From Dell to debt

Day ten of the WSC advent calendar and, having had Jesus on the eighth, it’s only fair we focus on his mother Mary today. In 1999 Southampton were desperate to relocate from The Dell into a new, bigger stadium. Tim Springett discussed the problems surrounding the proposed move in issue 154, and considered the option of moving to a gasworks called St Mary’s

The saga of Southampton’s efforts to move to a new ground has now moved into injury time with the ann­oun­cement that building work on a new 32,000 seater stadium to replace The Dell is set to begin in the spring. However, as every Saints fan knows only too well, a lot of things can go wrong in injury time.

The need for Southampton to relocate has been des­perate ever since The Dell was converted to an all-seater arena with just 15,200 seats, many offering poor or restricted views. Notwithstanding its atmosphere and aesthetic appeal as a venue for televised floodlit matches, it is entirely unsuitable for a Premiership club. Match tickets are like gold dust. To have any chance of obtaining one, you must be a member; to become a member, you have to produce evidence of having attended games.

The limitations of The Dell had already been a con­cern for many years. At a civic reception the day after the club’s FA Cup triumph in 1976, Lawrie Mc­Menemy attack­ed Southampton City Council for failing to help find a suitable site for a new ground. It was a theme he revisited when Kevin Keegan signed for Saints in 1980, by which time The Dell’s capacity had been reduced to 24,000 and every home game was an all-ticket sell-out.

But nothing materialised and attendances fell dur­ing the 1980s, seemingly rendering the need to move less acute. However, following the Hillsborough trag­edy and the Taylor report it became clear that a new ground was the only serious option. The fact that ten years on Southampton are still playing at The Dell is probably as incomprehensible to outsiders as it is gut-wrenchingly frustrating for the Saints faithful.

Around 1990, studies were undertaken into the optimum location for a new ground. The only suitable site seemed to be at Stoneham, adjacent to junction five of the M27. The plan was for this to house not only a new football stad­ium with a capacity of 25,000, but also a plethora of com­munity sports fac­­ilities which, as the club never fail­­ed to re­mind us, were “des­perately need­ed across the whole region”. They might well have been welcome, but it was a pretty transparent sales pitch aimed at getting support from the local councils. Therein lay the biggest obstacle; the land fell with­- in the jurisdiction of not one but three separate auth­orities.

While Southampton City Council supported the proposals, neighbouring Eastleigh Borough Council and Hampshire County Council were not so easily convinced. The main objection was that the land lay within a “strategic gap” between Southampton and Eastleigh. It wasn’t until December 1996, following an appeal to the secretary of state, that outline planning permission was finally given. The announcement came just two days after it was revealed that the club was to convert to a public company, linking up with Secure Retirement plc in a move which, we were told, would help Saints to raise the cash for the new ground. As has been well documented since, the conversion made the Southampton directors very wealthy and it soon became clear that the new company, Southampton Leisure Holdings plc, did not have the resources to fund the development.

When it came to seeking detailed planning permission, subtle changes began to appear in the plans, with many of the proposed community facilities making ­way for a retail park and multiplex cinema. It was a clear signal that the Saints board had not done their maths – outline permission had been granted on the basis of these facilities, not Lakeside-on-Solent. When, in April 1998, Hampshire County Council rejected the scheme, the directors tried unconvincingly to shift the blame on to Eastleigh Council for the heinous crime of protecting their own town centre. But they could not disguise the fact that eight years, a Stock Exchange listing and many thousands of pounds spent on plan­ning applications after the Stoneham proposal was first mooted, the project was dead, because the club had failed to deliver the finances.

Then Southampton City Council suggested an alt­ernative, a disused gasworks close to the city centre at St Mary’s, where the club first originated. At first the Saints board tried to prevent St Mary’s becoming public knowledge in order not to divert attention from Stoneham. But St Mary’s quickly became the preferred option for many Saints fans, not least because the pro­posed capacity of 32,000 was 7,000 more than had been allowed for at Stoneham. Moreover, the projected cost of £30 million was 40 per cent lower than the cost of the Stoneham scheme. The council swiftly approved St Mary’s, leaving finance as the last hurdle.

Where will the money come from? Accumulated wealth of the plc? No, because there isn’t any to speak of. Nor are there significant trading profits. The rec­ently announced sale of The Dell to Barratt Homes for £5 million, a £3.1 million share issue, plus grants, inc­luding one from the Football Trust, will contribute £11.4 million, but that still leaves a shortfall of £18.6 million.

A ten-year loan package accounts for £17 million of that. Saints’ ability to pay it back will depend, according to the club, on drawing crowds of 23,000 even for the least attractive fixtures (there are as yet no details of what ticket prices will be). Presumably it also hangs on Saints remaining in the Premiership and continuing to unearth players of the quality of Marians Pahars and Hassan Kachloul for next to no money for a further ten years. Otherwise Saints could become the next Bol­ton or Millwall, whose new grounds have saddled them with debts they cannot repay.

That leaves £1.6 million to find. This, apparently, is to be raised through the sale of the name of the ground and the four stands. So, Saints’ new home is to be called “The (multinational conglomerate) Stadium”. How tasteful. Then again, if everyone started getting used to calling it “St Mary’s”, maybe it’ll stick.

From WSC 154 December 1999. What was happening this month