The death of the old school British football ground or an evolution bringing the game into the 21st century?
The stadium – a unique space which knows jubilation and heartbreak in equal measure. In an age where more and more people watch the beautiful game through TV broadcasters or illegally on streaming websites, the stadium remains the central hub of any club. The stadium possesses an almost magical quality in capturing the hearts of young children who will then go on to be lifelong supporters. Whether that be at the historic Kop at Anfield or in the boming Holte End at Villa Park, the moments shared in these theatres of football are priceless. The continued importance of football stadia is evident in the fact that clubs are constantly seeking to expand or even build new mega-stadia to meet evergrowing demand. It is this development of shiny new stadia with hotels and five star restaurants that often lead to a questioning of whether the old school football stadium is now dead.
To understand how the renowned image of a traditional British football stadium (see above) came into being, it is important to note that prior to the the Hillsborough disaster and subsequent stadia redevlopment in the 1990s, almost all British stadia shared recognisable characteristics. These surfaced over time as originally the big games such as FA cup finals were played in rented facilities such as cricket or athletics grounds which ultimately proved insufficient as the sport rapidly grew in popularity. In response to this, clubs started to form themselves into limited liability companies. This allowed them to issue shares and raise the necessary capital to buy a home of their own. This shift ocurred mostly in the period between 1890-1914, therefore coinciding with the rise of industrialisation and consequently the mass production of materials such as steel. Together with the implementation of a new type of turnstile which provided clubs with greater revenue, stadia began to grow. While some added capacity here and there when needed, some clubs created a more long term plan in laying the foundations for some of the great British football stadia we know today. With the help of Archibald Leitch, a Scottish engineer considered by football architecture historian Simon Inglis as ‘The man who created football grounds’, clubs such as Manchester United and Aston Villa saw the erection of groundbreaking stands, each with a unique charm and charisma. Eventually the success of these stands led owners to want these built on all sides of the pitch, creating the great and formidable steel dens that became iconic of British football.
So when did it all begin to change? A definitive catalyst for the modern development of British stadia was undoubtedly the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 which tragically left 96 dead. This was in fact symbolic of a wider issue of safety in football grounds with injuries in the biggest stands commonplace, for instance the Kop was known to cause around 50 injuries a match. When Lord Justice Taylor investigated the Hillsborough disaster, he told the press that his intention was not to prepare English football clubs for the 21st century but to drag them into the 20th. This would suggest that stadia had no option but to evolve, for sake of the supporters – the stadium is supposed to be a place of celebration and entertainment, yet the reality was that more disasters were inevitbale if not for significant change.
While certain clubs such as Manchester United and Liverpool have managed to maintain the character of their stadia through development of the existing structures, others have decided to build new, contemporary stadia. Notable recent cases include the London clubs West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur with the Hammers relocating to the Olympic stadium and Spurs to Wembly whilst a new stadium is in construction. What is interesting in these two examples is that there is an apparent impact on results. In the case of West Ham, the move to 57,000 capacity Olympic Stadium it is hard to not notice the major difference compared to Upton Park – the gap between the pitch and the stands. Surrounding the pitch, the fans are detached from the action whereas a major characteristic of traditional British stadia was the incredible atmosphere created by the fans being right next to the pitch, breathing down the necks of opponents – an intimidating spectacle for any visiting side. The differnce in results following the move is considerable. In the final season at the Boleyn Ground, the Hammers finished ahead of Liverpool in 7th place with 62 points, in contast with 45 points last season in an 11th place finish. Within this, it is important to recognise that the new home ground is not yet a fortress, demonstrated overall with 17 losses last season compared to just 8 the previous season – admittedly there were many more home draws that season but it still highlights how it was hard for any team to come to Upton Park and leave with three points. Obviously it would be excessive to claim that the move in stadium was entirely to blame for this drop in form, yet it undoubtedly played a major role given the importance of a good home record being linked to typical Britsh stadium design. Similarly, Tottenham’s abysmal European nights in a vast Wembly revealed the value of White Hart Lane’s atmosphere. The Spurs side seemed to lack any of the drive and motivation that saw them win 17 out of 19 home PL games last season, ultimately being knocked out of the Europa League by Belgian side KRC Genk in a humiliating performance.
Away from the action on the pitch it is important to recognise the importance of maintaining a certain degree of heritage through the stadium in terms of the self-respect a club should show itself. Many stadiums are now named after their sponsors in a marketing ploy to raise further revenue. This can hugley damage a club’s identity and lead to discontent amongst the supporters – perhaps most fervently displyed by Newcastle United fans when the famous St. James’ Park was renamed the ‘Sports Direct Arena’ for a brief period between 2011 and 2012. This sort of branding can detract from the very essence of the British game. Admittedly, there is more sympathy towards this type of naming when the company is local and is itself a symbol of the area such as the Walkers Stadium (2002-2011), whereas Leicester City’s incredible title win being celerated at the King Power Stadium seemed out of place in the magical British underdog narrative.
Fortunately, many clubs do understand the importance of heritage that can be embodied by a stadium. An original Leitch stand the ‘Johnny Haynes Stand’ at Craven Cottage, and its adjoining pavilion (‘the Cottage’), both built in 1905, are listed Grade II and have been sensitively restored by Fulham. Also, in recent years there has been an interest in a return of standing areas in stadia. Many English clubs are evaluating the possibility to implement ‘safe standing’ zones within their stadia, an infrastructure already used successfully in the Bundesliga and at Celtic Park. Guardian journalist Ed Aarons admits, ‘A number of hurdles remain before rail seating could be considered in the Premier League and Championship. Among them are the sensitivities around Hillsborough, with the Hillsborough Family Support Group remaining implacably opposed to any move that would allow standing in major English grounds, although the Liverpool supporters’ group Spirit of Shankly has launched a consultation on the matter and the Hillsborough Justice Campaign has also said it supports a full debate of the issues’. The implementation of safe standing areas could provide a positive modern approach to recapture the essence of English football. The great British stadium is still very much alive and kicking.