The official Wembley tour starts and ends as you might expect, at the statue of Sir Bobby Moore. Well, nearly. It actually starts behind the statue, just past reception, along a bit from the peculiar entrance to the "Bobby Moore Club." It starts, in other words, in Club Wembley.
Club Wembley — as the website has it, "with sweeping views of the action, the entire Level Two tier of the stadium is exclusively for Club Wembley members." — is the most important and least important part of the new(ish) Wembley stadium. It's the most important because it paid and pays for the thing: without it, the Football Association could have no hope of making the payments on the £798 million that it cost.
It's the least important, meanwhile, because it functions on a membership basis. Prices start from £167 per person per event, and that guarantees entrance to 12 events: the FA Cup final and semi-finals, the League Cup final, the Community Shield, all England men's senior home internationals and the Rugby League Challenge Cup final. Which, while doubtless fun for those that are able to afford it, rather works against the basic principle of a stadium, which is that it should be filled with people who really want one side or other to win.
Still, corporates got to corporate, schmoozers got to schmooze and if we had to guess, we'd guess that Club Wembley members who have tickets to events they're not too bothered about absolutely do not move those tickets on, and certainly not at a tidy profit. But while there aren't many large stadiums that don't have at least some corporate presence, Wembley's class system is unavoidably stark, and only serves to drive home the overall impression: it might technically be a sport stadium, but it's really an airport.
As David Goldblatt puts it in The Game of Our Lives:
Smoothly finished in glass and neutral tones, it is, like the best modern airports, designed to funnel huge numbers of people through wide concourses and up escalators to multiple destinations, and it feels like an airport too. The same high-end but ultimately bland functionality characterizes the stadium's now innumerable toilets, watering holes and commercial outlets. As with airports there is more than one way to fly. Two entire levels of the concourse that wrap the stadium are sealed and reserved for those with access to the premium seating and entertainment boxes. Once inside they need not mingle again with anyone not in the zone.
Once this comparison lodges in your brain, it's hard to get it out. The walk along Wembley way is bare concrete and building site, cranes moving slowly above advertising hoardings that showcase delicately lit photographs of one, two and three bedroom apartments, prices starting at around half a million pounds. Carpet warehouses jostle for position with budget hotels. Then, once you're inside, the tour begins on the Club Wembley concourse, next to a shuttered restaurant that's proud to sell Costa coffee. Pleasant, un-challenging art spots the plain walls. There's a champagne bar just around the corner.
Perhaps the most peculiar thing about Wembley is how it wears its history. As a new building on the site of the old, there is much comparing of now and then, of what has been kept — the position of the royal box, the climb to the trophy, the angle of the pitch — and what has been improved, replaced or upgraded. Sitting on the Club Wembley seats, we're told that this is now the biggest all-covered stadium in Europe, that there are now 107 steps in the climb to the Royal Box, that now the 2,618 toilets afford more opportunities for personal relief than any other building in the world.
But this is a tour, not a museum. There is no museum. Instead — and again, like some airports which choose to present occasional fragments of archaeology as oddities on plinths — there are bits and bobs of the Wembley that was dotted around the place. Here's the flag from the 1948 Olympics. Here's a run of photographs from notable finals and concerts. And here's the crossbar from the 1966 final, carefully positioned where the tour begins, ensuring that any Germans who happen to be visiting can be subjected to a little gentle banter.
Those photographs are on the walls of a staircase that winds down from one of the restaurants — the smallest, seating a mere 400 people, though the most significant, since this is where the royalty get fed — to the tunnel, and so eighty years of football and music and dog racing passes by at a respectable trot. Given that New Wembley was built on the site of Old Wembley largely because of the weight of history and tradition (as opposed to not built at all, or built somewhere more convenient for most of the nation), it's all oddly by the by.
Most of the kids (and plenty of the adults) on the tour aren't too interested in poring over the pictures of the White Horse final, of course; they want to take selfies with the shirts in the dressing rooms and lift a replica of the FA Cup, and they're in luck. The tour takes in everything you'd expect: some rubbernecking at the showers, the walk from the tunnel out to the pitch and a seat in the royal box (though not on the actual royal seats themselves, you filthy pleb). There's even the chance to sit behind the press conference desk and pretend to be Roy Hodgson for a few seconds, which is surely every child's dream.
And so, it works. It's a pleasant two hour stroll around a cavernous, technically impressive, aggressively bland building. That last bit at least makes sense: unlike most of the other football stadiums in the country, Wembley has to be neutral and malleable in its identity, because it has to take in cup games as well as internationals. As such, even the inspirational pictures of England legends past and present that decorate the tunnel during international games are marked, top and bottom, with wear and tear from a rotation of sponsors boards.
But that means that when the place is empty, it really feels it. Crammed stadiums can be wonderful places, and busy airports are generally nightmarish, but an empty combination of the two ends up feeling almost uncanny. For all that the arch dominates the Wembley skyline, the stadium below feels very much of a piece with the warehouses that surround it. A building that holds things. Not a building defined by the things that it holds.