Wembley dilemma continues to trouble the FA

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the prospect of the English national football team playing some of their fixtures away from Wembley, the national stadium.

With attendances falling in their thousands, the FA has been pondering various solutions to this problem, one of which being that England could play some of their fixtures in alternative venues across the country.

While the new Wembley was being built over a period of seven or so years, England played at a variety of stadia across the country. The most common setting was Old Trafford, but there were also a number of matches in locations such as Newcastle, Derby and Liverpool, as well some ties being hosted at smaller grounds in London such as Upton Park and Loftus Road. Most, if not all, were played in front of a full house. In particular, it gave fans in some of the northern-most regions of the country a chance to watch their national side.

It was a period of optimism. The FA closed Wembley in 2000 for a rebuilding project. Some opposed the move, but the majority excitedly anticipated the prospect of a brand new 90,000-seater stadium, fit for the English national team. Seven years down the line and two disappointing World Cups later, Wembley stadium reopened in 2007 after a host of technicalities and difficulties.

Furthermore, tensions were growing on the pitch due to the team’s recent failures at major tournaments. It would appear many England fans have been left underwhelmed and perhaps are accepting of England’s failures as now, seven years later, attendances are continually suffering. Recent figures are less than flattering. England recorded their lowest ever ‘New Wembley’ attendance this year when 40,181 turned up to watch England take on Norway in a post-World Cup friendly. Moreover, earlier this month, 55,990 fans watched England thrash minnows San Marino 5-0; over a third of the stadium empty. Even for somewhat larger ties, England has struggled to fill the stadium.

This begs the question – why can’t England play some of their matches on the road? The answer is rather simple but often underestimated.

The FA has been gripped by debt following the rebuilding of Wembley. At a cost of £757 million, it is still to this day the most expensive football stadium in history. Obviously, this kind of sum could not be paid up front so, as such, the FA is indebted to several companies involved in the building of the stadium. The sheer mountain of debt means they are obliged to use Wembley for as many events as possible in order to pay off their outstanding debts. This is clear when one thinks how often Wembley hosts matches over the course of the year, from England friendlies to FA cup semi-finals.

Worse still, it is often the fans that have to bear the brunt of much of the cost, too.

Many have baulked at the ticket prices to Wembley games, as they seem to price out large numbers of supporters from attending. For the upcoming England qualifier against Slovenia, the average adult (minus concessions) will spend upwards of £35 at the very cheapest, rising to £65 in the most expensive seats; a cost too dear for many.

A way of helping to solve the problem had been suggested by some within the FA, specifically the idea of hosting a range of events at Wembley, from other sports to concerts. These have been commencing since it was re-opened in 2007.

One of the more successful ventures has been American Football. A handful of NFL sides have crossed the Atlantic for an annual, one-off match in front of British crowds over the past seven years. They have always attracted much interest, with near-sell-out crowds recorded at all of the matches. More crucially it has provided the FA with another opportunity to make money out of Wembley and close the debt gap.

However, it is simply not enough. While these are positives steps, the FA will continue to be paying off debt for another eight or nine years at the very least, as quoted by FA Chief Executive Alex Horne. As such, for the foreseeable future at least, England will be playing the vast majority of their matches at Wembley.

It is not financially viable for the FA to send England on tour around the country as the current situation would not benefit from such a decision. Leaving Wembley unused when it needs to be generating revenue would be utterly fruitless, even if it meant helping inconvenienced fans attend games.

For the time being, England fans will continue to pay a slice of the FA’s debt. The situation will improve, but for now it is going to be a waiting game for many restless England fans.

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