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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 May 2007, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
End of the road for England
By Paul Fletcher

David Beckham celebrates scoring against Greece in a World Cup qualifier at Old Trafford in 2001
Beckham's dramatic equaliser against Greece in 2001 at Old Trafford was a defining feature of England's time on the road

The England senior team's long-awaited return to the rebuilt Wembley Stadium takes place with a friendly match against Brazil on Friday.

The old Wembley shut its doors for the final time in October 2000 and since then the England team has been on a tour of the nation.

As the national team prepares to play its first game at their new home, BBC Sport examines the effects of life on the road and the significance of the return to Wembley.

A FEAST FOR THE FANS

The old Wembley had a tired look about it as England lost 1-0 to Germany in the final game at the twin towers.

A sodden Kevin Keegan announced his resignation as coach after the defeat and the grey skies overhead seemed to match the prevailing mood.

In contrast, England's time on the road opened with a 3-0 win over Spain at Villa Park and was characterised by a freshness and enthusiasm that seemed to reinvigorate the national team.

England's form since leaving Wembley

"We have had a fantastic period on the road with the England team," the Football Association's director of communications Adrian Bevington told BBC Sport.

"The support we have received everywhere we have been has been fantastic.

"North, south, east or west, it has been incredible - a great experience for everyone connected with the team."

In total, England played 34 home games when Wembley was being redeveloped, taking in 14 different grounds.

Fans from all across the country, who previously had to travel to London to see their national team in action, were given the opportunity of watching them a lot closer to home.

Mark Perryman, spokesman for the England Members Club, is in no doubt that taking the national team to the provinces has been a huge success.

"It was welcomed by fans, the players, by local communities, local authorities and by the media," Perryman told BBC Sport.

"It was a real opportunity to turn an England game into a local game. That was the great success of it."

A CULTURALLY SIGNIFICANT EVENT

Wembley, of course, is in London, England's capital city.

THE GROUNDS THAT HOSTED ENGLAND
Old Trafford, Manchester (14)
St James' Park, Newcastle (3)
Anfield, Liverpool (3)
Villa Park, Birmingham (3)
City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester (2)
Riverside, Middlesbrough
Portman Road, Ipswich
Pride Park, Derby
Walkers Stadium, Leicester
Stadium of Light, Sunderland
St Mary's Stadium, Southampton
Elland Road, Leeds
Upton Park, London
White Hart Lane, London

And Perryman also believes that taking the national team around the country was of great cultural significance.

"It was a very powerful statement that said the national team belongs to everybody not only in London and the south-east," added Perryman.

"If you think of every institution in English or even British society it tends to be situated in London.

"What struck me was that for once a national institution was taken all over the country.

"I certainly share the sadness that this great experiment in devolution is at an end."

DELIVERING ON THE PITCH

The statistics do not lie - England did not lose a single home competitive fixture when touring the country during the rebuilding of Wembley.

England's last 34 games at Wembley

Of the 34 games that England played, 14 were either World Cup or Euro qualifiers - and the team won 11 and drew three. Eight of these took place at Old Trafford, with six victories and two draws.

In the final 34 games at the old Wembley, England played 15 competitive matches, either qualifiers or Euro 96 fixtures.

Counting the two games that went to penalty shoot-outs at Euro 96 as draws, England won seven, drew five and lost three.

"Not losing a qualifier on the road is a quite extraordinary figure and that alone would suggest that they have enjoyed it," stated Perryman.

However, England have not faced a major footballing nation in their home competitive matches since leaving Wembley, with arguably the match against Turkey at the Stadium of Light in April 2002 their toughest test.

In contrast, the defeats in competitive fixtures during the last 34 games at Wembley came against Italy, Scotland and Germany.

WEMBLEY - A NEW ICON

The new Wembley stadium was completed years behind schedule and ran to millions over budget - but it is finally ready to welcome back the national team.

And, having invested so much in the stadium, the FA is hopeful that Wembley will quickly re-establish itself as the home of the England team.

Hopefully Wembley will attain an iconic status and become the real heartbeat of English football once again

FA director of communications Adrian Bevington

"I think everyone would agree that it is the spiritual home of English football," said spokesman Bevington.

"I think it will take a bit of time to get used to but I think people will become accustomed to it very quickly. Hopefully, it will attain an iconic status and become the real heartbeat of English football once again."

Perryman agrees the architect Sir Norman Foster has done a superb job in designing the Wembley arch as a replacement in iconic terms for the twin towers.

And there seems to be a general agreement that the return of the England team to Wembley is a hugely anticipated event.

"There is great excitement about the opening of a the new stadium," confirmed Perryman.

The sun rises over the new Wembley stadium
New Wembley, new beginning

Plus, Bevington is keen to point out that many of the England players cannot wait for the fixture against Brazil.

"I found it interesting listening to comments and reading quotes from some of the England players who played in the FA Cup final about how much they are looking forward to playing for their country at the new Wembley," revealed Bevington.

"Don't forget the vast majority of the squad haven't played at Wembley for England."

MOVING ON AGAIN?

England did play occasional fixtures away from Wembley before the ground was rebuilt.

The Stadium Of Light, Old Trafford and Elland Road all hosted friendlies in the five years before Wembley closed in 2000 - and even though the rebuilt stadium is ready for use Perryman would like to see occasional fixtures played away from the capital.

The Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany
Germany do not play all their games at the Olympic Stadium

"Once the bills have been paid it would be really nice, in maybe five years, to play a match somewhere else," added Perryman.

"I can't see any good reason why, for example, a game like Estonia on a Wednesday night could not be played at St James' Park or Old Trafford."

And Perryman looks to the continent when he argues that the presence of a national stadium does not necessarily mean that all home fixtures have to be played within it.

"The Stade de France in Paris is not used for all internationals and arguably the Olympic Stadium in Berlin is the national stadium in Germany but their internationals are spread all over the country. It is perfectly possible."

But the FA has no plans to play any fixtures away from the new stadium.

"The plan in the immediate future is to play our games at Wembley," said Bevington.

"There has been a well-documented building process and we certainly want to make use of the stadium and I think the public and players would like us make use of it and make it our new home."

And so, for the foreseeable future at least, a highly successful venture in taking England to the masses is at an end.



SEE ALSO
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Beckham recalled to England squad
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The new Wembley Stadium
16 May 07 |  Football
England to face Brazil at Wembley
11 Apr 07 |  Internationals
England U21s draw Wembley cracker
24 Mar 07 |  Internationals
FA takes control of Wembley keys
10 Mar 07 |  Football
In Pictures: Wembley through the years
24 Mar 07 |  In Pictures
Wembley Q&A
10 Mar 07 |  Football
Wembley pictures
24 Mar 07 |  Football


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