I've been to Wembley Stadium twice in the last six weeks, for the FA Cup Semi-Final and the Championship Play-Off Final. On both occasions I was disappointed but not surprised at the terrible organisation in the area and the treatment of football fans.
In a country that boasts about hosting the Olympics and gets away with serving £3 industrial vats of Coca Cola and £4.70 pints of watery lager in its national stadium, you'd expect just a touch of respect on a day you have spent hundreds of pounds and traveled hundreds of miles to see your sporting hopes or fears be realised. Perhaps some vaguely accommodating behaviour from staff or even an appreciation of what it all means to the average football fan.
Sadly, such treatment is a merely a pipe dream. Instead, you'll be totally misinformed about transport and demonised as a hooligan before you even reach your seat. Welcome to England in Olympic year. Not that it will matter to the organisers, who are far more interested in getting corporate and royal bums on seats miles away from the inconvenient riff-raff.
FA Cup Semi-Final
It is seven minutes before kick-off (12:23), and around a thousand Everton fans are crowded outside a single entrance of Wembley Stadium. The gates on either side are completely empty, but with tickets being "locked" to their designated gate, the crowd is swelling in this one small area. A recorded message is running on a loop: "We apologise for the inconvenience. We will ensure you get in to the stadium as quickly as possible". The stewards, meanwhile, cannot speak English.
"Surely this is an issue for a delayed kick-off?" my brother asks. Of course not, the feelings of the television broadcasters are far too important to worry about us not getting in - after all, it might delay a Murder She Wrote repeat on ITV if the game is prolonged.
After a mad dash up never-ending stairs, we arrive in our block, which is relatively sparsely populated as half of its inhabitants are still queuing up outside. The game kicks off. Having arrived at the gate a full 30 minutes before kick off and only entered our seats as the minute's silence is announced, we can understand how this situation has occurred.
It's over an hour since the game ended (the less we speak about the game itself, the better), and we are leaving JJ Moons pub and heading towards Wembley Central station. This is where the real fun begins. After arriving at the Watford Junction platform, we are informed "nice try" by a surly middle-aged lady. We are unaware of what crazy stunt we have supposedly attempted to pull, but at least she is very satisfied with herself.
She then proceeds to send us past the station and around a housing estate in to a back entrance, which eventually brings us up.... right back at the place we started.
After much confusion, we end up queued up at the gate to the same platform we were at half an hour earlier. A portly and thoroughly aggressive lady, chock full of the temporary power she presumably is unable to assert in any other realm of her life, informs us "well you must have cocked up". Customer service continues to die a death in the corner of the room.
Another member of staff shrewdly points out a moth residing on the leg of one of our party.
We then stand for another twenty minutes, before being uncomfortably herded once more on to a sweaty platform to wait for a train that takes an age to arrive.
Championship Play-Off Final
Having decided to arrive early and take in the atmosphere on what used to be known as Wembley Way, we stop for a burger.
Upon handing over £5.50, some dry, grey form covered by a stale roll is practically thrown at me by a notably sour-faced member of staff. On Wembley Way, the fans of both sets of teams are singing their hearts, creating a brilliant atmosphere.
A ticketing fiasco that resulted in Blackpool failing to sell 7,000 tickets of their allocation (and also failing to send those unsold tickets back) resulted in six completely empty rows in front of us on the top tier.
As if the emptiness wasn't enough, the first populated row contained around a dozen suspiciously plain-clothed men.
West Ham scored. The dozen went wild. Now it began...
A few Blackpool fans charged over their unsold seats, flashing blows towards the West Ham supporters. A fair few more came across to join in. Did that get shown on television? I doubt it.
Just as things were beginning to look concerning, a lone steward arrived to diffuse the situation. The slight figure of a nervous looking five-foot-six gentleman approached the battling fans and asked then to calm things down. Naturally, they didn't.
In the next block, another small pocket erupted in to blows. Eventually, a couple of hundred West Ham fans were penned in to the back of the tier near the dividing line between the supporters. Midway through the second half they were led out, having been told they were being moved. They were instead ejected from the stadium.
This is not a new phenomenon; I recall the same thing happening around me during the 2009 FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Everton. Supporters were led out, never to return.
The ticketing situation is the fault of the FA. It was always likely to result in West Ham fans (whose side had comfortably sold their allocation) buying tickets in a Blackpool end strewn with row upon row of empty seats.
The laughable stewarding is another matter entirely...
We arrive back at Wembley Central and queue up for the clearly marked Watford Junction platform. Perhaps this will be pain free...
A lady appears in front of us and points us past the station towards that housing estate once more....
Here we go again.