Wembley versus Wembley 

by | Dec 22, 2017

Choose your enemies wisely, a wise person once said, but when have the Football Association ever been particularly wise over anything? The FA have opened a can of worms marked “bad publicity” this week, and here’s Gary Andrews to tell us what on earth they’ve been up to. 

Locked away in the back offices of Wembley FC is one of the more unusual collections of football memorabilia. England’s World Cup winning side used the club’s Vale Farm facilities as a training ground in 1966 and Alf Ramsey was so taken with the hospitality shown by the club that he took to sending the directors a signed menu from assorted foreign hotels the national side stayed in for many years after the tournament.

The association with one of the most iconic parts of English footballing history, no matter how peripheral, has been a source of pride for the non-league team, but these days, it’s unlikely that the FA would ever invite the club’s directors to ride on the team bus, as Wembley’s former chairman and vice chairman did back in 1966. In fact, any communication between the game’s national governing body and the Spartan South Midlands League team is more likely to be conducted via lawyers for the immediate future.

The extraordinary legal row that has broken out between the FA, who reported a turnover of £370m in 2016, and Wembley FC, who tend to play in front of around 50 spectators, feels like a reflection of modern football, albeit with a plot that could have come straight from an Ealing comedy. The ramifications for Wembley FC, though, are completely serious with bankruptcy a genuine fear after the FA launched and won an intellectual property case against the non-league side.

In a nutshell, Wembley FC hold the trademark for their club crest in Europe, which includes a lion and the word Wembley in prominent letters. When the trademark was registered in 2012, the FA failed to challenge it and the non-league club have held onto it ever since.

Last year, however, the FA finally lodged a challenge with EUIPO to invalidate Wembley FC’s rights and their submission is one of those documents that sales close to a meme that parodies overzealous lawyers. Ostensibly, the principle challenge is that people may confuse Wembley Stadium with Wembley FC, but the overkill comes deeper into the documentation.

As part of their submission, the FA’s lawyers claim that there is similarity between their logo, featuring the famous Wembley arch, and Wembley FC”s logo, which features a lion’s head and a latin logo. The submission goes on to continue that further confusion could arise from the use of the lion’s head on Wembley FC’s crest, due to the three lions that feature on the England national team’s badge. And the Latin logo? That can be disregarded due the the fact nobody in the UK speaks Latin these days.

Other highlights in the submission includes the claim that the FC element of the words Wembley FC immediately draw inferences with football and could confuse consumers (overlooking the fact that Club Wembley, which is not a football club, has already been trademarked by the FA), and the use of concerts by Take That and Green Day, who both, as far as I know, have never included Vale Farm in their world tours, to support the argument against the non-league team. Entertaining as these elements of the submission are, the more revealing details come when the Wembley FC crest was originally trademarked in 2012.

As a team that plays a few miles down the road from the national stadium, Wembley FC are often an easy choice for a quick story or sponsorship in the early rounds of the FA Cup. ITV sent cameras to Vale Farm in 2008 for the Extra Preliminary Qualifying Round tie against Royston, while Budweiser opted to stream the Lions trip to Ascot FA live on Facebook as a marketing stunt in 2011.

It’s this relationship with Budweiser that has sown the seeds for the club’s current woes. A year after the Facebook broadcast, Wembley FC agreed to a slightly more ill-advised publicity stunt when Budweiser hired Terry Venables, Martin Keown, Claudio Caniggia and Graeme Le Saux with the aim of propelling the side through the early rounds of the FA Cup.

Having no qualms of the ethical implications of the competition’s sponsor providing financial assistance to one side in the cup, Budweiser also did their due diligence around their commercial duties and trademarked the club’s crest with EUIPO. This came with the rights to sell official Wembley merchandise throughout Europe. Once Budweiser’s relationship with Wembley game to an end, the trademark passed to the football club.

While the stunt left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans, it’s hard to begrudge a side who often live a hand-to-mouth existence the chance to take a sponsorship windfall when offered. How much Wembley FC benefited financially after the activity with Budweiser ended is unknown, but it’s hard to imagine the club shop gets many enquiries from Europe.

That a marketing stunt from five years ago has ended up in a European courtroom is somewhat farcical, and it’s equally hard not to laugh when reading EUIPO’s judgement that rules in the FA’s favour due to the aural similarity between Wembley FC and Wembley Stadium, which could lead the public confusing the two entities. For the record, EUIPO rejected the idea the two logos were similar.

But this isn’t a criticism of EUIPO. Their role is strictly legal rather than moral. But in the FA’s case it’s hard to comprehend why they felt the need to take the route that would cause the most pain for Wembley FC or why this situation couldn’t have been solved amicably without the need to fight an expensive legal case that could end up bankrupting the smaller party. Certainly it’s nothing short of shameful from an organisation that is meant to protect the interests of their member clubs, of which Wembley FC is one.

2017 has been something of an annus horribilis for the FA, and it’s not hard to conclude that their priorities have become a little skewed, to put it mildly, and horrendously out of touch with the less glamorous elements of the game, which are part of the fabric of British football.

It’s also hard to imagine the current FA chairman, Greg Clarke, following the lead of one of his predecessors, Brian Barwick. In 2008, when the ITV cameras turned up to film Wembley’s FA Cup tie against Royston, so did Barwick. This caused mild panic amongst the ITV team, who assumed one of the most senior people in English football was one of their guests, and it hadn’t been communicated to the producers on the ground.

Not so, said Barwick, when he was approached by club officials. He’d simply wanted to try and catch an Extra Preliminary Qualifying Round tie, like he did every year, and Wembley FC happened to be the easiest one for him to attend that day. After a chat and a cup of tea in the boardroom, he watched the game from a slightly dilapidated terrace before quietly leaving along with the rest of the crowd. Already a decade ago feels like a much simpler time.