Frustration is growing among Leicester fans as they continue to try to find a site for their new stadium. Simon Tyers explains his and the fans' disgruntlement
There’s a lot of us Leicester fans about. Which may surprise the casual observer, as Filbert Street currently contains just 21,500 seats, with 20,469 of them filled on average last season. It’s not for the want of trying that the figure is so low – five years ago, the Carling Stand was opened, having cost £5.75 million to develop. The club promptly put the TV camera gantry right at the top, meaning that Britain’s viewing public see as much of Leicester General hospital as they do of the paying spectators.
The obvious solution was to develop the cunningly named East Stand, and this was the club’s top priority after the Carling Stand was completed. There was one problem. Behind the stand is a row of terraced houses, and the residents weren’t keen on their light being blocked by a bloody big edifice. The club made an attempt to buy up all the houses in the street, only to run into difficulties when the incumbents pointed out that, having won the right to light, they wouldn’t mind having a right to live where they were presently living as well. (One suspects they also don’t mind the club’s presents of three or four free footballs booted over the stand per game.)
So the only option left was to move. But where? There isn’t much waste ground in the middle of the country’s 12th biggest city, and although Tom Wheatcroft, the owner of Donington Park motor racing circuit, claimed to have some that he’d willingly hand over to the club for free, he wasn’t so generous as to tell anyone where it was. A move out of town looked likely, until the club spotted the rather large RK Timber yard sitting just a Steve Walsh hopeful upfield punt away from Filbert Street’s car park.
The unpromisingly named Bede Island South (an island in that it’s cut off by a particularly murky stretch of the River Soar) was unveiled in June 1998 as the future location of a 40,000-seater stadium, hotel, retail park, restaurant and kitchen sink that would, according to the club’s blurb, “provide a focus for the community and local businesses and be a showpiece for Leicester”.
Planning permission was to be secured by September for building work to be completed by the start of this season. Roy Parker, a director of the plc and chairman of the development board, claimed, “These proposals confirm Leicester City as one of the most ambitious and forward-thinking football clubs in the UK,” a view that certainly surprised a lot of people. When the opening date had been moved back a season within a month of the original proposals being unveiled, rats were smelled across the region.
Then in February came the bombshell that no supporter of Leicester could have failed to predict – the city council recommended the plans be refused, citing the fact that the 100,000 square feet of retail space proposed for the site contravened government planning guidelines.
It all came to a head on February 17th, when the council’s environment and development committee met to discuss the issue on the same night as the Worthington Cup semi-final second leg against Sunderland. Never ones to miss a trick, the club broadcast both events live on their official website. Half an hour before kick-off, the council relented and largely approved the development, with just the 54 new planning conditions to deal with. The final decision lay with John Prescott, and when he told the Southampton Daily Echo that he was in favour of the regeneration of “brownfield” sites the club nearly wet themselves, with reason this time. As you may have already guessed, Prescott decided to put Leicester’s plans to a Department of the Environment public enquiry, despite Coventry and Southampton having recently won permission for similar developments.
Then the Birch stepped in. Alan Birchenall, Leicester’s PR head, may tell some of the oldest jokes known to man – and follow them up by laughing loudly and for a prolonged period – during his half-time raffle draw ceremony, but he also knows how to get on the side of the fans. Thus, in the break during the first home game of the season (attended by fewer than 19,000 people, a figure partly put down to the uncertainty over the club’s future) he called publicly for one of the club’s directors to come out during the next game and explain what on earth was happening with the stadium, adding that he’d purposely made the appeal so public that the board could not shirk the challenge.
So, Parker appeared during the next game (the 2-2 draw with Chelsea) to tell a capacity crowd that the public inquiry begins on November 17th and should last for four weeks. In other words, forget 2000-01. Worryingly, it was revealed that Bede Island was the club’s only option – hence any rejection could lead to a delay of up to five years for the move, and the plc have previously stated that the current delay is costing the club up to £2 million a season in lost gate receipts.
The importance of a new stadium to Leicester cannot be overstated, and not only because the East Stand is barely Conference standard. Cliff Ginetta, chairman of the supporters club, recently acknowledged: “It is an embarrassing ground. And it is an embarrassment to the city of Leicester.”
The likes of Martin O’Neill, Emile Heskey, Matt Elliott and especially Neil Lennon have publicly cited the excitement of having a brand spanking new stadium to play in as an incentive to stay at the club. John Elsom, the latest in a long line (four this decade) of disreputable-looking Leicester chairmen, is doing the very un-Leicester-like thing of looking like he’s in control of any given situation – although the establishment of a football committee that nearly caused O’Neill to resign last year was a bit of a cock-up. For his and the club’s sake, Bede Island South needs to house a football stadium as soon as possible. A hell of a lot of fans are staking their hopes for the club on it.
From WSC 152 October 1999. What was happening this month