Last month’s Carabao Cup final defeat for Arsenal marked the end of an astonishing run. Before that game against Manchester City, the Gunners had won 10 straight games at Wembley. It was a streak that stretched all the way back to the 2011 League Cup final loss to Birmingham and saw them collect three FA Cups and three Community Shields.
Hector Bellerin summed it up perfectly in an Instagram comment made to Alexandre Lacazette before the Community Shield clash with Chelsea in August: “Don’t worry bro. We got this. We win at Wembley.” The Spanish right back’s confidence was justified by the penalty shootout victory that followed.
Indeed, Arsenal boast an exceptional record at Wembley, their home away from home. But had things gone a little differently, Wembley could have been Arsenal’s actual home. As in, their home stadium. Rather than leaving Highbury to take roost at the Emirates Stadium in 2006, the Gunners could have instead moved 11 miles across London to the home of football.
In fact, this week in 1998 saw Arsenal make an offer worth around £100 million for Wembley. Frustrated by the lack of progress in expanding Highbury, the North London club decided to make a play for the national stadium, making a bid for the crumbling old venue and the land it sat on. The idea was that Arsenal would have then redeveloped the ground into the modern stadium they required.
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The offer came at a critical point in Wembley’s history as the home of English football. Reconstruction plans had been tabled by this time, with the stadium the centrepiece of England’s bid for the 2006 World Cup. It was a spanner in the works and The FA reacted angrily. “We have to assume they believe they are acting in the interests of their club and its supporters,” a statement read. “However the Government and the rest of football have made it clear what we believe is in the nation’s interests. So it is now up to the Wembley board to make up its mind between the two bids.”
Some believed Arsenal never really wanted to buy Wembley, but that the club was merely using the offer to make a statement about their intentions to either expand Highbury or find a new stadium. If local authorities wouldn’t play along with their plans, they wouldn’t think twice about leaving the community behind. This, it was thought by many, was the intended statement.
But what if Arsenal had actually followed through on their threat? What if they had succeeded in buying the home of English football? What if Wembley had been passed to the Gunners? Might they have suffered many of the same problems West Ham are currently experiencing in their new home, the London Stadium?
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It too is a ground that was never really built for their needs. Of course, West Ham don’t actually own the former Olympic venue, but the move to their new stadium saw them abandon their local community. We all witnessed the effects of this in the crowd unrest during the Hammers’ defeat to Burnley at the weekend. The protests, the fighting, the identity crisis of an entire club. That could have been Arsenal.
A successful Arsenal bid for Wembley could have set in motion a domino effect right across English football. In the event of this coming to pass, Birmingham’s proposal to build a new national stadium in the city surely would have drawn support. The redevelopment of Wembley Stadium was contentious from start to finish and a hitch like so even the smallest of hitches could have sent the England team, as well as cup finals, north.
The move to the Emirates was indeed a watershed moment in Arsenal’s history, but not in the way that was billed. The Gunners have so far spurned the opportunity that the move presented them with, but things could have been so much worse. At least the Emirates is rooted in Arsenal’s traditional community. At least the Emirates is theirs and not just some repurposed shell. That’s what Wembley could have been for them.