Why England's commitment to Wembley is stopping them from being a 'national' team

EMPTY SEATS: More than half of Wembley's seats were empty as the stadium hosted England's 1-0 win over Norway on Wednesday night

EMPTY SEATS: More than half of Wembley's seats were empty as the stadium hosted England's 1-0 win over Norway on Wednesday night

First published in Sport
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The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

LET’S have a very unscientific straw poll – how many of you travelled down to Wembley to watch your national side in action on Wednesday night?

I dare bet it’s not many, and if you did, you’re probably reading this a couple of days after it was published because you’ve only just negotiated the last of the late-night roadworks on the M1.

If, like me, you stayed at home instead and flicked between the match on ITV and the nail-biting custard tart section of the Bake Off on BBC1, it’s safe to say you were in the majority.

Wednesday’s attendance of 40,181 for a low-key friendly against Norway actually stacked up pretty well compared to most other post-World Cup crowd figures across Europe, but it still represented a new all-time low at the new Wembley and marked a fresh nadir in the England team’s standing in the eyes of the nation.

Have we now reached a point where people simply don’t care about England anymore? It’s tempting to conclude that after yet another abject failure in Brazil, but while the status of international football continues to diminish when posited against the financial strength of the club game, I’m still pretty confident that the England side continues to mean something to most people, even up here in the North-East.

It’s just that even fairly passionate England supporters have long since concluded that the time and money required to make six or seven trips to Wembley each year could be better spent elsewhere.

I know of a group of North-East supporters who will be in Switzerland next week and Estonia in the middle of October, supporting their country and renewing acquaintances with fellow England fans. But they’ve long since given up on home games at Wembley because the matches are either meaningless friendlies or unappealing qualifiers, it’s impossible to take enough time off work to stay over in London and the ten-hour travelling time involved in a day trip to Wembley has gradually ground them down.

Increasingly, the England team has become the preserve of those based in London and the Home Counties, and while the Football Association’s chief financial officer might argue that’s okay because that’s where the bulk of the country’s money is, the national side ceases to be that at all if it is only accessible to those in a certain geographical area.

It wasn’t always like this of course. Not too long ago, it felt like the England team had a truly national identity because it was playing its matches along the length and breadth of the country.

Anyone who was at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light for England’s game with Turkey in 2003 will remember the spine-tingling atmosphere that helped carry Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side to a crucial 2-0 win, while England’s players also appeared at St James’ Park in Newcastle and the Riverside in Middlesbrough during the seven years in which Wembley was being rebuilt.

The Northern Echo:

Since 2007, the tour has been over, and as the FA’s Middlesbrough-born managing director, Adrian Bevington, admitted on Twitter earlier this week, it won’t be returning for at least another eight or nine years.

That’s the length of time it’s going to take the FA to pay off the outstanding debt that was incurred to meet the £757m building cost of the new Wembley, and while the overall attendance for Wednesday’s friendly might have been low, the revenue generated from the stadium’s corporate areas means it was still a lucrative money spinner.

With debts to pay, generating income is the FA’s primary motivation, but as the custodians of the national game, the governing body have to look beyond short-term cash flows to see the long-term damage that is being done to football in this country.

A generation of North-East children are growing up with little or no affiliation to their national team beyond a brief spurt of interest when a major tournament rolls around. That will have repercussions in the future, with the leading European club sides increasingly determined to push international football even further into the margins.

It will no doubt be both difficult and expensive for the FA to renegotiate their debt and the contract that currently compels them to stage all international games at Wembley, but it is a price worth paying if it means England becoming a genuinely ‘national’ team once again. Otherwise, when the next England game goes head-to-head with the Bake Off, Mary Berry will be an even more comprehensive winner.

**

PREVIOUS transfer windows have closed with Newcastle United supporters livid at Mike Ashley. This time around, though, their ire was trained almost exclusively at Alan Pardew.

Monday’s decision to loan both Hatem Ben Arfa and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa wasn’t taken out of financial expediency or to save a few bob – it was purely because Pardew had had enough of both players and wanted them out of the club.

The Northern Echo: Ben Arfa

As Newcastle manager, he is well within his rights to deem certain players unworthy of selection and recommend moving them on.

But when he is presiding over a side that has won just two of its last 13 Premier League matches, and one of the players jettisoned is arguably the most talented on the club’s books, he is clearly taking a risk.

Pardew’s popularity was low enough to start with, but it is pretty much at rock bottom now and the mood at the next home game against Ben Arfa’s new employers will be mutinous if things do not go to plan.

**

PAUL McGINLEY insists there was no sentiment in his decision to select Lee Westwood as one of his three wildcards for this month’s Ryder Cup, even though the 41-year-old has dropped to 16th on the world points list and only recorded one top-ten finish on the European Tour in the whole of 2014.

The Northern Echo: Lee Westwood

It probably doesn’t feel that way to Luke Donald, who missed out, but even if it was the case, so what? The whole point of the Ryder Cup is that its team ethic and adversarial nature means it is different to other golf tournaments, so why shouldn’t specialists be selected?

Westwood is certainly that, having picked up 21 points from his 37 Ryder Cup matches since making his debut in 1997. His record is superb, and while his form might have become increasingly erratic, his Ryder Cup pedigree makes him a crucial member of the European team.

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