Fans for the memories
Happy birthday, Christopher. Love from Mummy, Katy, John, Gran and Pops. " An ordinary enough message, yes, but in a very special place. High above Wembley Stadium, the words shone out from the huge electronic scoreboard at one end of the ground. It is a small boy's dearest wish come true - at a price. The price - Pounds 30 - makes it pretty exclusive, alas. Still, most youngsters happily settle for the standard 90-minute tour of the stadium (which includes a trip on the land train, sadly out of action when I visited). The tour goes at a brisk pace, though never so brisk as to intrude on dreams. Such as when, walking up the players tunnel, visitors hear the Wembley roar (songs - "We shall not be moved" - plus hooters, trumpets, chants etc) swelling ahead. So what if it's only a recording? Your heart still flutters.
The supreme thrill, though, comes when younger members of the party (and, to be honest, those not so young) climb the stairs to the Royal Box. There, they hold aloft a replica F A Cup to the cheers of imaginary multitudes. So doing, one little girl gave a grin half the length of the pitch.
This is the climax of a tour which is by no means all wishful thinking. You begin with a look round the event control rooms - each with banks of monitors that survey every corner of the stadium - before popping into the glass-fronted BBC television studio, high above the ground, to listen to Desmond Lynam's video description of how television covers big events. Of the remaining venues - the press room ("where Graham Taylor used to explain what went wrong") the medical aid centre, the baths and players' changing rooms - the last is easily the most popular. Again, this is where boys of all ages assume a faraway look in their eyes as they compete to have their photographs taken next to the coveted England number 9 shirt. Fantasy football made flesh.
A must for sports, leisure and travel and tourism students, the tour also appeals to pupils who simply want to visit what is still the nation's most famous sporting venue. By and large, they won't be disappointed: Wembley is worth seeing for its size alone. Yet the absence of any real sense of history about the place - there are few exhibits, mementoes or similar artefacts to invoke sentiment or summon recall - ultimately leaves one feeling just a little like the ground one has just left: empty.
By contrast, Manchester United's stadium at Old Trafford scores high on history and just about everything else. Here, a token sum buys a visit to the club museum, along with a lengthy tour of a stadium that, in architectural terms at least, is quite matchless. Naturally, fans lap it up; but so too will school parties, thanks not least to some very creditable educational packs provided gratis. Not unexpectedly, the museum is as much a celebration of present triumphs - on the domestic front, if not in Europe, United are currently riding high - as a reminder of one very real catastrophe.
Four decades of sometimes remarkable success, signified by cups, programmes, pennants and press cuttings, have in no way effaced the memory of the 1958 Munich plane crash. A disaster that took the lives of young men with literally everything to play for, it is commemorated here with a sense of enduring loss.
The rest is more or less as per Wembley: the stadium itself, the police surveillance centre, press room, players' lounge, changing areas and so on. But if the itinerary is virtually identical, one factor alone makes the overall effect sometimes startingly different: Old Trafford is that much more swish. The showers and changing rooms, for example: if Wembley's are municipal baths circa 1940 - complete with missing tiles - United's spotless shower stalls plus jacuzzi are more Beverley Hills. Ditto the press room: bare and draughty at the national stadium, semi-opulent at United's. And just off the smart players' lounge at Old Trafford? A fully-equipped creche, where the players' kids can while away Saturday afternoons while their dads (invariably) stuff the opposition. It is all pretty amazing. So too are many of the prices in United's nearby merchandising superstore, where devotees queue to buy the paraphernalia thought vital for genuine fandom.
This is where visitors of a reflective disposition will learn perhaps their most valuable lesson. Be it Wembley stadium or Old Trafford, sport doesn't have a lot to do with it. Like most things these days, the real name of the game is business.
o Wembley Stadium, Wembley, Middlesex HA9 ODW.
Tours hotline: 0181-902-8833.
Rates for school bookings of groups of 20+ adults Pounds 5.50; children (15 years and under) and senior citizens (Pounds 4). Students (with presentation of student card) Pounds 4.75. Reductions on pre-paid bookings.
Summer: tours between 10am and 4pm; Winter: tours between 10am and 3pm.
o Manchester United Football Club, Sir Matt Busby Way, Old Trafford, Manchester M16 ORA Contact Ruth Hobson. Tel: 0161-8774002. Visit to museum and tour of ground for pre-booked educational parties: Pounds 1 per person, under 5s free.Free pre-tour inspections to teachers