English stadiums edge towards elusive 100,000 capacity

Modern attendances are huge but lack the spectacular feeling of the past

20 June ~ With Euro 2016 nearly halfway though and the Champions League, FA and Scottish Cup finals barely behind us, it feels like the entire planet wants to attend a football match. Huge, packed venues dominate the media. And all I do is rue the fact I’ve never been in a six-figure crowd and that no ground in Europe can currently hold one.

In the 1990s the instant response to the Taylor Report was to slap seats on top of terracing, slashing capacities. The long-term solution has morphed into a golden age of stadium design. The redevelopment and expansion of grounds makes huge attendances so commonplace it would now require a turnout of 100,000 to grab our attention. Barcelona recently revealed plans to start a €600 million (£465m) refurbishment of the Nou Camp, bringing it up to 105,000 by 2021. But it’s just a matter of time until these shores again see crowds of that scale.  

Liverpool’s last-16 visit to Old Trafford in March set the Europa League’s record attendance. The lack of fanfare was partly attributable to the fact that 75,180 is suddenly a routine crowd in that stadium. Manchester United’s average home gate is now at least 20,000 more than at any time after the Second World War (and often three times bigger than pre-war averages). Plans exist to bring its Main Stand in line with the other three sides, increasing the capacity to between 80,000 and 90,000. A push towards 100,000 seems inevitable – either for Manchester United or for a Wembley desperate to retain its national pre-eminence.

With Manchester City now reaching Champions League semi-finals, the Etihad will continue creeping up towards the 65,000 capacity originally planned for the City of Manchester Stadium. It recently expanded to 55,000 while Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool are all at various stages of bringing their homes towards Arsenal’s 60,000 mark.

Yet smaller attendances seemed more awesome when terracing dominated. In February 1988 Arsenal hosted Manchester United in the FA Cup fifth round. A crowd of 54,161 had Britain shaking its head at the drawing power of English football. Footage of the game shows Arsenal fans atop the residential flats behind the still-uncovered Clock End. Redolent of Chicago Cubs fans on the buildings around Wrigley Field, it looks like every Gooner on Earth is watching the only match on Earth. Both the untidiness of the viewing perches and the unpredictability of Arsenal’s 1980s attendances connote “community”. Far more so than the 60,000 who’ve filled every league game in the fully roofed, fully enclosed, private jet seats of the Emirates over the last ten years.


It was the irregularity of huge crowds which made them impressive to us in the 20th century. Nowadays they’re subsumed into a prescribed amount of season ticket holders. The atmosphere may fluctuate wildly with each opponent but the attendance doesn’t. Romance is further dissipated by contemporary demographics. It’s no longer tens of thousands of heavy industry workers on the first day of their weekend. Rather it’s tens of thousands of IT consultants, admin staff and call centre operators who’ve arranged shift changes or opted out of overtime to see a game on any time of the week other than 3pm Saturday.

Our concept of “spectacular” must change. Rather than the size and density of the crowd, we should now gawp at the literally vast architectural heights required to accommodate it so safely and comfortably. This summer’s venues lack the aesthetic finesse which hosted France’s four previous major tournaments but the gargantuan lines of Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome epitomise 21st century grandeur.

Old Trafford’s current scale followed the lead of its North Stand, the largest cantilevered roof in the world when completed in 1996. The north-east and north-west corners at modern Manchester United, whenever a pitch-side camera picks them out, continue into a never-ending horizon. My jaw also dropped at more than the result when Leicester City players took a bow at Manchester City last season: the Etihad’s newly expanded away end lets travelling fans have the same corresponding section of three tiers directly on top of each other, like an odd-coloured segment through a colossal three-tier cake.

Football stadiums laid low after the Hillsborough tragedy, regrouped and slowly began heading back towards their greatest capacities in this ongoing renaissance. That they’re powered by offshore money from the boardroom and middle class wages at the gate has blinded us to the spectacular size of Britain’s contemporary big crowds.

Until the Champions League and broadcast television goes bust, grandstands will continue upwards and the introduction of safe standing – being phased in at Celtic next season – will meet the shortfall towards the 100,000 mark. Perhaps I won’t have to travel to the continent in 2021 to experience my first six-figure crowd. Alex Anderson