20th Nov, 2018

COMMENT: 'Reflections from Wembley' by Jonathan Strange, Coventry City fan and Houchen biographer

Correspondent 23rd Mar, 2017

 

Jonathan Strange, lifelong Sky Blues supporter and biographer of 1987 FA Cup hero Keith Houchen, writes about Wembley

It was the largest exodus in the city’s history – for a dull game played out in the soporific heat of a summer’s afternoon. Everton won 1-0.

The chief focus of interest for the Coventry contingent at the FA Charity Shield was David Speedie. John Sillett intended his record signing as a ‘Harrods’ version of Keith Houchen, netting the goals that Houchen only seemed able to score in the Cup. Sillett, perhaps, was not quite shopping in the right department. Houchen provided the necessary space for Bennett and Regis. And the success of Speedie, less prolific than his Chelsea partner Kerry Dixon, would rely on Regis reverting to a target-man role which was a waste of his rare touch and explosive power.

Achieving ultimate success as John and George had consummately demonstrated three months earlier depends on more than just a good budget. It depends on successfully coercing a chemistry of balanced skills, physiques and temperaments. It is about more than just the best eleven players. And attacking and defending are determined all over the pitch, not just by a limb or a touch at either end.

My local ground is a ten-minute walk. It was knocked down in 2002 and completely rebuilt. There is more space than in the old stadium – you no longer need to take off your legs to sit down and there are no ‘partially obscured’ views.

I had my flat-warming planned for the League Cup Final in 1990 – except that Stuart Pearce and the semi-final ref had other ideas about the Sky Blues’ potential participation.

Stand at the top of my path at most unexpected times and you can hear the recorded roar of the crowd from conducted tours.

Every spring, I see the play-off crowds pass my window, exultant or dejected. How quickly emotions can change over the next twelve months!

Rural lanes still lead down to the Welsh Harp, the Brent reservoir which is used for sailing and other sports. On its banks there was once a greyhound track at which, in 1876, a mechanical hare was tested for the very first time. Under the Twin Towers, greyhound racing became the stadium’s steadiest income, more than Live Aid or the Pope, more even than the Olympics or the World Cup.

One June night in 1963, the growl of the dogs – and the bikes of the Wembley Lions – gave way to Henry Cooper and Cassius Clay. Clay crumpled to the ground at the end of Henry’s left hook, but Cooper’s eyes had already begun to gush.

The nearby Arena, once the Empire Pool, was renovated in 2006. Until then, you passed dressing room signs redolent of Ice Hockey, Jack Kramer’s tennis circus and the World Professional Tennis Tournaments of sixty years ago. The spirits of Pancho Gonzales and Lew Hoad permeate the corridors. Memories are alive, too, of the Horse of the Year Show and of many a concert. On this site in 1923, overseen by its colonial pavilions, was the lake of the British Empire Exhibiton, close to the miniature railway on which newsreels captured King George V and Queen Mary.

Between the Arena and the bridge is the dust of CTS Recording Studios, where the music soundtracks to countless major British and American movies were recorded.

Wembley has changed, not just the stadium and its Twin Towers, but also the surrounding area. Alighting at Wembley Central thirty years ago, there was a semblance of refinement and sophisticated shopping. Now, the High Road consists largely of burger bars, pound shops and pawnbrokers. Towering blocks of flats and offices increasingly command the more traditional Metroland outlook.

Wembley Conference Centre with its celebrated snooker tables was already raised to the ground in 2006, barely forty years after it opened. The new Designer Outlet next to the stadium, however, has everything in the way of shops, eateries and cinemas for long so lacking elsewhere in Wembley.

At the Cup Final, 2-1 down at half-time, I stared across the wastes of north London, feeling very empty. It was naïve to think that this was going to be our year, that our name really was on the Cup…wasn’t it? As Keith Houchen drew breath, though, he was thinking that Tottenham were there for the taking – and after sixty-two minutes and forty-two seconds he proved the world right in one of Wembley’s rarest moments. As Sillett’s players surveyed the Tottenham team splayed exhausted across the grass at full-time, there could only be one winner.

I cannot wait to see the words COVENTRY CITY across the side of Wembley Stadium. I dream of the arch illuminated in sky blue. Next season, my nearest Sky Blues’ fixture will be three stops up the Jubilee Line at Canons Park – against Barnet. I shall be there.

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