The Football Supporters’ Federation’s (FSF) Safe Standing Campaign aims to persuade the government and football authorities to allow trials of standing areas in the Premier League and Championship. It took a big leap forwards in August with the announcement that plans had been submitted for a £40 million redevelopment of Bristol City’s Ashton Gate stadium that would incorporate two areas of rail seats. The rail seats – which can be easily converted from seating accommodation to standing and are common in several European leagues including the Bundesliga – would take the capacity from the 21,500 now to 27,000 in all-seat mode, or 29,000 with the seats locked back allowing fans to stand, and would occupy the lower sections of the Dolman Stand and a new Wedlock Stand.
As the 2012-13 non-League season reached its climax, plenty of clubs will have envied Maidstone United. This wasn’t due to the Stones’ league position – they finished second in the Isthmian League Division One South and were promoted through the play-offs – but instead it was because of their 3G pitch, which registered just one postponement during the season. Non-League is more susceptible to bad weather than higher divisions but even allowing for the inevitable winter postponements, this year’s extended cold snap, snow and rain led to huge fixture pile-ups across the divisions, as reported in WSC 314.
In late 1898 officials from The Wednesday FC learned that the lease on Olive Grove, their home for a decade, could not be renewed. The land was needed for a railway expansion and they had until the end of the season to find a replacement. With few locations available they settled on High Bridge, Owlerton. The plot of meadowland to the north of Sheffield was uneven, a long way from the city centre and poorly served by public transport.
In May 2008, Chelsea and Manchester United contested the Champions League final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. There was something unusual about the playing surface: it was grass. For one match only, turf was brought in from Slovakia. In fact, this was the second set of imported grass. The original failed to take root and had to be replaced just two weeks before the game. John Terry might wish they hadn't bothered.
At the turn of the millennium, fans of Enfield FC saw their beloved football ground bulldozed. But what has happened in the subsequent decade makes for a heartening tale. Formed in 1893, Enfield had a rich and successful history. They played their home games at Southbury Road, an ageing but well-loved 1930s ground, considered by many to be an iconic non-League venue. The sale of Southbury Road in 1999 by Tony Lazarou, who owned the club at the time, initiated a cycle of extraordinary events. Lazarou attempted to rehouse the club at Cheshunt but the move fell through, so for two years the club suffered a nomadic existence, playing at various venues outside the London Borough of Enfield. Fan resentment had already started to grow before the sale of the ground, but the sight of the bulldozers moving into Southbury Road was the final straw for many.
When West Ham first announced their intention to move into the Olympic Stadium after London 2012, the response from fans was at best lukewarm. After it was made clear that the new 60,000-seat ground will include a running track, scepticism grew among fans who were still not entirely convinced that their team needed to move away from Upton Park.
Nearly ten years after announcing plans to build a new stadium in nearby Stanley Park, the future home of Liverpool remains in limbo. Managing director Ian Ayre's recent admission that the preferred redevelopment of Anfield is becoming "increasingly unlikely" was compounded by owner John Henry's comments on Twitter. "Anfield would certainly be our first choice," he posted. "But realities may dictate otherwise." There were, he concluded with a distinct tang of frustration, "so many obstacles".
Ayre's more detailed assessment cited problems over land and property acquisition, along with certain environmental and statutory issues, as the main "barriers to our ambition". He couldn't forego another pop at former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett while he was at it either, saying that their failure to keep their promise of a new stadium had "set the club back several years".
But Liverpool's main beef seems to be with the city council. There are major logistical issues with redeveloping Anfield, chief among them being the knock-on effect of extending and heightening the stands to allow for a proposed 60,000 bums on seats. "Local people have the right to light," was council leader Joe Anderson's Zen-like justification for the impasse. "You can't build something right next to someone's house that blocks daylight, whether Liverpool FC like it or not." More ominously, Anderson estimated that, with red tape being what it is, it may take up to three years before rebuilding could even begin. Thus the council has firmly chucked the ball over the club's wall. They have given Liverpool an extra three months to decide on whether or not to renew their option on a 999-year lease on the Stanley Park site, which takes them to September.
So just where does all this leave the club? Liverpool have long been looking at ways to increase capacity, not just to satisfy the demand (and I'm conveniently leaving aside the brief Roy Hodgson era here) but to better compete with the matchday revenue steams of rivals Man Utd and Arsenal. They are currently searching for a naming rights partner for the potential new stadium. At least that would take care of a fair slice of the £300 million construction bill. But there is a deeper issue at stake here than just the volume of somebody's pockets.
Never mind that a move to Stanley Park might make more practical business sense – it is Anfield itself that seems to be the crux. Fan forums and local opinion suggest the supporters are overwhelmingly in favour of the current stadium being given a makeover rather than setting up camp down the road. There's much talk of "the special magic of Anfield" and the unique spot it occupies in people's hearts. While no one denies the inevitable reach of progress, the emotional bonds between Liverpool and their fans run uncommonly deep. And with no title for 21 years and counting – and no major trophy for the last six – Anfield's stature as the only living symbol of past supremacy only grows stronger with time.
It is possible to view the supporters' opinion as being driven by sentimentality rather than pragmatism. Cynics might even say it is indicative of the nostalgic inertia that has befallen the club since we stopped winning stuff. But football is nothing if not an emotional game, and the preservation of identity and heritage is paramount.
In this respect Liverpool appear to have sympathetic owners. Some years ago Henry was presented with the problem of overhauling Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox and one of the oldest meccas in North American baseball. Conscious of the high degree of community feeling towards the stadium and all it represented, he refused to compromise the needs of residents and opted to modernise the place where it stood rather than hike up the capacity by demolishing any surrounding buildings.
That's all very noble, of course, but it does not offer a model for expanding Anfield. Whatever the eventual outcome, Ayre has been at pains to explain that no decision will be made that is not in the club's best long-term interests. "We will not," he stated emphatically, "make any promises to our fans that we cannot keep." For those of us still raw from the false assurances of the Hicks and Gillett reign, that is at least something to build on.
From WSC 295 September 2011
There are problems with the Brandywell but, as Aidan Bonner explains, Derry City's frustrating search for a new stadium continues
Derry City are a club that is neither here nor there. Located in Northern Ireland but competing in the Republic, they have often found themselves caught between two worlds. Based in the Irish FA's jurisdiction, the club were forced to leave the Irish League as the political situation and sectarian tensions worsened around them. After kicking around junior leagues for 13 years, Derry eventually re-emerged in the Republic of Ireland's national league in 1985. This bout of border-hopping can still cause the club problems from time to time.
Drowned by a saga of double contracts and financial mismanagement in 2009, Derry City returned as a new, debt-free entity last season. Although the new DCFC were initially left to explore the delights of the lower of Ireland's two senior leagues (dubbed the "Discover Ireland" division by fans) their budget still outstripped many of their rivals and they were promoted at the first time of asking. Back in the Premier Division, things are going swimmingly. But many fans have long viewed the club's Brandywell home as being in a location that discourages potential new supporters.
Situated in the heart of what was once the predominantly nationalist "Free Derry" district – a no-go area for the RUC at the time – the ground remains unpoliced, with the club relying on the services of a dedicated band of stewards. This arrangement has been largely successful but can still prove problematic on occasion, as potential flash-point fixtures with the big Dublin clubs have recently shown.
Health and Safety officials reduced the Brandywell's capacity by 700 this year. With the ground's slightly dilapidated state, the promise of one new 2,500-seat stand does little to satisfy supporters, many of whom would prefer a more permanent move to either the vacant Templemore or Fort George sites in the city. The Fort George site is in the hands of Ilex, the company set up to take charge of the regeneration of the city, who have yet to engage DCFC.
Proposals and projects are nothing new to City supporters. In mid-2006, the club unveiled plans for a new £15 million complex to be built on the site at the Brandywell, complete with 6,000-seat ground, synthetic 3G pitches and retail development. This bid fell apart and the eventual demise and rebirth of Derry City brought them back to square one – a "new" club with an old ground, hoping to be gifted what they cannot afford to build.
But who is going to hand them anything? The Maze Stadium project was an ambitious plan to build an all-encompassing home for Northern Irish sport which collapsed. Instead, the money set aside for this plan has been dispersed to football, rugby and GAA clubs around the country. The cost for the proposed new stand at Derry is to be drawn from this funding, but that alone would be a poor return.
Derry City officials have watched as new stadium projects for clubs such as Crusaders began at great pace. In fact, across the town work is nearing completion on major improvements to the home ground of Institute, Derry's Drumahoe-based Irish League neighbours. Meanwhile, just over the border in Donegal, a new 6,800-seat home for Finn Harps has been given the green light. For Derry supporters, seeing the door to 21st century facilities opened to a host of "smaller" clubs has raised serious questions.
The belief that Derry City playing across the border could harm their chances of receiving funding from the Northern Irish executive grew to the extent that in 2008 local MLA Raymond McCartney challenged Gregory Campbell, the minister for culture, arts and leisure, to acknowledge publicly that the club's cross-border status would not be an issue. Recently, however, the lack of progress has mostly been blamed on the apathy of local politicians and the failure of club officials to apply any pressure.
For the time being, as the city council, rather than the club, own the ground, they must apply for funding and also have the final say on any proposed improvements. The suggested changes are unlikely to attract new supporters or to appease those already there. On the positive side, all signs indicate that money may be available for the right project, with the right pitch. The drawback is that this may be a brief opportunity for clubs seeking funding, and that local officials seem content to sit on their hands and let it drift by.
From WSC 294 August 2011
Let’s get one thing straight first. It’s not The Withdean in the same way it’s not, say, The Hillsborough. But somehow it deserves the definite article. It’s a unique place to watch football, with its bank of “temporary” uncovered seating to the south, backed by the woods of a nature reserve, its poky North Stand with a suburban pub behind and its litter of athletics paraphernalia, like the hammer net. There is only one Withdean: thank God.
When lower-league clubs discuss moving grounds, there’s one thing they know: whenever they go and wherever they go, they don’t want to “do a Darlington”. This means moving to a new ground, then barely filling one tenth of it. A quick Google search shows fans of Gillingham, Hartlepool and Rotherham, among others, have used it. But soon, the phrase might – just might – lose its meaning.