Since the new Wembley was opened in 2007, our national ground has been criticised from a number of angles.
For a start, the five-year construction project had cost a massive £757 million, and critics felt that such expenditure was unnecessary. With England already boasting some of Europe's grandest stadia, and the Millennium Stadium in Wales serving as a more than functional neutral turf, such an outlay seemed unnecessary. This was money, after all, which could instead have been invested in youth facilities or improving the national squad.
Secondly, there were questions over whether the FA had received value for its money. Wembley's turf had been frequently criticised as hard to play on, and the massive 90,000 capacity (the second-largest in Europe, after Barcelona's Camp Nou) is rarely filled. In a bid to recoup some money the doors have been opened to other sporting events, music concerts and even private ceremonies, disrupting the pitch quality even further as it must constantly be covered and replaced.
Thirdly, critics have claimed that it reeks of London-centric thinking. Northern cities have often complained that Government investment unfairly favours the capital, at the expense of regional business and infrastructure. The creation of Wembley, necessitating England fans from all over the country to travel to the South-East for games, seems to be in a similar vein. It might be fairer to rotate matches, giving different clubs the chance to host the national team, and thus making games more accessible to the region's residents.
The latter criticism throws up an interesting question, which I will now look to address. As well as advantaging London-based fans, could Wembley's role as a "neutral" ground for cup finals advantage London-based clubs? We are well used to the idea of a "home advantage", with the location of the match sometimes biasing the result, and so many of the country's most important matches are instead held at the independent Wembley. These include the finals and semi-finals of the FA Cup and the Football League Cup, the Community Shield, and the Championship play-offs.
However, with many top clubs calling the capital home, including 6 of the Premier League's 20, London may not be as neutral as thought. To analyse this, I will compare the list of Premier League champions with the list of FA Cup winners in the same era, to see if London clubs have been favoured by Wembley's presence in the later stages (the League shares its matches between all grounds equally, so it is the ultimate control). This is far from a thorough analysis, but as London clubs should not otherwise be significantly better suited to cup competitions I will take any disproportionate cup success as suggesting that location is a factor.
First, the league. The Premier League era began in 92/93, meaning that there have been 22 champions as of the 13/14 season. Removing the six seasons when the Cup final took place outside of London due to Wembley being rebuilt (00/01 to 05/06), we are left with 16 seasons to analyse. Eleven of these have been won by Manchester United, two by Manchester City, one by Arsenal, one by Chelsea, and one by Blackburn Rovers. That gives us just two London champions, with all of the other titles going to Manchester or close neighbour Blackburn. If anything, we could speculate that the league favours the North-West.
In the FA Cup, there have been six Chelsea victories, three apiece for Arsenal and United, and one each for City, Wigan, Everton and Portsmouth. That's a much larger nine out of sixteen for London, with just four for Manchester (five including Wigan) and six for the North-East in general. By contrast, the defeated finalists were very rarely local: Chelsea appear just once, the same as City, Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, Cardiff City, Everton, Portsmouth, Stoke City and Hull City. United, Liverpool and Newcastle all feature twice.
The London contingent dwindles from nine to one, suggesting that any Londoners that make the final are disproportionately likely to win it, despite the league showing that they aren't really outright superior. There are few plausible explanations available: teams from the capital shouldn't be inherently good at cup finals, but relatively bad at league games. It's a striking trend, though, and one that can't simply be waved away as a coincidence. Could Wembley be the answer?
As a final comparison and a control, we can look at those six finals that we instead played in the Millennium Stadium, Wales. That was a spell of relative dominance for London in the league, with Arsenal and Chelsea matching United with two titles in that period. Arsenal supplemented their title success with three FA Cup wins, whilst Liverpool managed two and United just the one. With two-thirds of the leagues but only half of the cups, London actually underperformed in the knock-out competition, in direct contrast to the trend when it was held at Wembley.
A look at the defeated finalists supports this observation. United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Millwall, West Ham, Southampton. London teams lost the final four out of six times when it was held in Wales, but only one out of sixteen times when it was held in London. Coincidence? All three times that teams from the North-West won in the Millennium Stadium, they defeated London sides, whilst the reverse happened only once. Of the six North-Western victories at Wembley, however, just one follows this trend, but seven of the nine London victories came against Northern teams.
We need a more detailed analysis, taking all Wembley games into account, before we can jump to any conclusions. At first sight, however, it does seem as if the FA Cup final being held in London gives local teams an edge against their competitors, despite teams from a small North-West cluster otherwise outmatching those from the capital (judging by league performance).
If Wembley does give London clubs a home advantage, it can't be seen as fit or fair to use as a neutral ground. Detractors of our much-maligned stadium have yet another point to complain about.