Underneath the Archie

Simon Inglis, the acclaimed writer on football grounds, turns his attention in a new biography to the long-forgotten Scot who designed so much we took for granted

Every football writer ends up becoming a bore on at least one pet subject, and I’m no different. Indeed there have been times when I’ve embarrassed even myself by rattling on about Archibald Leitch, the Scottish engineer whose football ground designs dominated the landscape of British football for most of the 20th century. And now I have written a whole book on Archie, as part of a new English Heritage series called Played in Britain, which seeks to put the study of sporting heritage on the same footing as that of other areas of popular architecture (cinemas, housing, retail, industrial and so on). And quite right too.

Yet oddly enough it was only halfway through writing the book that I really appreciated just how important Leitch had been and how intimately my own life in football had been intertwined with his. When I first started out on my journey around the football grounds of Britain in the early 1980s, I had never heard of the man. Nor, seemingly, had anyone else. But the more I was able to identify the stylistic similarities – the criss-cross steelwork balconies of Roker, Goodison, Ibrox, Fratton et al, and the roof-top gables of Hillsborough, Craven Cottage and Ayresome Park – the more I sensed a common thread. Delving further into club histories, few of which even mentioned ground developments, Leitch’s name started to crop up, here and there. I particularly recall spotting a tiny sepia portrait of Archie glued into the panelling of Roker Park’s main stand. Building records and club minutes added to the evidence, until eventually, in 1983, I was able to build up a list. Even if not comprehensive, I thought it might form the basis for later research. If, that is, anyone was interested.

As it transpired, football fans were more interested than I could ever have dreamed. In time, as my postbag revealed, Archie even emerged as something of a minor cult figure. In 1987 his two buildings at Craven Cottage and the south stand at Ibrox were listed. Around the same time, to my huge delight, I was able to confirm that Archie had designed the Trinity Road stand at Villa Park. This was the magnificent redbrick stand in which I now had a season ticket and in which I had watched my first ever football match, in April 1962. The stand then was 40 years old. I was but seven. Whether the majesty of the Trinity Road stand was, subconsciously, the reason why Aston Villa became my team thereafter, I cannot honestly say. It can’t have been the team’s performances. They were in the Third Division by the time I became a regular.

Many years later, the 1989 Hillsborough disaster and the subsequent Taylor Report changed everything and in the 1990s I found myself working with architects, engineers, civil servants and safety experts, drawing up design guidelines for the new, tougher era of ground regulation. In 1996-97 our research culminated in a review of the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds, itself first published in response to the Ibrox disaster of 1971. As editor of the revised Guide, one of my tasks was to follow the paper trail back to that first edition to come to an understanding of what the standards were and how they had been formulated. A pattern quickly emerged. Much of what been considered as best practice, it turned out, had been based on the work of Leitch: almost unwittingly, I have spent much of the past two decades on the man’s trail.

Not that Archie was perfect. As chief engineer to Rangers at the turn of the 20th century, he was heavily implicated in the causes of the first Ibrox disaster, in 1902, a disaster he witnessed and that surely haunted the rest of his days. He might easily have walked away from football at that moment. He was, after all, a factory architect, first and foremost. But Archie was also a practical man, the son of a blacksmith, raised in a tough part of Glasgow. Engineers don’t walk away from problems. They tackle them. The good ones do, anyway. I am also convinced that Archie loved the game. He had to, to put up with all those clashing egos, the Ken Bates and Mohamed Fayeds of his day.

So Archie stayed the course. After 1902 he went on to design grounds and grandstands for clubs such as Middlesbrough, Chelsea, Fulham, Blackburn, Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United, Arsenal, Sunderland, Hearts… There are 29 grounds featured in the book and those are only his major commissions.

That much we already knew, however. What has emerged from my later research is that, as another consequence of the 1902 disaster, Leitch also designed the standard, 20th-century football terraces we knew between 1902 and the Hillsborough disaster. Every dimension of tread and riser, the sinking of lateral gangways, the provision of barrier configurations, the lowering of the first row to improve the sightlines… all these basic design parameters were drawn up by Archie, making their debut at Craven Cottage and Stamford Bridge in September 1905. If you ever stood on terracing, it is highly likely that at one time or another you have leant against a patented Leitch crush barrier. Leitch barriers were just part and parcel of the football scene, like Oxo ads or fat policemen.

Twickenham, as it was before 1990, was a definite Leitch creation, but, contrary to received wisdom, he had no hand in Celtic Park. Archie, it turns out, was a Rangers man and freemason through and through, a typical late Victorian Scottish Protestant professional. He did get involved with Hampden Park about 1927, but from the papers of a 1924 government working-party report I have also been able to discover why Wembley Stadium was such a dreadful place to watch football. I looked up the papers on the assumption that Archie would have been consulted. But he wasn’t, which turns out to have been part of the problem. The report, reproduced in the book, is chilling reading.

Another revelation has been the discovery of Archie’s only known surviving factory: the Sentinel Works in Glasgow, built 1903-04. This turns out to have been the first reinforced concrete construction in Scotland and is now a Grade A listed building. If you are into the aesthetics of stripped early 20th-century concrete, it is a gem, uncannily like a 1930s grandstand without the seats. Alas, it is also derelict.

Even so, Engineering Archie is no attempt to turn Leitch into some kind of forgotten genius. Villa Park, Craven Cottage and Ibrox Park aside, the majority of his designs were otherwise quite utilitarian. He put function before form every time, which is why so many of his stands and terraces looked so similar. And you thought only modern grounds all looked the same.

Archie the engineer we know a great deal about from his stands and terraces. Of his character and personality – apparently a lively chappie with a keen sense of humour – all we have to go on are snippets extracted from newspaper reports, some letters, and a few, precious family records and reminiscences from his two grandchildren. The book’s title, Engineering Archie, thus bears a double meaning.

In engineering Archie, as it were, from these few precious sources, I hope to have come close to an estimation of the real Archibald Leitch and the football world in which he operated. It is not so different from that of today, even if no current architects dominate the scene quite as Leitch did.

If I am honest I guess I also wanted the book to honour the memory of the Trinity Road stand, in which I sat for so many years. Five years ago the philistines at Villa Park tore it down and put up a dreadful replacement. Pathetic as it may seem, I haven’t felt the same about football since then. It was the Archie look I liked.

From WSC 219 May 2005. What was happening this month