The Hallowed Grounds of English Football
If I was to ask you what the English Premier League teams Arsenal, Cardiff City, Hull City Tigers (it will never feel right typing that name), Manchester City, Southampton, Stoke City, Sunderland and Swansea City had in common, it might make you sit back for a minute or two and stare into that upper corner of the room to which you look towards for any kind of inspiration when pressed for an answer to a question.
To anyone who has been to any of the places in question to watch a match, the answer should be a little more obvious, for they are the list of clubs in the top division who have recently relocated to shiny new football stadiums.
Now, anyone who has stood behind the goal on a wet Tuesday night in Cardiff on the Grange End terrace as the natives climb and shake the dividing fence whilst screaming in no uncertain terms what they intend to do should you happen to bump into each other after the game, will certainly remember the experience. Likewise, anyone who has stood on the uncovered terrace behind the goal in deepest winter at Sunderland’s old Roker Park as the cold winds whip around from the sea.
When upping sticks and moving into a new ground, the fiscal benefits are there for all to see; sponsorship deals and naming rights. Commercial partners and executive suites. Perfect, unobstructed views from every seat in the house welcome the whole family. But it is definitely a trade-off of sorts. What you gain on one hand, you lose on the other. Ask any professional footballer if he would rather have played at Millwall’s present ground, The New Den or at the original Den upon the eerily named Cold Blow Lane and the answer will be the same. I guarantee you. And that is not to make out that The New Den is an overly welcoming environment either. Intimidation, hostility and a pure partisan atmosphere could swallow up the weak, spitting them out, bloodied and defeated. And that was just in the tunnel, which emerged from the home end terracing, as opposed to the usual half way line entrance found at most grounds.
Gone are the bleak, grey, dilapidated terraced banks complete with the crush barriers that during my early formative years were my seat, replaced with brand new stands full of brightly coloured seats, video screens and, in the worst cases, goal celebration music. Some teams have been big winners in the upgrade game with Arsenal said to generate £3m per home match since their move from the Marble halls of Highbury (now an upmarket residential development), a traditional, classical English stadium if ever I saw one. Spending some of that vast income seems to be more of a problem than generating it in the first place however.
Having just had a count up, I have been to 77 of the 92 that the clubs currently call home. New stadiums have meant that my tally has gone down as often as up over the last decade as teams like Brighton, Rotherham, Colchester and Chesterfield have relocated. What follows below is a ‘top 10′ of sorts of the football stadia in England.
1. The Emirates Stadium, Arsenal
Built at a cost of around £400m, this stadium is a fitting replacement for the splendid and perfectly traditional Highbury Stadium. Unobstructed views from the best seats in the country – plush, high-backed, red leather seats throughout – wherever you sit. Appeasing fans reluctant to moving was never going to be easy, but they couldn’t have done any better in my opinion.
2. Old Trafford, Manchester United
Old Trafford, and not ‘The Theatre of Dreams’ as it is constantly referred to by the media, is a monster of a stadium and has comfortably the largest capacity in the English leagues. “Build it and they will come,” they say. It doesn’t appear that you can build this stadium large enough, as the fans continue to flock from all corners of the UK and the globe in general. I have to say it isn’t a personal favourite of mine and I have boycotted future matches there following not being granted entry by a steward a few years back. Oh well.
3. St. James’ Park, Newcastle United
A ground that has been massively renovated since I first went as a youngster to watch a match in front of nowhere near the current 52,000 capacity, it stands proud in the North East, affording fans in the away end a view across the City in between bouts of vertigo and breathlessness following the huge climb to the seats. Passionate natives were left angered recently as club owner Mike Ashley mooted a name change to the Sports Direct Arena, but after opposition, the St James’ Park name stuck with the company that he owns incorporated into it as opposed to replacing it.
4. Anfield, Liverpool
In terms of classical, traditional, four-sided stadiums, as opposed to the brand new bowls which are increasingly replacing them, this is one of the most famous. The Kop may well be the most famous ‘home end’ in world football, though Dortmund’s ‘Yellow Wall’ may well have something to say about that.
5. The Etihad Stadium, Manchester City
Originally The City of Manchester Stadium purpose-built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, Manchester City took tenancy as they moved from their traditional Maine Road home, kissing goodbye to their famous Kippax Stand in the process. Whilst many would have been reluctant to leave their spiritual home, the current status of City as one of the richest clubs in world football is definitely more fitting at the Etihad than in the less-than-salubrious surroundings of Maine Road.
6. White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur
Another of the traditional four-sided stadiums with fans within touching distance of the action, it is a ground that I have always liked. Complete with the video screens embedded into the upper sections of the stands behind the goals and the famous ‘Shelf’ running down the length of one touchline, it will be sad to see the back of this old ground once the club finally settle on the location of a new one.
7. Stadium of Light, Sunderland
Not the most original of names at all, but in terms of new stadia it is refreshing to me that it is built in the traditions of the classic four-sided ground. With the corners sweeping round and a couple of two-tiered stands stretching the capacity to 49,000, I feel that the club can be as proud of their new home as they were their old one at Roker Park.
8. Stamford Bridge, Chelsea
A ground which is unrecognisable from that which I first visited in around 1990, other than the three-tiered beast running down the one touchline. Gone is the famous old ‘Shed End’ and running track, replaced by two-tiered stands on the other three sides, bringing fans much closer to the action than they once were. Again, cosmopolitan Chelsea would have looked a little out of place in their old run down surroundings.
9. Villa Park, Aston Villa
As I said earlier, this is a top 10 ‘of sorts’ list. I say that mainly due to the fact that this is in no way a favourite ground of mine due to my own personal club allegiances, but I am not so blind as to ignore it’s importance and significance in the grand scheme of the English football stadium. It is old, traditional and retains a link to the past. It was a regular venue to stage Cup semi-finals before the costs of Wembley Stadium necessitated the need to play every possible fixture there in an effort to recoup costs which spiralled to a staggering £800m. Areas of the ground are old and outdated such as the North Stand Lower and the Doug Ellis Stand and could definitely use an upgrade.
10. Goodison Park, Everton
Another of the old guard in terms of stadiums. It has a church in the corner of the vociferous Gwladys Street End which is now obscured by a video screen. The ground retains a lot of old-time character and is affectionately referred to as The Grand Old Lady by Everton supporters. Sections of the ground, in particular the Bullens Road Stand which houses the away fans, as well as home support, is in particularly poor condition and, much like areas of Villa Park would benefit hugely from an upgrade.
I would also like to afford honourable mentions to historic old grounds such as Leeds United’s Elland Road, the two old greats in Sheffield Bramall Lane (United) and Hillsborough (Wednesday), Craven Cottage (Fulham), The City Ground (Nottingham Forest) and even Molineux (Wolves). The first time I was taken to Molineux was in their dark days of Division 4 football and just two open stands, the rest crumbling into decay, so the transformation to the current state needs applauding. The fact that the team itself is only one rung up the footballing ladder than all those years back however doesn’t.
I couldn’t write an article on football grounds without mentioning my own footballing mecca either. I was taken to my first match at age 2 by my dad, himself, much like his 3 brothers all Albion fans thanks to growing up in neighbouring Smethwick. I still go to the matches with my dad and 2 of my uncles (one having relocated to South Wales), plus aunt and cousins. I wouldn’t change my club for the world or my ground for The Emirates.
The Hawthorns is mine like it is to all Albion fans, whether you sit behind the traditional home end on the Birmingham (Brummie) Road or the more vocal Smethwick End, or the side stands of the East Stand and the slightly out-of-place (too small) Halfords Lane.
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