Design of the times

Bolton Wanderers are moving home. Keith Parkinson is impressed by their new ground

Attention all visiting Premiership fans heading for Planet Reebok via junction 6 of the M61. You have been warned. Engage low gear and keep a tight grip on the wheel – if you can. The first sight of Britain’s most expensive pounds-per-seat purpose built sports stadium will take your breath away.

Gone is the ramshackle, quirky and outdated tripe ‘n trotters clothcapped Burnden Park and in one giant leap the club has catapulted its fans into the best stadium in the country. Not so much just a footy ground as a design statement. Not for us another boring, cut-price Riverside lookalike (hard luck Derby, Stoke and Sunderland). It’s also a multi-use, 7 day a week, four storey business/conference/exhibition centre.

Some might say, “What! Only 25,000 seats? For 35 million quid?” And that’s what I first thought. But once the new railway station and link roads are finished more seats will be bolted on to the empty rows at the front to make a final capacity of 28,000. Not enough for all matches, but that will always be the case when we play a certain team from down the road. The trouble is that the said unmentionable team is now 7 miles further away than it was before, and for most Bolton fans every match will seem like an away match until things become familiar.

Local councillors have already declared war on fans arriving in cars – as most will inevitably do, despite an intention to put on special buses. Dire warnings of extra yellow lines, residents-only restrictions and high profile prosecutions have already been issued. So much for the advantages of the wide open spaces of a green field development. Still, I’m optimistic that things will settle down after a chaotic start.

I first visited the site when construction started last October and from that moment onwards I have been a convert. So has everyone else who drops in on the visitors’ centre (Bolton’s number one – and only – tourist attraction). Consign all memories of the past to the nostalgia section of the attic and accept this for what it is – progress.

Mind you, progress has its price, but thankfully this isn’t being extracted in cash terms, with the most expensive season ticket being pegged to around £300. The real price, in addition to the travel expenses, is having to put up with the corporate, franchised world of multiplex cinemas, themed fast-food and drink outlets, sports retail chains, bowling alleys, supermarkets, hotels and all the banal paraphernalia of a £200m out of town, late 20th century shopping/ leisure development.

But what a stadium! And it has all, allegedly, been paid for before a ball is even kicked. All by the magic of reverse takeovers, grants and other unfathomable financial machinations. And thereby hangs a not inconsiderable grumble. What’s in a name? You might ask, but in Bolton’s case it’s a not-so-small matter of tens of millions of pounds. The official title, “The Reebok Stadium”, doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. It is to be hoped that the fans will eventually come up with a name to stick, though are no obvious candidates as yet.

The development site has been dubbed the “Middlebrook Sports and Retail Village” or something like that. The said “brook” is a largely invisible culverted drainage ditch, but it sounds okay on glossy sales literature. Echoes of the old era will live on in the “Nat Lofthouse Stand” and the name of the new club parent company, “Burnden Leisure plc”.

Who could have dreamed all this would be possible in the mid 80s when we were skint and going nowhere? To any who may still think that this is a bad move, I suggest a long hard look at the dreadful supermarket that was perpetrated on the old ground for the measly sum of £750,000. That was all that stood between Bolton Wanderers and extinction. The future may not be entirely to everyone’s taste, but it’ll do for me.

From WSC 124 June 1997. What was happening this month