Deliberate obstruction

Richard Darn pays tribute to Bradford's HSG stand which would be even better if you could actually watch the game

Got a swish ground yet? New stands, dazzling snack bar menu, toilets with hand lotion? Well, if you’re an Arsenal or Manchester United supporter you’ll probably answer yes. But as a die-hard traditionalist watching my footie in the lower divisions you can keep your corporate-style entertainment and £20 admission fee and just give me a decent view of the game.

And with all this new building going on there's no excuse for ballsing-up on that one, is there? At least I thought not until I visited Bradford City recently and sampled the modern delights of the HSG stand. It’s a truly sublime creation. Twin decker, 1,800 capacity and a magnificent blend of restricted views, two-dimensional toilets and external piping that makes the Pompidou Centre look banal.

Built a couple of years ago to replace a truly dreadful away end, its called a stand but otherwise has no other connection with sport or spectator comfort.

In fact it’s achieved that rare feat of becoming anachronistic in the very act of creation – a footballing curio to match the old ‘Pigeon Loft’ at Wrexham even before the concrete had chance to set.

Simon Inglis said of our football grounds “we delight in their quirkiness”. And after my Valley Parade experience, I agree with at least one word in that sentiment, but for the most part was left yearning for Kenilworth Road’s open spaces.

If you get to Valley Parade an hour before kick-off you can probably secure a seat on the top deck of the stand and so have a pretty decent view of the game, bar a couple of pillars, put there to remind us all that cantilevering is still a far-off concept in this part of the West Riding.

For the rest of us, who similarly forked out £13, it’s a forlorn pursuit to get that tantalizing 100 per cent view of goings-on out there on the turf. To the left is a whacking great concrete pillar, to the right an identical twin, to the front somebody’s head (the spirit level packed in when they laid the concrete), above looms the crossbar blotting out the midfield (get the picture yet?) and dotted around the periphery is exposed piping, probably from a defunct oil rig.

To see Chris Waddle take a corner kick would entail a twenty-yard walk along the back of the stand and a step up on to the terracing. After urging the wing wizard to float one over slowly, you’d have to leg it back to your seat, slicing through the queue for the toilets, to catch the goalmouth action.

This was all a bit much, I thought, for a new stand, so I went off for a cup of tea and miraculously found a vantage point free from obstructions. A steward then came along and told me to move because this was the snack bar waiting area. I felt it was my duty to tell him that at this rate they couldn’t expect a mention in Pevsner’s Buildings of England. He said if I wanted a decent view I should have got there earlier. This raised an interesting legal point about consumer rights – latecomers are not protected by the Trade Descriptions Act?

After pointing out that even if all 1,800 of us had arrived five hours before kick off some would still end up staring down a blind alley, the steward’s tough façade collapsed and he admitted that he was an accountant doing a bit of moonlighting and agreed it was a rip off. I’d like to think that this was the first triumph on a long, campaigning road to have the structure knocked down – but I doubt it.

Actually seeing the game is only one problem. There’s also the issue of safety. The HSG cost just £600,000 when it was built despite having to cope with severe problems of restricted space and sloping ground. What was really needed was a bit of creativity – but instead it seems as though any imaginative ideas were mugged by tight-fisted directors on the way to the drawing board.

The resulting drawbacks are not just cosmetic. Leaving the enclosure entails a long descent down four flights of stairs – a problem inherited from the old stand. Not ideal. The gangways are universally narrow and the entire environment cluttered.

And that’s the crux of it. The Hillsborough and Ibrox disasters were partly caused by poor access to terracing. Confined areas continue to exist in all-seater stadia and Manchester City’s North Stand is a case in point. Fans visiting Maine Road wanting to buy a pie, pint of beer, or simply go to the toilet will be invited to join the same queue, crammed into a tiny concrete undercroft. The half-time crush is familiar to anyone who has stood on the Kippax, forced to exit the ground through low-roofed tunnels.

Indeed, despite nearly 100 years of stadium building it still comes a surprise to see how wrong architects can get things. I’ll not divulge which company it was that designed a stand with just a handful of turnstiles using ‘data’ which forecast that the crowd would turn up at a consistent rate over a thirty minute period. After the ‘first night crush’ redundant turnstiles were quickly reprieved and the same stand now has about three times the original number of entrances.

But going back to the HSG stand, I suppose I could excuse its pretty major failings if it had the caché of being historic. Unfortunately it isn’t and while Simon Inglis might muse that sitting in the old wooden stand at Valley Parade was like “being in the cockpit of a Sopwith Camel”, spending 90 minutes in the HSG is akin to slumming it an underground car park.

Lest anyone should accuse me of being over-critical, I’ll admit that the structure might grow on me, because I’m ill at ease criticizing any stand that breaks the mould of ersatz conformity typified by the gut-wrenching Bescot Stadium, even if it is a complete shambles. Perhaps I’ll grow to love it for its deformity. But in any case, the way City are going it will be Bournemouth’s problem next season.

From WSC 119 January 1997. What was happening this month