Fooball: Hero of Hampden to Wally of Wembley

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IT MAY seem impudent but the unavoidable question of the week is why a clapped-out old sporting nation like England is spending so much time and energy bickering over the size and shape of a pounds 475m super stadium? To put it another way, have they thought about the more practical option of keeping Wembley as it is and rebuilding the nation; or, at least, that substantial part of it that suffers from these extraordinary fits of grandeur? Maybe the detachment that comes from being merely an interested neighbour was necessary in order to see the events of last week in perspective. Even then, it was difficult to judge which was the more pathetic sight - the deluded build-up to an inevitably disappointing England display or the explosion of a crazed debate about the new stadium.

There is a link between the two but it was not obvious at the start of the week when the wave of English euphoria was almost tidal. Following the 2-0 victory in the first leg of their European Championship play-off with Scotland, a strong feeling of optimism about the second leg at Wembley was understandable. But it reached a pitch of expectation that was many octaves higher than any note to which England could aspire.

It was a hypnotic state that spread wide and no one was entranced more than the media. Writers whose memory banks are crammed with the frustrations of the past rushed headlong into the same old trap. Wednesday's game was elected the biggest foregone conclusion since the Alamo.

Even the Scots fell for it. Two days before Wembley, a Scottish newspaper conducted a poll on the question of whether their manager, Craig Brown, should be sacked. The bookies joined in by offering odds that surpassed all previous generosity. Scotland were 6-1 against winning over 90 minutes. With Hills, they were an amazing 33- 1 to qualify and the same price to win 2-0. I couldn't resist. A lifetime of watching England flounder at Wembley has equipped me with a cynicism that won't be cured until the place is demolished.

I didn't quite win the bet but I had an exciting run for my money and the pleasure of watching an excellent Scottish performance pieced together by players I'd hardly heard of was ample return. There has been the added bonus since of watching the acrobatic agility of somersaulting experts. "Tarts 0 Tartans 1" was one headline on a page that had oozed patriotic patronage the previous day.

Brown was swiftly removed from the dole queue and promoted to tactical genius while many found it easier to execute the volte- face if they used Kevin Keegan's head as a springboard. Revelations that the England coach and some of his players had stayed up late on Saturday night drinking beer and watching the Lennox Lewis fight were presented in triumph - as if that was the reason England lost, not that their resident experts had been hopelessly wrong. Physical correctness in sport is becoming as boring as political correctness elsewhere.

So Keegan, hero of Hampden, becomes the wally of Wembley and the ritual chants for his head have been sounded or, worse still, that a coach should be appointed to help him. This sad scenario is all the more depressing for having been repeated endlessly for 20 years or more. At least we're going to get rid of the old and soulless Wembley Stadium from this recurring nightmare.

This would be a more comforting thought but for the controversy now ensuing about what should be built in its place. There may be grounds for an argument about where its replacement should be sited, but there should be no doubt that it should be an arena dedicated to the national game.

In fact, the England football team don't need a stadium, they need a fortress; a home that intimidates the visitors and where they can feel the crowd's hot breath. …