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A Day of Champagne, Fish, and Football: A Club Wembley Experience at the Carabao Cup Final

I was best man at my friend Mark’s wedding last year, which gave me the opportunity to tell a story about when he attempted to bring a newly bought 150ml bottle of aftershave onto a plane in 2018, only to be stopped by security at Manchester Airport.

His response was to try to apply 50ml onto his person as quickly as possible — not an insignificant amount, as he found out.

I looked into the sunken eyes of a few Chelsea supporters on Sunday, but none of them appeared as sad, embarrassed and beaten as Mark did six years ago. Admittedly, he also smelt very good and as we embraced at the final whistle at Wembley, I am pretty sure I was able to identify a lingering whiff of Diesel Only the Brave.

Mark has always liked nice things, so when I told him I’d been offered two tickets at Club Wembley for the Carabao Cup final, he was very excited.

Me? I was unsure. I had never experienced corporate hospitality before. It’s not really my thing, as all of the people who have enjoyed telling me I’ve “sold out” can testify.

And Club Wembley isn’t just any posh seats. It’s possibly the most derided executive section of any stadium in the country, particularly in those moments just after half-time in big games when it remains half-empty as customers are too busy quaffing Champagne.

But after the near-disaster of Paris for the 2022 Champions League final, when supporters were treated like contestants in Squid Game, the idea of a free pass that included drink, food and a safe passage to a comfortable seat could ultimately not be resisted.

There was also the bonus of actually being able to watch a final next to a person I’ve known since 1995, which as he likes to say, is as long as Everton’s wait for a trophy.

That said, there was — for Mark, at least — good and bad news when our tickets came through by email last Wednesday.

The good? That would be our invitation to the Laurent-Perrier bar and the chance to consume as much of the sponsor’s product as we wanted.

The bad? For Mark, a certified gastronomic fusspot since he was a young child, that would be a menu made up almost entirely of fish.

Anyway, forget prawn sandwiches — this was the serious stuff. To start, there were smoked salmon and prawn tartlets, along with smoked salmon bagels with tartare and chives. Then came a seafood platter which included more “classic” smoked salmon, freshwater tiger prawns and crayfish, as well as a mango salad with lemon garnish.

Not exactly your standard football fare… (Simon Hughes/The Athletic)

It was all delicious, although any personal pleasure was enhanced by the sight of Mark, just in front of me, focusing absolutely on his bread and furiously buttering it, before, somewhat sadly, asking for seconds.

I must stress, Club Wembley cannot be blamed for Mark being picky. Guests at other tables were enjoying menus that included meat and the staff throughout the day could not have been more accommodating. Yet, I suspect Mark felt it wasn’t his place to inquire about alternatives, while I was finding it quite satisfying watching him struggle.

He was enjoying the Champagne, however. We both were. And slowly, we almost forgot that an important football match was due to start just outside.

There is only one rule in this part of the stadium and it involves a dress code that strictly says no club colours. For Liverpool fans, especially local ones, it was an easy instruction to follow given the culture of ignoring replica shirts and pretty much all official merchandise. I recognised plenty of faces on the concourse and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Simon (left) and Mark stay restrained (Simon Hughes/The Athletic)

Things would get better for Mark when, inside the ground, comedian and Chelsea devotee David Baddiel came and sat next to him moments before kick-off.

“May the worst team lose,” Baddiel told Mark ruefully, admitting that Chelsea was most certainly the team that fitted that description. From there, Mark started to think he was Frank Skinner and the pair of them chatted away like old friends.

It was only at this point I realised how big Club Wembley is, with the area sweeping towards each end of the stadium, taking up the middle tier. Each of the seats has red cushions and is fixed with armrests. There is also plenty of legroom. I cannot think of a football ground where I have ever felt so at ease.

Maybe too at ease. A confession: after half-time, I became one of “those” people late to return to the action. My excuse: well, you also have to consider the soundproofing inside Club Wembley, which is so effective that you become blissfully unaware that there is the best part of 90,000 people a few feet away.

The view from the seats (Simon Hughes/The Athletic)

Admittedly, half a bottle of Champagne was not going to drink itself. Liverpool could have scored twice in this period and had they done so, the lesson would have been a deserved one. In the end, we waited until the 118th minute for the first goal and what proved to be Liverpool’s winner.

If I thought the day couldn’t get any better, I was wrong. Waiting for us back at the Champagne bar was yet more Champagne, with a slate of three cheeses (a blue, a cheddar and a Brie), dried fruit (apricot), chutney and crackers.

Again, it was lovely. Although, when your team wins — and wins like this — everything in life tastes bloody marvellous.

(Top photos: Simon Hughes/The Athletic)

2024-02-27 09:47:34
#Club #Wembley #confessions #Champagne #football #prawn #platters #David #Baddiel

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