Philip Barker

Wembley Stadium sets the seal on celebrations of its 100th year this weekend with the football match most associated with the venue.

The Football Association (FA) Challenge Cup Final of 2023 between Manchester City and Manchester United is a fitting way to mark the milestone and the first time a "Manchester Derby" has graced the occasion.

It was 75 years ago that Manchester United first played in a Wembley cup final, and the man in charge of the stadium then was Sir Arthur Elvin.

He also played an important and largely unsung role in making sure the Olympics held in the stadium that same year were a success.

"Mr Wembley, that is the name by which millions of sports enthusiasts throughout the world will remember Arthur Elvin," said a tribute published after his death in 1957.

Elvin was born in Norwich in 1899 and was still only a teenager when he enlisted with the Royal Flying Corps as a navigator during the first world war.

His plane was shot down and he was made a prisoner of war until the end of the conflict,

After demobilisation, he returned to Europe on a commission to break up munition dumps in France.

Later, it was announced that Wembley Park was to be developed to stage a major exhibition in 1924.

Elvin took a job in a cigarette kiosk and met his future wife Jean, who was also working at the event.

When the event came to an end, he saw the chance for further employment as a demolition contractor,

In fact some of the buildings were sold complete and transported elsewhere, an early example of sustainability.

Elvin then acquired the rights to the stadium from financier Jimmy White.

When White took his own life, Elvin sought backing in the city and was installed as managing director of Wembley at the age of only 27.

Very soon, he introduced greyhound racing, a sport which ensured the stadium's viability and became so important that later it even took precedence over a FIFA World Cup match.

Arthur Elvin's fame became such that he was portrayed on a cigarette card in the 1930s ©Churchman's cigarettes
Arthur Elvin's fame became such that he was portrayed on a cigarette card in the 1930s ©Churchman's cigarettes

From 1929, the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final was also played there.

Elvin soon set his sights on the Olympics and in June 1936, he presented "a memorandum for discussion" to the British Olympic Association.

This resulted in "definite guarantees from Wembley Stadium to place at the disposal of the grand council, the necessary facilities for the proper carrying out of the Olympics".

A few weeks later, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded Tokyo the 1940 Games.

Within a few months however, the Japanese invasion of China made it increasingly unlikely that they would take place there. 

Speculation mounted in British magazines that London might replace Tokyo as Olympic hosts.

"Wembley has the enormous advantage of a spacious setting," the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News suggested in January 1938,

"Mr Elvin has always been progressive and had his eye on the great events of the future."

In fact, the 1940 Games were subsequently awarded to Helsinki.

Very soon Elvin signed a deal to stage the FA Cup Final and England’s match with Scotland for the next 26 years as he set about improving the stadium still further.

"Our plans for the general enlargement of the stadium are well in hand," Elvin insisted.

"By 1940 at the latest, we shall have the finest sports arena in the world and if, as seems possible, the 1944 Olympic Games are offered to Britain, Wembley will be at their disposal."

The terraces at either end of the stadium were to be enlarged to hold 38,000, over a third of the total stadium capacity.

In 1939, London staged the IOC Session at which the hosts for the 1944 Olympics would be chosen and Elvin played his part,

"At at  the invitation of Mr. Elvin, Director of the Wembley Stadium, the members of the Committee visited the stadium and  the Empire  Pool, both of which had been considered for the competitions of the Olympic Games of 1944," IOC minutes recorded.

Later in the week IOC members were taken to a pageant organized by the Women’s League of Health and Beauty in the stadium.

Although London was chosen to host the 1944 Olympics, war made it impossible for the Games to go ahead.

London was heavily bombed during the war, but the stadium was largely undamaged and when it became clear that London was to host the 1948 Games, Elvin threw Wembley's hat into the ring once more.

"It has been one of my dreams to have the Olympics at Wembley," he declared.

"I have said many times before that in my view the gathering together of the young men and women of the world in this way must be in the best interests of international friendship and goodwill."

When Wembley Stadium hosted the Olympic Opening Ceremony in 1948, it fulfilled a dream for stadium managing director Sir Arthur Elvin ©Getty Images
When Wembley Stadium hosted the Olympic Opening Ceremony in 1948, it fulfilled a dream for stadium managing director Sir Arthur Elvin ©Getty Images

An official progress report to the IOC noted that "Wembley had made some firm proposals including an offer to finance the whole Games and to advance such sums to the Organising Committee as were considered necessary for the preparation".

Elvin gave a guarantee to cover the costs of the Games up to £100,000, approximately £4.6 million ($5.7 million/€5.35 million) in 2023 terms and was invited to join the Organising Committee's General Purposes Committee.

Under the terms of the contract with Wembley, the Organising Committee received "sole and unrestricted use of the Wembley properties for the period of  the Games and for a period  of 14 days prior to the Games".

"The Stadium Company will give to the Organising Committee free of charge, the benefit of the Stadium Company’s organisation and Staff before and during the Games."

The stadium also undertook to carry out structural alterations including provision of additional dressing rooms for athletes and even the decoration of the stadium.

Compensation was to be paid to the stadium for any losses suffered by the closure of the greyhound track which was converted for athletics.

"The track will be completely ripped up and turf and soil carried away," Elvin explained.

Eight hundred tons of "special dressing" were then laid to create a cinder running track for athletics in "perfect condition".

Elvin was also one of the prime movers in the establishment of a thoroughfare from Wembley Park underground station to the stadium itself.

Sir Arthur Elvin pressed local authorities to construct a thoroughfare known as Olympic Way ©ITG
Sir Arthur Elvin pressed local authorities to construct a thoroughfare known as Olympic Way ©ITG

Elvin joined Lord Burghley to welcome Transport Minister Alfred Barnes to open the new Olympic Way a few weeks before the Games.

"Everything is under control, from now on teams of men will work day and night to get the job done, this is a race against time and we shall win," Elvin told reporters.

The Games opened on a scorching July day and apart from athletics, the stadium was the setting for football, hockey, equestrian jumping and even a demonstration of lacrosse.

When the Games were finally over Elvin told his staff, "Now the holiday is over, let us get back to work."

"Heartiest thanks and congratulations for the great effort you have done in getting ready (sic) the stadium in time for the Games and so beautiful in every respect," wrote IOC chancellor Otto Mayer in a letter to Elvin.

"We know that all those things which we might call details were your ideas, as for instance the alteration of the swimming pool into a boxing hall or the construction of the big street leading to the Wembley Stadium,"

In 1950, a roll of honour was unveiled to commemorate the 1948 Olympic champions.

Guests included Fanny Blankers Koen of the Netherlands, who had won four gold medals.

Elvin hosted a banquet to mark the event. 

"Not only do we thank him for his hospitality to-day but I would like to take this opportunity of paying, on behalf of the Organising Committee, who were really in a position to know, a tribute to him for the splendid work which he did during the Olympic Games but also all his staff as well," Lord Burghley said.

The following year, Elvin introduced women’s hockey to Wembley’s portfolio and it remained there until the mid seventies.

In the 1950s though, Elvin's health was deteriorating. He suffered from Emphysema and in 1957 he joined a cruise on the Winchester Castle to help his convalescence. 

He died when the ship was off Madeira and was buried at sea. He was only 57.

"He was a perfectionist, a businessman of considerable ability, an outstanding organiser," the Bishop of Chester Gerald Ellison told the congregation at a memorial service.

"A man whose remembrance is spoken most truly by the millions of voices that have shouted and will shout in joy and pleasure at Wembley."

The bust of Sir Arthur Elvin is now positioned in the entrance hall at Wembley Stadium ©ITG
The bust of Sir Arthur Elvin is now positioned in the entrance hall at Wembley Stadium ©ITG

Future FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous joined a memorial committee chaired by Lord Citrine, which decided to erect a bust made by sculptor Alfred Banks. 

"It was mounted on the parapet above the Royal Entrance where Sir Arthur used to watch the crowds arriving," the Harrow Observer reported.

Wembley Stadium chairman Sir Bracewell Smith officially received it after a dedication ceremony conducted by Bishop of Willesden George Ingle.

When the stadium was re-built in the new millennium, Elvin’s bust was repositioned inside to welcome visitors to the new ground.

A nearby school was renamed in his honour. 

It was later attended by England star Raheem Sterling.