the friendly nature between the Swansea and Bradford fans. Both sets of fans seemed to have come to enjoy their day and there was to be not a hint of animosity all day, as both Swans and Bantams fans gave themselves a metaphorical pat on the back throughout the day.
We spent a bit of time around the stadium taking photos and going to see the statue of Bobby Moore (the English flag was at half mast for today’s final) before saying our goodbyes to Gibbo and Lucy and heading to Entrance E of Wembley with our oversized tickets in hand.
Wembley has been the focal point of English football since 1923 when the original stadium, which was originally titled ‘The Empire Stadium’, was built. The old stadium’s most famous feature was the ‘Twin Towers’ which gave the stadium one of its many nicknames. The last game at the ‘Old Wembley’ was England’s 1-0 defeat to Germany in 2000 with Dietmar Hamann scoring the only goal and effectively finishing Kevin Keegan’s stint as national team management. Demolition of the old 80,000 seater stadium began in 2003 as plans for the new £800m stadium were slowly being unveiled. The iconic towers were to be replaced with a new eye-catching feature: the arch which loops from one side of the stadium to the other. It does look pretty cool, but also has the practical use of holding part of the roof in place and stopping the stadium needing any view-obstructing pillars inside the stadium. The New Wembley opened in 2007 after several delays and is now the second largest stadium in Europe with its 90,000 capacity. The new stadium has hosted every League Cup final and every FA Cup final and semi final and since it’s opening, the Champions League final between Barca and Manchester United in 2011, England internationals and a whole host of large scales concerts.
Our seats were in the heavens of Wembley, so on getting through the electronic ticket scanner we had a hefty ascent ahead of us and a lot of escalators to ride. Finally, we arrived on the concourse of Wembley with 45 minutes until kick off. Predictably, the concourse is big as it curves it way around the stadium, although I did think the bar area could have been a bit bigger. It’s not the most interesting of concourses either and you would think with all the money spent on the stadium that the designers could have done something more interesting than just the generic grey, concrete look you see at most stadiums across the country. It was also time for the scary process of buying a drink in the stadium and once again I braced myself for the silly price I was going to be quoted for a bottle of Carlsberg. Surely it couldn’t be any more than the £4.50 a pint in the The Torch earlier in the day? Of course it was. £4.70 for a plastic bottle of Carlsberg. Crazy.
I headed to the toilet, which was also nothing to write home about (although I did learn that Wembley has 2,618 toilets in it – more than any other venue in the world apparently), but on exiting I bumped into Steven Carroll, the brains behind the ‘Swansea, oh Swansea’ fanzine. Steven had asked if I wanted to write something for ‘SoS’ a few weeks ago and having read the fanzine before and really enjoyed it, I agreed to write an article titled “Ben Davies: A Taylor Made Replacement” – an article about why the Swans should stick with Davies even when Neil Taylor returns from injury. Steve had kindly put a couple of copies aside for me and on coincidentally seeing him on the concourse, he handed them over to me to enjoy pre-game. If you do see copies of ‘SoS’ around, I highly recommend picking one up. A great read with some great Swans fans writing for it including my writer pal Keith Haynes. I headed back over to Tom and we soon spotted the Doyle family who we had met up at Anfield in the earlier rounds of our cup run; we won that night up in Liverpool, so we decided it was a good omen to go speak to the Doyles again.
Our drinks were empty and I was sure my wallet could not take another £4.70-a-bottle blow, so we headed up to our seats in the upper tier. Wembley is quite spectacular on getting into the stands. The place looks huge! I should also mention that the views from the upper tier are superb, something that is certainly helped by the very steep gradient of the higher tier – it does make walking up to your seat that little bit scarier though. We spotted Kelly waving to get our attention and we joined the girls in our seats, about 5 rows away from the top row of Wembley. In a nice touch by today’s sponsors Capital One, every seat had a flag on it and the black and white flags of Swansea and the claret and amber of Bradford were waved passionately as the big kick-off loomed.
Having watched the elaborate prematch theatrics it was time for the teams to come out onto the pitch and it soon dawned on me that I was not as nervous as I thought I’d be, as the FA’s guest, Fabrice Muamba, shook the hands of both teams. The regular prematch rituals were completed and it was time to get going.
Michu kicked off the game and Swansea’s first major final appearance had begun. I’d refused to speculate on the score all the day with my heart telling me Swansea would win, but my head repeatedly whined on about “anything can happen on the day.” Within the opening few minutes, I knew my heart was spot on and that we would certainly win. There was no sign of nerves from our players and we were playing our trademark passing football in all of its glory. Swansea were superb from minute 1 to minute 90. Laudrup’s decision not to play Garry Monk or Kyle Bartley in Chico’s absence, and instead opt for Ki Sung Yeung at centre back was inspired. Ki played high up in defence and was the catalyst for breaking up countless moves and starting Swansea’s passing.
One of Bradford’s few forays forward was cleared by the Swansea defence and in lightning speed Swansea were on the attack. The ball came to Michu, who’s shot from the edge of the box was well saved by Matt Duke, but Nathan Dyer accelerated in to tap the ball into an empty net. Cue the roar of the Jack Army. Any nerves that were present were extinguished with that Dyer goal.
For me, Laudrup’s Swansea are at their most majestic when the Routledge/Hernandez/Dyer trio are playing behind Michu, as teams just cannot deal with their fast passing and constant movement. This was to prove the case today with the Bradford players completely overwhelmed by the relentless shifting and switching of the Swansea attack. When Pablo played in Michu on the edge of the box, the Spaniard would give Duke no chance on this occasion as he brilliantly slotted the ball into the far corner to make it 2-0 to Swansea.
Swansea were unbelievably comfortable for a cup final and Bradford were offering nothing on the pitch; on the other hand, the Bradford fans were offering plenty of encouragement to their team off the pitch. With the score at 2-0 the Swans fans relaxed and after a few rousing renditions of ‘Hymns and Arias’ went quite quiet. Bradford fans were behind their team throughout and they were a credit to their club (sorry if I sounded a bit patronising there).
Half-time in the Capital One Cup final: Swansea 2 – 0 Bradford. All going swimmingly.
We had a wander down to the concourse at half-time, but decided to swerve the busy bar. I went to one of Wembley’s 2,618 toilets and had to queue for a while as it was one of the strange toilets which have no urinals and just a series of cubicles. The general mood on the concourse was one of ‘job done’ amongst the Swans fans and unlike the playoff final two years previous, I was 100% certain it wouldn’t go wrong.
It really was job done two minutes into the second half when another excellent Swansea move was finished off by Dyer curling the ball left footed past Duke. 3-0 and even the usually ice cool Laudrup was jumping on the touchline, as he realised the significance of the goal.
Swansea’s fourth goal should have been one of the goals of the season, as a mercurial passing move ended with De Guzman skipping past Duke only for the goalie to bring him down and deny a certain goal. A red card followed for Duke as Swansea prepared to take their first penalty of the season. De Guzman grabbed the ball ready to take the penalty only for Dyer to demand the ball so he could take the penalty and score a Wembley hatrick. The scenes were quite comical as Dyer had a tantrum on the field, but at the time I agreed with De Guzman taking it; I wanted a goal and I did not fancy Dyer as a penalty taker. De Guzman stepped up, very, very slowly, and slotted the ball right in the corner. 4-0 to Swansea.
By now the Bradford fans had given up on the game, but nonetheless they were still singing and their flags were being waved frantically; their support was good enough for Swansea fans to stand and applaud them with ten minutes of the game left.
With five minutes left, Bradford had their first shot on target, a feat which was met with a loud cheer from both ends. This was a brief respite for Bradford as Swansea began another wave of attack. With the clock past 90 minutes Swansea made it 5-0 when De Guzman latched onto a brilliant Angel Rangel cross.
Referee Kevin Friend blew his whistle and Swansea had won their first major trophy, recording the biggest League Cup final victory in history and also securing a place in next season’s Europa League in the process. Not bad for day’s work. Bradford made the walk up the Wembley steps to collect their runners up medals and were greeted by a guard of honour from the Swansea players at the bottom of the stairs. Now it was the turn of Swansea’s cup heroes to make the walk up the 107 steps to where their trophy awaited them. Fabrice Muamba passed the trophy over to club captain Garry Monk and current captain Ashley Williams and with a kiss on the trophy, the trophy was lifted into the air and the Jack Army party began. The soundtrack to the trophy lifting would be Pitbull’s party anthem “Don’t Stop the Party” – the way things are going with Swansea at the moment, it’s hard to see when the party is going to end.
We stayed quite a long time after the final whistle, singing along to the ‘Swansea City Song’, ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ and ‘Delilah’ and watching Chico run around the pitch like the mentalist he is, before a very polite steward came along and sheepishly asked us to leave. On looking around, I realised Tom and I were the only ones left in our corner of the stadium. We departed Wembley Stadium. That stadium has been kind to us over the past two years.
Wembley looked great in the night sky and we got to have a good long look at it as we halted on Wembley Way because Wembley Park station was already full. Admittedly, the wait was hardly painstakingly long and there were tens of thousands making their way to the station after all. We eventually made it back to Baker Street and then to Euston, where we finished the weekend off at my regular departing London pub of choice, the Doric Arch.
This really was one of the best weekends of my life. It was unreal. From the boisterous Jack Army party in Pillars on the Saturday night to the lifting of the trophy. The stadium actually grew on me on my second visit, but I still prefer the Emirates and the Millennium Stadium; both those stadiums also have a lot more on offer surrounding the stadium, especially the Millennium.
Anyway, can’t moan. Cheers for the two wonderful days out (New) Wembley. Hopefully see you again soon. But first: “WE’RE ALL GOING ON A EUROPEAN TOUR, A EUROPEAN TOUR, A EUROPEAN TOUR!”
Highlights: seeing Swansea win promotion, seeing Swansea win the League Cup, Wembley Way, stadium is easy to get to, good atmosphere, free flags, doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the stadium, the Arch adds character.
Low Points: everything is so expensive, not that much around the stadium, the stadium is a little bland inside, corporate stuff brandished everywhere.