Building blocks

Liverpool supporters want to remain at Anfield but, as Rob Hughes explains, moving to Stanley Park may be the more viable option

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