Since 1989 – and the Taylor report specifically – Stadium design in English football has changed beyond recognition. Far more time, thought and money has been invested in accomodating supporters than ever before.
The earliest football stadiums in England were rather basic affairs. A main grandstand might be built to seat directors and well-off patrons, as well as dressing rooms and offices. Along the front of the main stand might run a paddock for standing spectators. Another more basic stand would run the length of the pitch on the other side, and both ends were usually of uncovered terracing. In the early days this consisted of cinders with railway sleepers dumped on top, but in latter years terracing was constructed out of concrete. Such a stadium configuration is still known around the world as the ‘English style’. Typical examples are the Estadio Alfonse Henriques at Guimaraes, the Stade Felix Bolaert at Lens, or the larger Westfalenstadion at Dortmund.
Between the turn of the century and the Taylor report there was little incentive for clubs to improve conditions. Most working class supporters were happy with their lot and not worried about having gold plated crash barriers or doileys in the toilets. The only ground improvements might be to build a bigger stand to fit in more people, to extend a terrace maybe, or perhaps to put a roof over an open terrace. But in their way, the old grounds had character, in particular those that had the old style Leitch lattice work along the front of the main stand.
The 1985 fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade Stadium led to a new impetus for ground safety. 56 people were killed on the final day of the 1984-5 league season when rubbish underneath the old wooden main stand caught fire. It is believed that a match or cigarette was dropped through a hole in the wooden floorboards, and that rubbish had for many years accumulated in the void underneath. Fire swept through the stand within seconds, a horrific spectacle that was shown on live TV. Many exits were found to be sut or locked, condeming fans to their fate. The fire took hold so quickly that when the Fire Brigade arrived four minutes after the alarm was raised, nothing could be done.
The Bradford fire led to the Popplewell Inquiry and subsequent report. Safety in stadiums was improved: wooden stands were condemmed, and fire exits were added in many places. Yet the Popplewell Report did not go far enough – many grounds still had perimeter fencing to counter pitch invasions. The stand at Valley Parade did not have fencing, but if it had, hundreds would have been killed. This should have posed a salutory ‘what if’, but instead, the Government and English football – inexplicably – fudged the issue by only looking at the risk of fire, not of other scenarios such as crushing. Remember also that Heysel took place a matter of days later. The overall safety emphasis of the Taylor Report came four years – and 96 lives – too late.
Fast forward to 1989, and the Taylor report ushered in all seater-stadia for the top and second flight divisions in English football. Taylor had originally proposed to make all football stadia all-seater, but this was later scaled back by the Government. To aid building work the Government waived a proportion of VAT on Football Pools, and this was ploughed into stadium work via the Football Trust. Suddenly clubs HAD to act and were forced out of their laissez-faire malaise.
Taylor ordered that the capacity of all terraces should be instantly cut by 15%. This immediately cut into the capacity of most stadiums, in particular large grounds with big terraced ends. The Capacity of Portsmouth’s Fratton Park fell from 36,000 to 26,000 overnight. In 1949 the same ground had held 51,000 people, with exactly the same stands – such was the effect of successive legislation following first the 1985 Bradford fire and then Hillsborough.
Seats take up far more room in a stadium than a terrace. Therefore, the prospect of simply bolting seats onto an old terraced Kop was an inefficient and unlikely prospect. The bank would need re-profiling, and sightlines would not be ideal. Faced with the prospect of losing huge swathes of spectators – and income – clubs were faced with no alternative but to either radically redesign their grounds, or look at building completely new stadiums altogether. A boom in Sky TV money also made building work more feasible. Between 1991 and 1997 a total of £507.8m was spent on football stadiums – £371.3m from the clubs, and £136.5m from the Football Trust.
Yet amidst all the talk about relocation, Scarborough moved to the new Glandford Park in 1988 – the first English club to build a new stadium since 1955. Since then, many clubs have moved grounds – Sunderland, Middlesborough, Stoke, Manchester City, Wigan, Arsenal, Bolton, Hull, Reading, Derby, Southampton, Leicester, Chesterfield, Oxford, Coventry, Cardiff, Swansea, Millwall, Huddersfield and Doncaster to name but a handful.
Although plenty of money has been spent on English stadiums, in my opinion they are on the whole disappointing. Compare the cheap identikit meccano stadiums of St Marys, the Riverside, the Walkers Stadium and Pride Park with Munich’s Allianz Arena, Arnhem’s Gelredome or any of the stadiums designed for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Of new English stadiums perhaps Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium warrants a mention, as does Old Trafford – simply for the way in which it has been built to a logical all-round plan rather than having different stands constructed haphazardly on each side. But on the whole, most English football stadia are lazily designed and characterless. They could have been designed by a 5-year old on the back of a fag packet.
I suspect one of the major problems that has inhibited stadium architecture in Britain is the difficulty of long-term planning. Unlike many parts of Europe Football Clubs in England tend to own their own stadiums, unlike in Germany, for example, where many stadiums are owned by the municipal authorities. Thus if the club is strapped for cash it cannot be bothered to invest in the stadium, and even if the club has funds, it is likely to try and get away with spending as little as it can get away with. Any attempts to rebuild or relocate stadiums have to go through planning permission with the local council, which can take years or legal wrangling, consultation, and struggling with narrow-minded NIMBY’s. Ambitious and wealthy owners are sometimes able to force things through.
Lets take a look at the example of my local team, Portsmouth. 1989 found Pompey playing at the inner-city Fratton Park, hemmed in on four sides by houses and a rail goods yard. The main south stand dated from 1929, the North Stand from 1934 and the Fratton and Milton Ends were basic open terraces. The capacity fell from 36,000 in 1989 to 26,000 after Hillsborough, and then – due to a high level of terracing – just over 10,000 in 1994. For a club that was in the second tier at the time this was unacceptable.
Plans were made to move to a purpose built 22,000 seater stadium at Farlington, until the plan was scuppered by a few local residents and geese. With a new apathetic owner, the club remained at Fratton. Then Terry Venables took over and built a new all-seater Fratton End, raising the capacity to 20,000. The only problem was, that the club did not actually have the money to build the new stand, and almost went bust as a result. The rest of the ground and its facilties were essentially the same as in 1939.
When Milan Mandaric took over various plans were advanced to first build on Fratton Goods Yard, then rotate the stadium by 90 degrees (with an odd design that envisaged keeping the 1929 vintage south stand), then move to Hilsea Gasworks, King George V playing fields and a host of other sites. Lots of ideas, but no real work. Once Sacha Gaydamak took over, a plan was announced to build on reclaimed land at the Hard (this time an imaginative design by the architects behind the Allianz Arena), and when this was ruled out, a more realistic plan was made to build on Horsea Island. This plan, however, was dropped when Gaydamak lost interest (and his daddy pulled the plug on his millions), leaving Pompey right back where they started.
That said, there is something romantic about Fratton Park and its inner city location. Walking to the ground from Goldsmith Avenue is a stirring experience, that is somehow lost in the multitude of out-of-town stadiums nowadays. True the facilities are not great, but does that really matter to those of us who used to stand on the terraces? Its football, not the opera. And the old mock-Tudor house that greets visitors in Frogmore Road is still a sight to behold. There are plenty of pubs in the local area, the railway station is a ten minute walk, and the city centre is not far away. Would this matchday experience be anything like the same if the ground was housed on an industrial estate?
But if we must have new stadiums, why do they have to be soul-less constructions of mecanno and prefabricated concrete? A stadium with landmark design and with a character all of its own is more likely to engender identity, loyalty and pride. For example the ‘lifeboat’ design of the Allianz Arena, the new Wembley Arch or the old Munich Olympiastadion’s eyecatching perspex roof.
There has been no disaster in any English football ground since 1989. No lives have been lost, but what about the soul of English football, and the character of English Football Stadia?
- 20 Years of New Stadia (scissorskick.wordpress.com)