One of the most important occasions on the sporting calander, for me, is the last Saturday in August, the date of the Rugby League Challenge cup final. Since 1929, it’s been held at Wembley, with a break between 2000 and 2007 when the old stadium was demolished and replaced by the modern arena. Wigan played in the first final at Wembley, when they beat Dewsbury 13-2, and it became an annual pilgrimage in the late 1980’s and 90’s when they played, and won, the cup 8 years in succession (1988 to 1995). Their last visit was in 1998 when they were overwhelming favourites but were well beaten by unfancied Sheffield Eagles. They won the cup again in 2002, beating the old enemy St Helens at Murrayfield. However they couldn’t repeat the feat at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff when they lost to Saints in 2004.
This year Wigan reached the final for the first time since 2004, facing Leeds. So it was the first opportunity to see them play at the new stadium.
I went to Wembley for most of the finals during the 80’s and 90’s, including the game against Sheffield. It was always a great occasion with a good atmosphere, but it the stadium was showing it’s age. The fabric was crumbling, the facilities were poor and the seats were cramped and uncomfortable. It needed redeveloping. So I was looking forward to seeing and experiencing the new stadium, designed by Foster and Partners and Populous.
The stadium is dominated by the massive arch which is 134 metres high and has a span of 317 metres. The arch has a structural role, supporting the roof, but it is principally intended to provide a distinctive “signature” feature, a substitute for the famous and much loved “twin towers” of the old stadium.
We arrived before the turnstiles opened, so I had the chance to have a look around the outside of the stadium. The arch is certainly distinctive, but I wasn’t particularly impressed by the exterior, which was rather bland with no significant design features other than the arch.
The real test of the success of the design is how good it is for the purpose for which it was built – i.e. staging sporting events. It was principally intended to stage football matches (although it can be adapted for athletics events) which means it should also be suitable for rugby matches which have more or less the same requirements for the playing area and for spectators.
The stadium is a giant bowl, protected from the elements by a sliding roof that does not completely enclose it. There should be a decent view from every seat, although with a 90,000 capacity those sat high up at the back are quite distant from the pitch. The seats close to the front don’t allow a good overview of the action, but that’s always a problem with sports stadia.
(picture source Wikipedia)
There are, essentially, three levels of seating. The best seats are in the middle layer, running all round the stadium. These are exclusively reserved for members of “Club Wembley”. Members purchase a licence for a seat for one or more years. That gives them a seat at all the games played in the stadium plus access to exclusive bars and restaurants well away from the rabble . If they decide not to turn up and not to sell the right to use their seat for a game they don’t attend, the seat is empty. There is no way empty seats in this section of the stadium can be included in the allocation to the clubs or purchased via the Rugby League. The result is that a large tranche of the stadium containing the seats that have the best view is inaccessible to fans and is largely empty during the Challenge Cup final (see photo below). Not only that, this almost empty region separates the lower and upper areas where the fans are located, spoiling the atmosphere to some extent.
I bought one of the more expensive tickets available to Wigan season ticket holders as I wanted to get a good view of the match while still being in amongst the fans. I didn’t want to be up in the “gods”. So I ended up relatively low down in the 13th row. The view was reasonable, but it was difficult to see what was going on t e wing furthest from where I was sat. This is not really acceptable when you’ve shelled out for what you think will be a good seat. I wouldn’t have been happier in the cheaper seats higher up. What was really annoying is that the seats with the best view – the Club Wembley tranche, which hadn’t been on sale to fans via the clubs or the Rugby League – were largely unoccupied.
To me Club Wembley sums up how sport is run these days – i.e. priority is given to commercial organisations (who, I guess, purchase the majority of the licenses to wine and dine clients during major football matches and who aren’t;t that interested in other events) and well heeled individuals constituting the “prawn sandwich brigade”. The real sports fans are treated as second class citizens who can be shunted into seats with an inferior view and who cares if the atmosphere is spoiled so long as the profit is maximised. The stadium has been designed specifically to accommodate this.
The roof covers the seated areas. It is retractable, so that it can be pulled back when the stadium is not in use to allow the grass on the pitch to be exposed to sunlight. During matches it is closed to cover the seated areas to protect spectators from the elements. It doesn’t close completely, though. For me, there is a major problem with the roof as it casts a shadow over a large area of the pitch. On a sunny day there is a big variation between shaded and un-shaded areas. This creates particular problems for T.V. coverage as the cameras can’t cope with the variation in the lighting levels very well. It’s less of a problem for the spectators, but to me it’s poor design.
Facilities within the stadium are quite good, with plenty of toilets, food outlets (selling overpriced, unhealthy food) and bars in the concourse area. However, they need to have more toilets accessible outside as many fans had quite a wait after they arrived before the turnstiles were opened.
The seating was a big improvement on the old stadium. In particular, there was considerably more leg room, which is important when you’re seated for a few hours.
I wasn’t impressed with the infrastructure around the stadium. The car and coach parking arrangements were exceptionally poor. Access and egress to the coach park via an industrial estate was very poor. Coaches were parked bumper to bumper and the lack of markings on the coach park made it very difficult to locate my coach at the end of the match. The exit from the coach park was poorly managed. It was very much every man for himself leading to a chaotic scramble with coach drivers trying to force their way through the melee. I’d suggest that they need to mark out lanes, with clear markings and other signs to allow spectators to find their coach.
Car parking was very limited an, in my view, totally adequate for the major national stadium. Of course people should be encouraged to make use of public transport but that can be expensive, especially for family groups, many of whom attend the Challenge Cup Final. Coach fares were around £40 from Wigan and that would have been £160 for a family of four who would have already shelled out at least £164 on tickets.
So I don’t think the stadium is a complete success. The design is rather bland and although it potentially fulfils its function as an arena for major sporting events well, it is let down by poor infrastructure and commercial greed being put before the interests of the fans.
As for the match, well I came away happy Wigan having won 28 – 18. It wasn’t an easy victory, though. Wigan raced into a 16 – 0 lead in the fist half hour but then had to work hard to contain a spirited fightback by Leeds, which made it a nail-biting finish and an exciting game to watch. There was some controversy about some of the refereeing decisions, but none of those complaining about those that went against Leeds seem to have noticed some poor decisions that led to the two Leeds tries that started their recovery. Still I think Wigan deserved this hard fought win. It was good to be there to see them collect the cup.
Stadium picture from Wikipedia originally posted to Flickr by Ian Wilson at http://flickr.com/photos/36959242@N00/3915345026. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.