Eurosport - Fri, 21 May 12:51:00 2010
Wembley finals and Wembley-bashing are natural bedfellows, condiments in a great farce that have brought a repugnant sort of smell to the English game. They are both ripe to assault the senses. The Championship play-off duel between Cardiff City and Blackpool on Saturday presents the latest opportunity to chastise the London stadium's much-maligned surface.
All the vitriol surrounding the pitch has become as much of a sport as the finals it hosts, but it is hardly bombast. Cardiff's manager Dave Jones has apparently rejected the chance to train at Wembley on the eve of the final. Who could ever have imagined such a scenario when Cardiff were rummaging around the downtrodden Ninian Park?
Jones is the latest figure in a growing smorgasbord of managers to question the viability of the grass. Wembley's pitch has become the great leveller. Like death and taxes, criticism of the national stadium has become one of life's great certainties.
The new Wembley has quickly established a roll call of dishonour when one considers this soaring 90,000-capacity edifice, a lasting monument to the country's national sport, cost around a fearsome £750 million to construct. This must be excruciating stuff for the Football Association, and all those cursed souls involved with the general health of Wembley's appearance.
"When you build a new stadium, the first priority is that the pitch is good. If that's not right, the whole stadium is bad," commented Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger after his side's defeat to Chelsea in last season's FA Cup semi-final. Such a stadium has to pay its way. This has been part of the problem.
Some weird and wonderful characters, including Madonna, Take That, Premiership rugby, speedway and the NFL have enjoyed the roomy significance of Wembley's main thoroughfare, but the grass has hardly had time to come up for air. Wembley was relaid for an 11th time in the aftermath of the Carling Cup final in March. The Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and Aston Villa's Martin O'Neill were forthright in their criticism of the surface. It was similar comments that apparently led to the sacking of head groundsman Steve Welch last year.
Welch was not so much a sacrificial lamb as made a glaring scapegoat when studying the condition of the surface during the FA Cup final. There has been little or no progress made since he departed having said trying to improve the pitch was like "growing grass in a shoebox".
It will get a good old flogging before England play their final home friendly with Mexico on Monday evening which throws up an eminently scarier prospect than Blackpool and Cardiff City hurling brickbats after their final draws its final breath.
On the cusp of a World Cup finals when the country is firmly fixated with the health of its leading football players as much as waving the cross of St George, could Wembley, the time-honoured home of the English game, play a part in damaging its squad before they depart for South Africa?
What happens if the unevenness, the slipperiness of the pitch, as Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti last week lamented, prompts Wayne Rooney to suffer an injury that would force him to miss the finals?
FA officials may well be getting ready to retreat to the bunker with their tin helmets on if such a gruesome scenario visits them. The fallout from the public rebuke would be brutal with 90,000 punters due on Monday.
This would all sound slightly far-fetched if it was not so serious.
What has been said about the Wembley surface:
"It was not good enough for a Wembley pitch. It ruined the final and was the worst pitch I have played on all year. The FA have to decide if this is a football pitch or an events stadium." Chelsea captain John Terry.
"The pitch is not so good. It was better than the semi-final, but Wembley is supposed to be the temple of football. That is not the temple of pitches." Portsmouth's manager Avram Grant.
"It's a disgrace." Tottenham Hotspur's manager Harry Redknapp.
"When I saw the pitch, I had reservations about it and that's why I feel I definitely played the right team. I am absolutely convinced about that. I was told that they have events like speedway there, so with it being used for so many other things, they have to keep pulling the pitch up, and then put a new one down." Manchester United's manager Sir Alex Ferguson after picking a reverse team for a Wembley FA Cup semi-final.
"It is very poor for a national stadium. There is really no excuse for it. The stadium costs £800 million to sort out and the one thing you'd think they'd get right would be the playing surface." Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill.
Recent events at Wembley:
April 17: Saracens v Harlequins
May 8: FA Trophy final
May 9: FA Vase final
May 15: FA Cup final
May 16: Football Conference final
May 22: Championship play-off final
May 24: England v Mexico