Having travelled the length of Britain taking photos for a revied edition of Simon Inglis's acclaimed book The Football Grounds of Great Britain, Tony Davis explains why he often had mixed feelings about what he saw
I’m on the phone to the secretary of a First Division club. I ask if I can photograph the stadium. She says no. I tell her it’s for a book about football grounds. She tells me she’s never heard of it. We bat the question about for a few minutes. She keeps asking me who else I’ve spoken to at the club about coming to take pictures. I tell her I’m asking her now. Finally we come to an arrangement – I’ll fax a request in writing before turning up. Finally, she’s happy – although she still takes the precaution of phoning the next club I was due to visit that day to check that I’m going there too.
This sort of paranoia is typical of a new breed of football administrator who I came up against time and again while take a simple picture of empty football grounds, PR people who know all about licensing merchandise, and putting out books and videos authorised by the club but can’t conceive of someone coming along independently – what are you doing this for, and why, and what’s it worth?
Some clubs, big and small, were only too helpful, but for every one like Aston Villa, who let me go wherever I liked, there’s a Sheffield Utd who tell me that I mustn’t photograph the wasteland where the old John St stand used to be, as though it’s not supposed to exist, or Colchester Utd who are adamant that the pictures I take must only be used in the book and nowhere else, as if I’m going to stand on street corners touting snaps of Layer Road.
I visited around 70 English grounds and another 25 in Scotland where they’d been changes of some kind since the last edition of the book was published. The state of the art stadia might scoop up design awards, but I much prefer old ones that have a feeling of durability, places that have been looked after, like Rotherham and Doncaster where they have no money for new stands but where everything is given a fresh coat of paint in the close season. It may not seem like much to know that you won’t get rust on your hands or old paint flaking off every time you touch something, but maybe it makes a difference on a rainy day when you’re 3-0 down. These are places with old groundsmen in club bobble hats who tell you all you need to know about the club while sweeping up with their troop of YTS trainees, pausing occasionally to adjust a faulty seat with their screwdriver.
Conversely, I’d be quite happy to never again go to a new stadium adjacent to a multiplex cinema in a retail park with whitewashed concrete steps and blue plastic seating and the stands named East, West, North and South. These also tend to be places where the phones are manned by 19-year-olds fresh out of college whose knowledge of football and the club they work for stretches no further than figures on a balance sheet. The contrast was highlighted by the change that came over Barnsley in the space of a year. On my first trip I was waved through onto the pitch by the friendly old man in the ticket office. The second time, I had to speak to a personal secretary of a personal secretary before I was even allowed to cross the threshold.
There is no denying that some of the new grounds are very photogenic. You can’t help but be impressed by Huddersfield, for example, a weird powder blue spaceship that suddenly springs up at you, looking more like an Olympic venue than a football ground. I experienced all four seasons in an hour there, first marvelling at how bright it seemed when the sunlight reflected off the white beams, then at how the whole ground rattled and shook when the wind blew.
And some clubs have made an effort to personalize their surroundings. The seats inside Newcastle’s St James’ Park, for example, once all a jarring black and white, are now mostly granite grey which is a massive improvement, and a lesson for the likes of Forest whose bright red seats in their executive stand have long since faded to a dirty pink. Wolves, meanwhile, may have made a mistake in building four isolated stands quite a distance from the pitch but Molineux looks great from the outside with its sandstone brick and club crest mounted on a plaque (as opposed to being painted on a wall by a jobbing YTS) and accessible without losing its identity.
Of course we have to be happy that the new or rebuilt stadia are safer, but it’s shame that more haven’t learnt from the remodelled Hillsborough, which has become more easily accessible while still keeping its sense of history, such as the gable on the South Stand. Does Anfield, for example, really have to have a McDonalds on the concrete monstrosity that is the new Kop? Is Maine Road improved by the new skyscraper stand which replaced the old Kippax terrace, with spaces in both corners that you could drive fifteen fire engines through simultaneously?
In some cases you can understand why new stadia have turned out the way they have. Driving down towards Livingston you see a supermarket, an industrial estate, new houses a mile away, a whole network of roads, and then there it is, two stands, and two brick walls in the middle of nowhere. But at least they’re drawing proper crowds, 3,000 compared to Meadowbank’s few hundred, and they have the excuse of limited resources. Unlike Middlesbrough. The Riverside Cellnett is all about big ambition and keeping up with Sir John Hall and the club offices are all cool and modern, but it’s a soulless place, on the edge of an industrial estate surrounded by old docks.
This worries me particularly because my club, Derby, are about to leave the Baseball Ground for an empty space near a motorway that will be turned into something said to be based on the Cellnett Riverside. The Baseball Ground might have occasionally been a daunting place for travelling fans, but as a kid I remember trekking from the train station on European nights in the 70s seeing those floodlights rising above the terraced houses and the crowds streaming out of the street corner pubs. Now it’ll be a matter of driving to a car park, having a drink in a social club in a stand for which you need membership or a season ticket. If you want to go to a pub beforehand you’ll have to stay in the city centre and arrive just before kick off. You’ll drive in and drive out and eventually, I fear, you’ll stay away.
From WSC 113 July 1996. What was happening this month