Old Wembley Stadium on gameday

Old Wembley Stadium

The original Wembley Stadium was built in 1923 at the same location as the new stadium now stands. It was built at a cost of £750,000 in its day, which is around £45 million today, and was the centrepiece and home of the British Empire Exhibition. This exhibition was staged during 1924 and 1925 as a means of displaying to the world what Britain had to offer and that it was still a powerhouse on the world scene at that time. The stadium also housed an athletics running track and the now world famous football pitch that would become known as the home of world football.

Although the sports venue is the most famous landmark at the Wembley Park location, it was not the first attempt at building something iconic there.

In 1891 work started on a project that was an attempt at building a visitor’s attraction that would surpass that of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. This project was called the Watkin’s Tower and was to be 1,175ft (358-metres) in height whereas the Eiffel Tower is 1,063ft (324-metres) tall. The name ‘Watkin’s Tower’ was decided on as it was railway entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkins who headed the project in its early days – he would have to step aside due to illness towards the projects latter days.

Unfortunately, the project was never completed as the tower’s design had to be reworked in an attempt to reduce costs after the failure to secure public funding. The redesign would see it go from a load-spreading octagonal shape to a square design more akin to the Eiffel Tower. Because of this, the load put on the four points at which the tower would contact the ground would prove to be too much for the foundations that had already been laid. As the construction of the tower continued, so did the load increase and this, in turn, caused subsidence. These safety concerns,  along with ever increasing financial pressures, saw to it that the project would be abandoned in 1899 after just 154ft (47m) of the tower had been built. What had been built did stand for a few years before the demolition process started in 1904. This demolition process of the structure was completed in 1907 with the use of dynamite.

The iconic twin towers of the original Wembley Stadium were built on the foundations of the failed Watkin’s Tower and when the new stadium, that we have today, was being built, they dug down in order to lower the level of the playing surface and came across these foundations again. Although they’d uncovered a piece of history, it wasn’t exactly helpful but rather more of a hindrance as they had to be removed.

What Watkin's Tower and the new Wembley Stadium could have looked like together.
Only the first stage of Watkin's Tower was completed before subsidence and financial difficulties halted the project for good.

American Football at Wembley

We could be forgiven for thinking that NFL football has only ever been played at the new Wembley Stadium, but this isn’t the case. In 1983 the first of nine NFL pre-season friendly games was played at the old Wembley and saw the Minnesota Vikings beat the St. Louis Cardinals by a score of 28-10. This game was called the “NFL Global Cup”. The last of these friendlies to be played at the old stadium was between the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions and would end up being a 13-13 draw. These nine games had been played at the stadium over a decade from 1983-93 and played a huge part in laying the foundations for the fanbase the NFL enjoys in Europe today.

Programme cover of first NFL game to be played at Wembley Stadium in 1983 between the Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Cardinals
Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Cardinals playing at Wembley Stadium in 1983 - Image credit: Minnesota Vikings
Minnesoata Vikings and St. Louis Cardinals playing at Wembley Stadium in 1983 - Image credit: PA Images

The old stadium also played host to the home games of the London Monarchs during their time playing in the WLAF and NFL Eurpoe. So, although we are getting much more ‘top level’ NFL football now at the new Wembley Stadium, the old on didn’t do too badly.

London Monarchs and Barcelona Dragons in the World Bowl at Wembley Stadium

Wembley Stadium Today

The old Wembley stadium was demolished during a 2002-2003 period after having stood as the UK’s premier sporting venue since its opening in 1923. Once demolition was complete, work on the new Wembley stadium, which stands on the same plot as the old stadium, started in 2004 and would take up until 2007 before it’s completion due to various delays and the sheer scale of the job at hand.


The magnificent Wembley Stadium from above.

The cost of the actual build is said to have been around £798 million but that rises to around the £1 billion mark when you factor in the cost of redeveloping the local transport infrastructure and the financing costs. For that money, the Football Association (FA) got a stadium with a 90,000 all seat capacity that can boast the largest covered seating capacity in the world. The roof that covers that seating is partly retracting to allow for a mostly covered venue if required, but also to allow the natural playing surface to get sunlight to it in order for it to thrive. It also allows sporting events like football finals to be played out in natural light as they were intended. The north side roof of the stadium is held in place by the instantly recognisable arch that rises up over the stadium to a height of 436ft (133m) at its tallest point. This arch also supports some of the south side’s retractable section.

The building of the stadium was managed by an Australian company called Brookfield Multiplex at a considerable loss to themselves. They blamed these losses on spiralling costs of the contractors and architects on the project and years later were still trying to recoup some of the millions they were out of pocket via the law courts.

As for the NFL’s association with Wembley stadium, this, as stated above, goes back to the old stadium where several exhibition games were played, starting in 1983, as the popularity of the game started to increase in the UK. The first NFL regular-season game to be played outside of North America was held in the Wembley stadium we have today and was between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins on 28th October 2007. The Giants ran out winners of that game by a score of 13-10 with their Quarterback, Eli Manning, running in the first ever touchdown to be scored in a regular season game outside the USA.

In 2012 it was announced that there would be an extra game added to the London NFL regular-season games for the 2013 season due to the increased interest in the UK and Europe. This would be increased to three games in 2014 and four games from 2017, although two of those games would be played at the home of the RFU, Twickenham stadium.