Endless misery

Steve Menary on the new meaning of "end to end" football

“End-to-end stuff for 90 minutes” is a fixture in cliched match reports, but may not be for much longer as some clubs are replacing crumbling grounds with stadiums that do not have the four sides.

For the fourth time since being relegated from the old Second Division in 1990 under Harry Redknapp, AFC Bournemouth went into the final match of 2004-05 season with the play-offs in reach. Needing a win to edge opponents Hartlepool out of the last play-off spot, Bournemouth played a great opening 45 minutes attacking the north end full of home fans. Then Bournemouth changed ends at their Dean Court stadium, which was rebuilt in 2002 at a cost of £6.5 million, and their season ended. Faced with a south end full of nothing but advertising hoardings at the three-sided Dean Court, Bournemouth collapsed, gifting Hartlepool an equaliser and a place in the play-offs.

The result was an improvement on the five successive defeats at Dean Court that preceded the Hartlepool match, but the spineless performance attacking the empty south end was all too familiar for home fans. Club chairman Peter Phillips admits: “All our players will say that playing to a full stand is much easier. If we’d attacked the north end in the second half [of the Hartlepool game], the home fans would have almost sucked the ball into the net.”

Clubs often play with stands missing as reconstruction work goes on, but along with Bournemouth the only other English League club with a permanently absent stand is Oxford United. And this also has a detrimental effect. Proposals for a fourth stand were dropped by previous managing director Keith Cox before Firoz Kassam took control and the club moved to the 12,500-capacity ground that bears his name in the summer of 2001. Kassam will not spend the estimated £3m needed for another stand until attendances average more than 8,000, which would require at least promotion from League Two.

Martin Brodetsky of Rage Online, United’s independent supporters’ group, says: “The players themselves have been quoted as saying that the lack of the stand makes playing conditions more difficult, as the prevailing wind comes from the west, therefore straight into the open west end of the ground. Supporters certainly reckon that the lack of a west stand makes for a worse atmosphere.”

In Scotland, where lower-league crowds are even smaller, missing stands are more common but have a similar effect. Partick Thistle played in the Scottish Premier League (SPL) in 2003-04 with only three stands and Falkirk will do the same next season. Hamilton Academical only have two stands and Dumbarton replaced Boghead stadium with a single-sided ground. Clyde also have three stands. The club led Division One for most of 2003-04 and, with promotion to the SPL looking certain, groundworks started on the final stand only for Falkirk to steal the title at the death; work stopped inside days. “Before, we at least had a high wall enclosing the ground, now we have mesh barriers that look very poor,” says Alan Henderson of Clyde’s supporters’ trust.

Many Scottish stadiums and a number of English ones, including Bournemouth and Southampton’s St Mary’s, were built by Scottish contractor Barr. Bill Fraser is stadium unit director at Barr, which designs and builds grounds and deals directly with club chairmen over ground plans. And he has yet to hear a chairman consider how having fewer than four stands could hit his team’s performance. “I’d have thought that a club like Bournemouth would get used to playing in a three-sided ground every other week. It all comes down to the league the club plays in and their financial situation. What clubs have to do is build offices or flats at their ground to pay for the other stands.”

That is what Leyton Orient are doing, selling the four corners of Brisbane Road to house builder Bellway to stay at home and keep four stands open. That is the only way Bournemouth’s missing south end will reappear permanently. “We’re looking at putting up a 1,500-seat temporary stand that will cost £40 per seat for the next season,” adds Peter Phillips. “The only way we’d build a permanent stand is if we could put something behind it like an office or flats that would generate revenue outside of a matchday. We wouldn’t spend half a million pounds just putting up a permanent stand.”

A number of Football League clubs want to sell up and build new grounds, but the depressed transfer market and the collapse of ITV Digital are constraining budgets. That means the number of three-sided grounds could increase and end-to-end stuff for 45 minutes is all some home fans could be left with – even on a good day.

From WSC 221 July 2005. What was happening this month