I’m a big fan of some of the old football grounds in England and find it sad so many clubs are compelled to build new stadiums for financial reasons. In this series of articles I’m going to explore why I love the old grounds so much, starting with their locations.
West Ham’s plans to move to the Olympic Stadium have been hugely contentious, but ultimately the move was seen as a necessary evil to enable the Hammers to compete in the Premier League. It’s easy to understand why teams need to move to new stadiums, at board level the economic benefits trump sentimental attachment every time. However, most Spurs fans that I have spoken to expressed relief at their club’s failed attempt to relocate to Stratford. Some of this may have been a deliberate attempt to conceal their disappointment at losing out on anything to West Ham – “yeah, well I didn’t wanna move there anyway!” – but I think most of them genuinely want to stay in Tottenham, and rightly so.
Tottenham is their home and part of their identity. If you took Spurs out of Tottenham it would be a massive loss to the local community. Although the borough of Haringey features some of the most prosperous wards in the country, such as Highgate (full of bistros and prancing actors), it also features some of the most deprived (hint – there are no bistros in Tottenham). However, despite being a focal point of the local community, you can’t expect a football club to be responsible for addressing all of society’s ills, but that’s not my only beef with clubs shifting home.
For that we should look at the modestly titled Madejski Stadium of Reading FC, which is situated in a commercial zone by the M4. The problem is there’s simply nothing there, it’s a desert of civilisation, just car parks and office blocks. No pubs as far as the eye can see. I used to work somewhere like that – an industrial estate on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead. I shudder at the thought of returning, so it’s the last place I want to find myself on a Saturday afternoon when I’m supporting my team. Give me a battered, rain swept Cleethorpes for a trip to Blundell Park, any day. Sure, Reading’s new stadium is nice enough on the inside, but the location means it’s utterly lacking in character. You could be anywhere. I went to Reading’s old Elm Park ground back in 1995 and, granted, it was a bit of a dump, but it was a dump with character.
The grounds that sit among housing estates are considered impractical these days. The local infrastructure generally can’t cope with thousands of people moving in and out on match days, as Tottenham will testify. But for me, the nostalgia you get when visiting these old grounds is what makes them special. The thought that fans have been walking the same streets for generations adds a bit of allure to a stadium, even more so if it’s an evening fixture. It’s the moment when you turn the corner to see the brilliant flood lights illuminating your destination. The darkness makes the stadium look even more dramatic – as perfectly captured by the photography of Roy Clarke.
Compare and contrast the Madejski with an old Ground like Goodison Park, rising above the terraced houses of Walton. Or consider the legendary Maine Road in Manchester’s notorious Moss Side. Regrettably, I never saw a match there, but I remember travelling on a Manchester bus and catching a glimpse of the mighty Kippax stand towering over the houses. It was an awesome sight. For me, that location was part of City’s identity and endorsed their credentials as the ‘real Manchester club’. I just couldn’t get that exited about a trip to the Eastlands Arena, impressive structure though it is.
Even Old Trafford, which has come to symbolise all that is modern and corporate in football, has plenty of history. It never had the inner city roots that Maine Road had, but it has been Manchester United’s home for over one hundred years (excluding a few years ground sharing at City after it was bombed during the war). Located near Salford Quays on the Manchester Ship Canal – an area of rich industrial heritage – it is easy to imagine workers streaming out of factories towards the stadium.
Not every old ground was steeped in working class history. Take Oxford United’s old home, the Manor Ground – the name alone sounds more like the sort of place your Gran would visit for tea and cake. But, the thing that really set the Manor Ground a class apart was the fact it was located next to a lawn bowls club – I doubt they had many of those in Moss Side. It is hilarious to think this ‘stadium’ was a top flight venue in the 1980’s. It was so small and quaint, yet played host to the giants of English football. It was unique, and it was Oxford United.
I know I’m probably sounding like the sort of old fart who reckons everything used to better (and I’m not even that old!). Not every club has the resources or the opportunity to move next door, like Arsenal did, for example. Brighton fans are probably just thrilled to finally have their own proper ground again. Younger fans just beginning their lifelong obsession with football will no doubt feel a growing sense of attachment to the Madejski Stadium, or the Reebok Stadium, or even the Ricoh Arena. Well, maybe not the Ricoh Arena.
I suppose my views on this are best summed up by recalling a conversation with a Dutch fan who had been in England during Euro 96. He spoke so enthusiastically English stadiums because of their locations, surrounded by houses – ”it’s a real football culture” as he put it. Would he have said the same if he’d just departed a shuttle bus from a train station to an identikit ground plonked in a car park?