We all know a club’s ground is so much more than a place where twenty-two men play the national sport every other Saturday afternoon. For many towns and cities, it is the focal point of their community, even their lives. It is very much part of the landscape and the skyline, despite the trend away from the traditional floodlights. Like it or not, it is also often the only impression that thousands of visiting supporters get of the town or city.
Over the last decade, even more, there has been a worrying trend away from the traditional stadium. Developers and chairman have chased the pound and sold lucrative city and town centre real estate, and moved clubs lock stock and barrel to some out of town wilderness. That single move has done more to change the identity of those clubs than anything else in their history. Now though, there are definite signs that that trend has turned full circle.
The not so Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I am going to have to name names and point the finger at certain clubs and their new grounds, and everyone reading this will no doubt have their own personal gripes with stadiums they have visited. The annoying thing for the fans of most of these clubs is that they would have been promised that the flip side of the move would be financial security, and as money and football so often go hand in hand, that would lead to success on the pitch. The fact that that so rarely is the result is what makes all this so hard to swallow.
Look at West Ham as the perfect example. They lost what was considered by many to be the best ground for fans and atmosphere in the EPL, and maybe in the country. Their fans grudgingly made the move to Stratford, to a ground that is plainly not suitable for football, with the promises of untold riches and success ringing in their ears. The Hammers are fourth from bottom and currently around 7/5 to get relegated.
There are numerous other examples. Bolton were one of the first clubs to have an out of town stadium built. For those who have gone, it really is out of town, so far in fact it is difficult to know exactly what town it is out of. Bolton survived a winding up order by the ski of their teeth in the summer, and now sit bottom of League 1, twenty points from safety. Another annoyance with these out of town developments is that though by their very nature they force people to come by car, there is often not enough parking for the number of people at the game. The fact that there is more often than not limited public transport in such far-flung places only adds to the problem. Reading’s Madejski and Oxford’s Kassam are two of many that spring to mind.
Another issue of out-of-town grounds is that a town’s local football club attracts people to that town or city. There are dozens of places in England I have been to that I would never have visited if it wasn’t for a football game. It is a chance for local businesses, pubs and restaurants to benefit from an influx of what are basically day tourists. That is taken away if the ground is located next to a junction off a motorway, with the only chance for a drink being the bar in a bowling alley. There does seem to be a move back to the original style of ground however, close to the amenities, and the town and city that actually gives the club its name.
Looking Back for the Future
With Arsenal’s history, Tottenham were never going to move far from White Hart Lane, and their new ground truly is stunning, inside and out. It also sets the benchmark for other new stadia. The highest profile of which is Everton’s new Bramley-Moore Dock Stadium. After a couple of projects that didn’t get off the ground, this one has been met with almost unanimous approval from fans. That is significant, as one of the previous projects was scuppered by fans’ angry reaction. Brentford are another team who will shortly be moving to a new ground. Though they will be losing their iconic Griffin Park, famous for having a pub on each corner, their new home is only a stone’s throw away, and is even easier to get to and from.
One can only hope that this is a definite trend, reversing the one of recent years. A day at the football is so much more than the ninety minutes of play. It is about the whole day, a day that should have as few obstacles and hurdles thrown in its way as possible.