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Relocation, relocation

Will Everton be on the move soon – leaving the city of Liverpool? Gavin Willacy examines the history of clubs looking for new homes and concludes that the Blues have little choice but to head for Kirkby

If national media coverage is any barometer, there was surprisingly little uproar when Everton announced that they are considering a move out of Liverpool into neighbouring Kirkby. A few shareholder-fans objected at the AGM, concerned that the city would turn red in their absence, but otherwise the supporters seemed resigned to the inevitable. Once the King’s Dock project fell through in 2002, Everton had to come up with an alternative. With ground-sharing Liverpool’s Dubai-funded ground in Stanley Park seemingly out of the question and the chances of two new stadiums being built in the city unlikely, someone would have to move out.

Tesco and Knowsley Council – which adjoins Liverpool and houses thousands of Evertonians – came up with a plan for Kirkby. The Everton board hope that, in time, most fans will come round to the idea. They ­probably will. But should the club accept it?

The lesson – if not the moral – is “seize your chance when it comes”. Even if it means ­hopping across a previously irrelevant administrative boundary. Just ask Luton Town. In the February 1960 edition of Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly there was an article entitled “The Town that should be ashamed”. It could have been written this year. The gist: Luton is full of immigrants (from other parts of Britain then, the Commonwealth now) with no ties to the club, crowds are far too low to support a top-flight team. It reported that most fans come from outlying districts, not Luton itself, transport links are poor and there’s nowhere to park. So plans were in place for a new 50,000-capacity stadium situated to the north-west of the town, near Dunstable.

Similar discussions have been going on ever since. In 1982 the club were tempted by a move to Milton Keynes: the local paper dreamed of “MK Hatters” playing in a “super-stadium”. Northampton were a Fourth Division outfit playing on a cricket ground, while Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds were ploughing lonely furrows way down the non-League pyramid. The south midlands was there for the taking.

In 2000, the League stopped Pete Winkelman’s plans to move Luton to MK, ­stating that “all clubs must stay in their own area”. Yet just eight miles separate the boundaries of Luton and Milton Keynes. All that lies between Kenilworth Road and the 22,000-capacity stadium that Milton Keynes’ unitary authority built for Winkelman’s Dons are the Hatters’ strongholds of Dunstable, Houghton Regis and Leighton Buzzard. And now (as reported in WSC 239) some fans are protesting about plans to move over the town boundary into a new stadium at Junction 12 of the M1.

Barnet were one of Winkelman’s pre-Dons targets. They, too, have looked at moving out of their borough, forced by a particularly unpleasant and aggressive anti-sport lobby within the council. As they seek planning permission to finish off Wealdstone’s aborted Prince Edward project – supposedly for training facilities and community use but potentially as their own stadium – Barnet look set to move their day-to-day operations a few yards over the border into Harrow, where the council appears to be welcoming them with open arms.

Since Luton first turned MK down, 24 league clubs have moved to new sites. The vast majority are within the same town, if not the same community, with financial or political support from the council. Huddersfield, Hull, Millwall, Leicester, Stoke and Arsenal moved around the corner, so close to their old homes that the fans could still enjoy their traditional pre- and post-match rituals. Wigan, Derby and Southampton’s stadiums are a short walk from the nightlife, while  Middlesbrough, Reading and Man City play in different areas of town.

Bolton’s move from Burnden Park is typical of recent developments: the Reebok Stadium is surrounded by the usual anodyne retail park, which often helps finance a move. The Reebok is six miles north of Bolton, in Lostock, while the training ground is in Leyland. The town could be losing a grip on its club, but the council is happy as all of the above are within its boundaries. And that is the key. Chester even moved countries but got away with it: most of the Deva Stadium is in Wales, but still under the auspices of ­Chester City Council.

As more clubs need new sites, more will end up crossing the border into neighbouring towns if their eponymous borough cannot come up with the goods. This is the American model: clubs demand new stadiums and search for a council who will help fund it. That used to mean any city at all, even if it was 3,000 miles away, but now more often means down the road. The latest “soccer-specific stadiums” in Major League Soccer are all in different communities about 20 miles outside the main cities: LA play in Carson, Chicago in Bridgeview, Dallas in Frisco and, after ten years in central Denver, Colorado Rapids will move to ­Commerce City in April: the same Commerce City that a Denver soccer website described as “a gritty, smelly, industrial area near a Conoco refinery and the city dump”. Middlesbrough fans will know how they’ll feel.

But most American fans are just relieved their teams have stayed in the area. Most clubs are working with local councils to build inner-city stadiums that will regenerate run-down areas. So, for Middlesbrough and Arsenal, Man City and Derby, read San Francisco and Denver, San Diego and Baltimore.

It is no coincidence that none of the major football clubs in Bristol, Sheffield, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow or Liverpool has a new stadium. Not that they all need one but those that do are struck by “two-club-city” syndrome. Each council is torn between two sides. If it wasn’t for the Commonwealth Games, Manchester would probably not have one either.

Wakefield Metropolitan Borough Council found itself with two major rugby league clubs desperately needing new stadiums if they are to have a Super League future and no chance of a ground-share. After much anguish the council has just agreed to fund a community sports park in the city for Wakefield Trinity Wildcats while the group behind the Xcape complex has put forward plans to build Castleford Tigers a new home beside the M62. The council could not have built both. Nor can Liverpool’s.

Knowing what a top-class sports team can bring to the borough, Knowsley will not be alone in telling desperate clubs that the grass is greener on their side of the ­boundary fence.

From WSC 24o February 2007. What was happening this month


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