7 May ~ The London Olympic Stadium: a bloated, over-budget stadium for our glorious capital city. With the debate still raging, Leyton Orient's chairman and pub-game promoter, Barry Hearn, was soapboxing on the airwaves, giving his views on how a move to the ground for West Ham United will kill his club. Hearn told anyone that would listen that the stadium is "not fit for football". The belief that the ground is not suited for football stems from the usual complaints over stadiums built with athletics in mind. Think Juventus and Bayern Munich, to name two – those pesky running tracks and the gentle slope of the seating.
Manchester City overcame these problems with the restructuring of the Commonwealth Games stadium before they moved in, but that was a much smaller affair. The Commonwealth Games is the Anglo-Italian Cup to the Olympics’ Champions League.
Some years back I travelled to Barcelona for a few days with my dad. Barcelona were away from home. So, after the obligatory tour around Camp Nou – we stood in awe at the number and variety of trophies in the cabinet; who knew Barcelona had won many hockey tournaments? – we decided to head across town to see if we could buy tickets for the Espanyol v Las Palmas match. The game was held at Espanyol's former home: the Olympic stadium in Montjuic, the beautiful, but very impractical legacy of the 1992 Olympic Games.
The trail had to be one of the most surreal but pleasant journeys to a football stadium. Unfortunately, the cable-car crossing was closed at the time, which really would have elevated the transport to new heights, so to speak. Instead, we took the metro, followed by a funicular (cutting out a few kilometres criss-crossing the hillside), which left us with a very pleasant stroll through tree-lined avenues.
Eventually, the spectacular sight of the Olympic torch towered into view. For someone used to the packed tram from Manchester city centre and a walk past the Lou Macari chippy and terraced houses on Warwick Road, it was a very exotic experience.
Espanyol had left the comfy but atmospheric surroundings of their La Sarria ground in the late 1990s. The local government had pressured the club for some time, desperately wanting a permanent use for their very own white elephant stadium. With their debts mounting, the club had little choice but to sell to developers and lodge at Montjuic.
Once outside the stadium, we relaxed in a leafy park and pondered how to secure a ticket over a cool beer. We needn't have worried. The match was far from a sell-out and the oldest ticket tout in town had spotted us a mile off and made his way over to his prey.
I knew enough Castilian Spanish to converse with the tout, who took our cash eagerly, flashed three season ticket cards at us, beamed a toothless smile and escorted us through the ticket barriers. Once safely through the two checks, he waved an arm in a cursory gesture to a swathe of light blue seats (presumably to indicate that we could sit where we wanted) and walked off, straight out through the barriers.
Montjuic was huge, truly huge. There was no gasp as you walked up the steps to see the lush green carpet spreading out below. No thrill as the crowd at the opposite side of the ground flashed into view. It was just an absolutely huge bowl of a ground, with an enormous orange running track circling a faded green patch of grass some distance away.
Two gigantic banners, emblazoned with the club crest, covered each end behind the goals – the places where the ultras would usually whip up the fervour inside the ground – seemingly because those seats were the furthest from the pitch and no one in their right mind would want to sit there. It also served to "herd" the spectators together along the sides of the ground, rather than have small pockets of fans here or there.
The capacity without the banners would have been around 30,000 – too large for Espanyol to fill. Without any sort of roof, other than on the main stand, probably just enough to cover the two or three rows of club directors and VIPs, the sun beat down on us relentlessly.
We were lucky in a couple of ways. The game was an enjoyable 3-2 win for the home team, and, despite the very, very shallow incline of the seats, the crowd was so sparse that we had no one in front of us for ten rows or so. We didn't move forward because the shallow incline and the running track, combined with the obligatory perimeter advertising boards, conspired to make any winger on the touchline, we had no view of the ball whatsoever.
The Espanyol fans didn't want to reside at Montjuic in the first place. They were were finally given their way after 12 years on top of the hill when they moved again, much further from their traditional heartland, to the working-class suburb of Cornella-El Prat.
The new stadium opened in 2009 and is an outstanding venue for football. It is a modern masterpiece that should be the envy of many clubs. The supporters sit right next to the pitch and the focus is all on the green carpet in front of them. The ground apes their much loved and missed Sarria stadium, with a few modern twists.
Many clubs have found that moving home across town need not be too painful. With careful planning, fanbases can be renewed and reinvigorated within the local community. Espanyol are attempting to forge new relationships in their new surroundings, which is no easy task given that a footballing giant shares their city.
Clubs must be thoughtful in their application of these plans. Larger clubs muscling their way into another club's backyard can never be a good thing either. There are many sensitive choices to make.
While an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon, those few years back in Montjuic, the whole thing was a little soul-less. It was serene and pleasant, much like the journey to the ground, probably, in fact, much like an Athletics experience, rather than a footballing one. As Hearn would attest: the 1992 Olympic Stadium was not fit for football. Stuart Howard-Cofield In Bed With Maradona