With no international competition this summer, football’s curtain comes down with a clamorous abruptness in Athens on Wednesday, when Liverpool meet AC Milan in the final of the European Cup. By way of domestic overture, Chelsea play Manchester United this Saturday in the FA Cup final, and it would be fitting if a compelling show marked the return of the ancient fixture to its traditional home. Certainly each team has it in them to produce a memorable Wembley premiere.
The vicissitudes of Wembley’s construction and appalling overspend have provided a sorry saga; today’s relief at business resumed merges with a keen curiosity about the aura and ambience of English football’s reclaimed amphitheatre. The new Wembley was ‘more Canary Wharf than cathedral’, pronounced Tom Dart in the Times the other day, adding nicely that the unveiled building plays so dull, safe and solid that ‘it could have been designed by the architects firm McClaren & Eriksson Associates’. Will the players today colourfully perk up that assessment? Meanwhile, as the actual builders, Multiplex, recount costs and lick wounds, the catering bods obviously have no worries about bottom-line profits; for the feeding of the multitude it’s rip-off Britain as usual — £4.50 for a single hot dog, I’m told, and £7.50 for a slice of fish and a scoop of (what used to be called ‘four-penn’orth’) of chips. Still, the new Wembley does, apparently, have 2,618 working toilets, which I reckon is about 2,600 more than its crumbling old forerunner could boast.
In football terms, Wembley kicks off with a keen little local grudge match. The Olympic stadium in Athens on Wednesday night is the stage for a far more tumultuous opera. Liverpool must look to their most imperturbably red-blooded resolve against the same AC Milan they so humiliatingly sandbagged in the final of 2005 in Istanbul, when they ravishingly reversed a 3-0 half-time deficit. Milan are bent on vengeance, Sicilian-style if necessary; and in the peerless Brazilian forward Kaka they have the dashing fellow to inflict it most cruelly. Should Liverpool prevail, I’d say it would top any of the club’s grand achievements all down the years.
Can it really be 30 Mays ago that Anfield so headily painted Rome red when Kevin Keegan’s irrespressible lot put it roundly across Borussia? Darlingly different days then: the press stayed in the same hotel as the players; the victory party went on and on at the Hilton; I remember calling for another bottle of fizz when I felt a tug at my sleeve. It was the legendary manager Bob Paisley: ‘Could you lay your hands on a bottle of Guinness for me, son?’
Anniversaries all round — 80 years ago, in 1927, France mooted a European club competition, which Fifa ‘noted with approval’ then shelved for 30 years; Matt Busby’s United lost in the semi-final at their first time of asking in 1957 (Edinburgh’s Hibs had been Brit trailblazers the inaugural season before); the ‘immortals’ of Celtic were the first British club to win it, in 1967. Sixty years ago last Thursday 134,000 watched Great Britain — Swift, Hardwick (England), Hughes (Wales), Macaulay (Scotland), Vernon (N. Ireland), Burgess (Wales), Matthews, Mannion, Lawton (England), Steel, Liddell (Scotland) — clobber a pick-up Rest of Europe XI 6-1 at Glasgow’s Hampden Park. Before the match the Daily Express warned: ‘Even a draw would leave us the laughing stock of Europe’; after it, Lord Beaverbrook’s mouthpiece cock-a-doodled the full width of its broadsheet: british bosses of all world soccer.