[Adapted from a complaint to the FA/Wembley]
For background: I am no shrinking violet, and have been going to England and/or Newcastle United matches home and away every year since 1985 (so across five decades). I also often go to games as a neutral when travelling, and have seen matches from Birmingham to Bhutan (Thimphu), from LA Galaxy (California) to Luton, from Macclesfield to the Maracana (World Cup quarter final and also the final in 2014), to the Mamalodi Sundowns (South Africa), to Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel), Thailand, Laos, Portugal, Spain, Scandinavia, over 20 countries. I have seen all sorts of matches, all sorts of atmospheres and, very occasionally, all sorts of madness and football violence. I’ve been to World Cup games in Japan (every England game), Germany and Brazil, a Euros match in the Ukraine, England vs France, with plenty nearby Russians in attendance. At Euro ‘96 I went to the Switzerland, Scotland and Spain games, and the Germany vs Czech Final.
Being a NUFC season ticket holder, I have been to all Newcastle vs Sunderland ‘Derby’ matches at home since the ‘90s; and most of the away ones (I say ‘most’ as after having our coaches ‘bricked’ with flying missiles, it put me off for a while).
So I’ve been in more than a few drunken, volatile and outwardly aggressive crowds, inside and outside stadiums.
However, I have never been in such a horrible, violent, drugged up and threatening crowd inside and outside a ground as last Sunday; nor with so little stewarding and Police presence.
My wife and I walked to Wembley Stadium from our hotel at Hanger Lane. We’re 49, it was a pleasant evening and we chose that hotel so we could park, eat and walk to the ground 35/45 minutes away and thus avoid public transport.
We hoped to do a circuit of the ground, soak up a bit of atmosphere with others fortunate to have tickets, head in, have a drink and try and enjoy the match.
As soon as we passed Wembley Stadium rail station I could tell that wasn’t going to happen.
There were far too many people there, far too drunk (or drugged up) and any seasoned match-goer could tell this was a tinderbox. England games can be. I know that, as in tournament/knockout games, once the match is over, country loyalties are dissolved, club loyalties are re-asserted and the fans often turn on each other. I’ve seen it in Japan after being knocked out by Brazil. Then again in Germany after the penalty shootout loss to Portugal.
So I knew that was on the cards if England didn’t win. But such a level of ‘threat’ and menace BEFORE the game, I’d not seen. It was more than naughtiness or high spirits. It was blatant lawlessness.
There was a more than just an occasional waft of weed/cannabis around the stadium outside. In the ground, in my block ‘552’ right on half way line / upper tier, it was constant throughout the match. I can tolerate the occasional waft. But this was a permanent fug; enough to make your eyes water and the back of your throat sore. There was a not a steward in sight in the seated areas. Not that there would have bern any point in complaining; but at least that might have deterred some. Not for the first time that evening did I thank god I hadn’t brought my kids or an elder; that would have been stupid anyway for a game of this magnitude, but downright reckless on reflection.
I had been concerned my seats were so far from my allotted Entrance K, but once we’d seen the amount of lawlessness and breaking in, it was rather a relief for reasons I’ll explain as we go.
We got to the ground about 6:30pm, and having seen what the outer rim was like, we decided to head in; naively thinking that may be where we would be safe. Where there would only be ticket holders. Ticket holders with their tickets on their own smart phones, so easily traceable. Ticket holders who had paid good money and wanted to see the game. Ticket holders who had undertaken the correct COVID tests, checks and vaccines and had them on their phone too. Ticket holders who had been searched for weapons, knives, Class A drugs, missiles, drinks, glass and other prohibited items. Ticket holders who had paid top dollar from UEFA, or an over-inflated price in a subsequent sell-on, and thus wanted to see football, and not get as intoxicated and abusive as possible, in the shortest period of time. Ticket holders, and ticket holders only, who had successfully and rightly got past cordons, Police, checks, stewards and thus been vetted and assessed as being of an acceptable state to be allowed in.
How wrong we were.
This became sadly apparent at the first ticket / Covid check. To say the COVID check was cursory is an exaggeration. Anyone could, and did, just have a QR Code screen shot that anyone could have photo messaged them. There was no checking any code shown was live on the app. There was plenty pushing and shoving. Not what I want with a £1000 smart phone in my hand, holding a Category 1 €945 face value ticket. A bloke next to me asked if he could ‘ping me tickets, la’. I just stared straight forward and ensured my wife was in front of me; and he shuffled back to pester some one else. A second check, this time of our tickets, at a end of a short ‘funnel’ of fencing from first COVID scan and we were on the concourse; away from the melee the outside of the low, slideable, impermanent fencing. It couldn’t stop a determined 10 year old; let alone the drunken mob behind it.
There was no social distancing in a queue to check COVID testing. We were crushed together in a random scrum. Men, women, children and the ticketless. This would have been unacceptably uncomfortable at anytime. In these pandemic times it was beyond incompetent, it was reckless and dangerous. But there was no choice. Everyone who wanted to get in had to go that way.
My ‘Red Alert’ did ease slightly as we walked towards Entrance K. It was more spacious on the concourse, but still plenty groups of young lads and ne’er do wells. It’s a football match, I expected that; but a lot of them didn’t look like £840 ticket types at Entrance E. It was a mixed level up at the 500s I thought: Categories/prices 1 2 and 3.
I just wanted to be in, and away from the drama outside. So we line up about 5 deep to get through the turnstile. I’m back on Red Alert as someone spots that my wife is elfin, short and still relatively slim – which means she’s an ideal target to be tailgated (ticketless fan crushes into her to get both through turnstile, pushes her to ground once in and ‘legs’ it). He tries to get past my shoulder and at her, but I manage to block and delay him, get her in (with phone in her hand, as has to be the case for ticket to be scanned) and then me too, as well, using my body to ensure I have the turnstile segment to myself.
There was very little space the other side of these turnstiles. There was a line of metal detectors (inside the stadium, so after the ticket has been scanned: which seemed completely the wrong way round). We waited to go through.
For a moment I felt a smidge of relief. We’re in.
Then we heard a ‘smash’ and the double doors to the right of the turnstiles were both flung open and dozens of people poured through. They dashed straight up the escalator, which was side-by-side, full of people already. The people on the escalator were shoved to both sides as the mob tore up there. At least one steward was knocked to the ground on the way. Other stewards tried to shut the double doors to quell the influx. A steward shouted to lockdown the turnstiles; so they stopped. A small handful of stewards managed to shut the double fire-exit doors, which had been breached, I guess as most of those outside these ones were already in. My wife and I stared in amazement. It happened so fast. Those stewards at ‘Entrance K’ moved pretty fast; they deserve a commendation and pay bonus. But dozens had got in. I’d guess between 20-50. The stewards told us to not use the escalator (which had been shut off) and was anyway full of screaming people who had been tossed asunder, and instructed us to take the stairs. All the way up to the top tier. I was just glad to not be accidentally hit, kicked, or thrown out.
I was gutted.
You could tell from the shouting to each other and the amount of folk crashing the doors that this was planned. Shouts of ‘Get up the escalator, la’ encouraged those not in the first wave.
So we knew there was at least one mob of pissed-up inconsiderates in the ground; likely at the top of the long stairs we were now walking up.
As we went past the black fire-exit doors which had been breached we could see they had the most flimsy metal pole locking system on the inside. It would have been an easy job for 2 or 3 lads to push open from outside. I could not believe they were so inadequate. And that there weren’t at least a couple of stewards or Police guarding them on the outside. Ridiculous. People have been trying to get into Wembley without tickets since at least 1923 and the White Horse Final.
My wife and I had a swift pace on, to get up and to our seats, but as we were talking one lad in grey walking even quicker, over heard something we said and retorted “It’s a once in a lifetime experience, I’m not going to miss it for anything” and sped off past us. Such is the attitude today: “I’ve not done the hard yards, travelling and supporting the team across the continents, nor paid for a ticket. But I’m so important I’m going to ‘jib’ in, and push anyone and everyone out of my way.”
That deflated me completely.
Substantial parts of this crowd (instead of just the odd few) will be selfish, lawless criminals. And could well be stood next to us or in our seats.
Once we got to the internal concourse for the 500s, it was the usual ‘away day’ bedlam.
The ticketless would have been up a height having been so successful.
It was all the usual youthful mob of blokes you get at away games these days. Young, dumb and full of Class As. You can tell by their eyes: vacant and wide. The now ubiquitous beer throwing was in full effect. It appears that when you’re high as a kite on powder, a £6.50 beer is just an annoyance, to be treated like confetti.
It was then that the only small crumb of comfort came to me. Our block was almost half a loop of the stadium away. The ticketless scum would take the nearest seats to them; that is how the drugged and lazy operate. We just had to get through the concourse all the way to 552 from the top of Entrance K; which is quite a way. The further we got, I hoped the lighter the crowd would get. It did, but only just a little. But that was dumb luck.
As we reached the stairs to 552 I didn’t have the stomach for a beer. The queues weren’t that busy; but I wasn’t in the mood. I just wanted to be in my seats. My very expensive seats; in case I had find alternatives due to interlopers.
The view from Row 27 was high up, but good. The people near us seemed ok. There were plenty of spaces. Our tickets were one seat apart anyway; so I assumed everyone’s was and distanced. More crumbs of comfort as we looked down at the crushes below and to the sides in other blocks.
Needing a pre-match wee, but not wanting to be last minute, I popped down at 7:30. There were hardly any stewards. The floor was a sloppy mess. No-one policed the one way system for the toilets; which stank of cigarette and other smoke, hanging in the air like net curtains, and was the usual ice rink of beer and piss.
Back up to our seats which hadn’t been purloined, we caught the closing ceremony. I couldn’t enjoy any of this, as I was waiting for the last minute crash of pissed up fans crawling over the aisles, after being on concourse till the last second. We were still spacious, the fog of weed was still there; and I thanked god we were Row 27 with spaces in the 26 rows below to be more easily snatched.
The concourse was relatively empty when I had my 60 minute wee. But as my bladder was breached, so, shortly, was the England defence.
What had been nerve-wracking, with a 1-0 lead, now became nerve-shredding. If Italy scored again there would have been a riot, a pitch invasion and god knows what mayhem. One idiot did get on the pitch and it took three stewards ages to get him. Where was a single, fit, copper with a decent shot and a taser when you need to make an example? Nowhere. I can’t recall seeing one copper in the ground.
We all know the result.
The fact it was pouring rain most of the night completely saved the day. It quelled the madness of the deluded and intoxicated. I prayed it kept raining as the crowd left the stadium; even though we were walking for over an hour (we came in through a short cut over the train tracks which would NOT have been advisable in the dark, so our walk back was longer).
I was in no rush to face the long walk home, the opposite way from Wembley Way. I wanted to see the trophy being lifted; Newcastle United fans only see that sort of thing on the telly. More time for the lunatics to get clear too.
So we were one of the 5% or so that stayed. My last words were to a guy in an Italian top with his son who was along in the row behind and oddly had came in with fish & chips each. He was in tears. So happy. Maybe so nervous. I said: “I’d put that white t-shirt back over your Azzuri top before you move; as there’s gunna be a lot of dickheads about.” He said “Thanks, I will, you deserved to win that”. I didn’t agree with him, but it was a civil thing of him to say. A nice thing. The only nice thing that day. I shrugged and walked on.
The stewards wouldn’t let us down the way we came up, so it was another slippy trudge to find a passable exit with no signage, no direction. Once we were down and out the ground, the only way we were ushered was back under Wembley Way; seemingly having to do at least two half circuits to get out.
I was numb, dazed and disappointed.
We managed to get out to the streets away from concourse, as the heavens poured. Years of aways, starting with NUFC in London in the ‘80s (as I grew up in Croydon), taught me how to keep schtum, not make eye contact, but be on full alert and walk purposely forward, never staring, never breaking stride.
I thanked God for the rain. It will have sent the scrotes scuttling back to under the rocks. There was a bit of singing, a few crossed words between others, and one quite tasty fight between some Asian lads (not in colours and quite a distance from ground).
The rain was annoying. But it was keeping the scum off the streets and cleansing the filth left behind them.
I couldn’t sleep. England were 30 minutes or three kicks from winning a trophy and I was there. I wanted to be there. Until I got there. And then it was fearful chore; constantly wondering what result would cause the least damage.
I bought expensive tickets direct from UEFA as had already had an England vs Croatia ticket cancelled due to crowd limits. I took that risk of buying those final tickets before the Germany game. My friends scoffed at me, my faith, my hope and the sky high prices I paid. I thought it was going to be the best day of my footballing life (having resigned myself after a Charity Shield, two FA cup finals, and various European close runs I’ll never see anything with NUFC).
For my money, Wembley, and the FA who own it, had a duty of care to ensure my wife and I, not only were safe, but felt safe, inside that ground.
The story above is testament that they failed completely to uphold their end of the deal.
There were thousands of people in there without tickets and without being searched. They did not do anywhere near enough to prevent this. Apparently it had happened at the Denmark semi-final to a lesser degree; so there was fair warning. Gates should have been guarded: entrances and exits, and by Police, not some guy on £9per hour, no training and a hi-vis waistcoat.
Intruders could have been (and were) carrying any sort of weapon, or item which could be turned into a weapon. They were intoxicated, lawless and uncontrolled.
The stand itself had a veil of weed across it for the 90 minutes; certainly in my block. Whether the first hit is a bit of a laugh or not, the constant smell and taste was totally unacceptable. Our throats were sore by the end; not from shouting.
This would have all been bad enough anyway. But in these controlled Covid times it was irresponsible, completely unacceptable and has exposed thousands to risk of infection and spreading.
Wembley and the FA failed so much and in so many ways, when just a little more thought and preparation, a lot more strategy, contingency, Police and stewarding, and some actual common sense should have been applied.
Keep ticketless fans well away from the stadium. Cordons, ‘rings of steel’, fencing that works and actual bodies; be that Police, stewards or bouncers, would have prevented a lot of the above.
The sky high prices, demand and rarity of such an event, and the long history of people trying to ‘jib’ in at Wembley should have meant things were dealt with a lot more professionally and thoroughly.
They want the World Cup in 2030? Fat chance.
Castle Farm Mag