Why old stadiums are great – part one: Location

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 Madejski: oh dear, oh dear, this will not do.

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.

A forgotten sight: Kippax rising

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. 

The Manor Ground with adjacent lawn bowls club.

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?

Goodison Park: in the thick of it.

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4 Responses to Why old stadiums are great – part one: Location

  1. Danny says:

    Grimsby playing away from blundell park wouldn’t have made it any less rainswept. Just saying!! Good that it’s only taken 10 years for you to get misty eyed about that trip!

  2. Nicky P says:

    Mike whilst driving down tottenham high road a couple of weekends ago, as we passed their ground I said to my missus “this is where the less successful, less illustrious ‘other club’ in North London play”, as she noted the big signs slapped all over the club shop windows n doors SALE 50% OFF ALL ITEMS. That really made me smile!!!

    You know paying off Islington Borough Council for the Ashburton Grove sight cost us a few bob but was well worth it. I never got to Ayrsome Park but after a long coach journey to the Riverside which icluded breaking down on the M1 (and missing the entire first half of a 6-1 away win….) I was horrified with the location of the stadium.

    That was my first “die Arsch die Welt” (as the germans say, directly translated – the arse of the world) stadium, and I agree that young boro fans will never have the feeling of say Everton fans on a matchday.

    The old stadiums are good mate, but football has evolved and for some clubs the need is bigger than the want. I like that all the articles I’ve read are from the small club angle, it is refreshing in a day when the media are so obsessed with glamour, glitz and top of the table. I wonder if the mass media were to make more of an effort to showcase the smaller/less successful/less wealthy clubs it were to in fact have a positive effect.

    Something that is great is that clubs like Sheff Weds and Leeds with their famous old stadiums continue to pull in better crowds than some Prem clubs with their new sponsored stadia.

    I think the popularity and numbers through the door at many clubs is dependent on the history, tradition and certainly the competition in the local area. Clubs like Norwich and Ipswich still pull in great numbers but they are the only clubs for mile, just like in the North East where you have only one club per City/Town.

    Have a great trip mate, be careful over there…..

  3. Michael says:

    I know, I can’t help my sentimental streak. Clubs need revenue and many of the old grounds weren’t / aren’t fit for purpose. It’s mainly these out of town locations that I can’t stand.

    There are too many old grounds to mention all at once, but Hillsborough is a good example. All the West Midlands’ clubs have managed to redevelop on location, and St James’ Park is an amazing site towering over Newcastle.

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