I’ve been meaning to follow up my post on old stadiums for some time, but it took a recent trip to Craven Cottage to prompt me into action. In my earlier rant on the subject of modern stadia I complained about the soulless location of many new grounds; a familiar moan against football’s modernisation agenda. Fulham’s old ground enjoys one of the more picturesque locations in English football, perched on the banks of the Thames. It’s a far cry from the bleak industrial cityscapes of Lowry’s ‘Going to the Match’. However, it’s not just the location that marks Fulham’s ground as special; it’s the structure that runs along the Stevenage Road side of the stadium, now called the Johnny Haynes stand. Now, I can’t claim I’m qualified to lecture anyone on what is or isn’t good architecture, but neither can Prince Charles, and it doesn’t stop him.
The Stevenage Road strand is a monument to old football of rattles and toe punts. You can tell it was built in an era when the average height in the UK was around 5ft 2inches, because anyone taller will find it almost impossible to sit down (I recently watched a game in that stand with six Norwegians, it was clearly not designed to accomodate them). However, despite the significant risk of deep vein thrombosis, the Stand has a unique character and charm, not only due to its appearance, but because it represents one of the best remaining examples of one man’s prolific contribution to UK football in last century.
The work of Scottish engineer, Archibald Leitch, has been comprehensively documented by Simon Inglis, but if you’re unfamiliar with his name, you might be more familiar with some of his work, in particular his legendary Trinity Road stand at Villa Park. I was fortunate enough to watch a mid week fixture from this stand, and approaching the colossal brick built structure under lights was a special sight. The other sections of Villa Park had already been modernised, which only enhanced the grandeur of Trinity Road. It was a living relic to former glories, but sadly it lives no more. The famous exterior demolished to make way for a larger structure.
Although I’m being nostalgic about his designs when viewed in the context of modern stadiums, Leitch was probably the moderniser of his time. He was the go to man for ambitious owners with cash to invest on new stands, and he appears to have worked for pretty much everyone. Many of his constructions have since been replaced, but fittingly you will still find Leitch’s work at Ibrox, home of his beloved Rangers, where the awesome frontage of one of his grandstands has been preserved. I can’t argue there would not have significant cost incurred to Aston Villa in protecting Leitch’s work using similar methods, but Trinity Road was surely the biggest casualty of the rush to expand capacity and hospitality facilities during the past two decades.
Leitch wasn’t responsible for all the iconic grand stands of the past century; he did not, for example, build Arsenal’s famous (and listed) art deco grandstands, the design of which has endured long enough to form the exterior of swish Islington apartments. The Emirates Stadium is a spectacular construction, and as a feat of engineering it is no doubt more impressive than the old Highbury, but there was something endearing about the piecemeal way grounds were constructed in the past. You could see the history of the club on each side of the pitch, with stands consructed decades apart.
Not all of the old stands added much to the aesthetics of the ground, but they did act as a clearly defined boundary between different sets of supporters. For example, even before it was condemned, the East Stand at Vicarage Road was a hideous old pile, but it housed the Directors enclosure, and seemed to be populated by older Watford fans who perhaps wanted to be closer to the management. Across the pitch, the 1980’s concrete Rous Stand is where you’ll find the Volvo driving classes of Hertfordshire. They pay the most to enjoy the best view, and therefore feel entitled to spend the game slating the most talented players on the pitch for a perceived lack of effort. They would never sing, but they would moan. Oh, they could moan with the best of them. But, at least they were mostly concentrated in one area. Modern football grounds are often divided into different stands on the stadium plan, but in reality, you’re all sat in one big bowl. This isn’t so much of a problem in countries like Italy, where the concept of the curva behind the goal is well established, but in the UK the transition to the mono-stand model seems to have lost something, not just in atmosphere, but also in identity.
For the Walkers Stadium in Leicester see the St Mary’s Stadium in Southampton, or the Madejski Stadium in Reading. Change the colour of the seats and you’d struggle to know where you where. The unique constructions that used to serve as football stadiums made them immediately recognisable.
Of course, some of these old stadiums were not necessarily built with aesthetic splendour in mind; they were built to serve a purpose, as are the new grounds. It would be churlish to suggest the new mega-structures do not awe fans in their own way, and that fans have not benefited from better facilities.
But, if you’re in any way like me – in that you feel compelled to crane your neck to catch a glimpse of a football stadium whenever you’re passing by – then you’ll know what I’m getting at. If you travel to watch your team then it’s more than likely your first impression of numerous towns and cities is based on the football ground and its surrounding area. If I was somewhere new, I’d always be on the lookout to catch a glimpse of the ground, because they were all so different. How depressing that they’re fast becoming all the same.