BY DANTE CLARKE
My interest in football lessens every time a traditional ground with personality is replaced by a faceless bowl.
As Tottenham Hotspur prepare for their first match at Wembley Stadium, I thought as a football fan, I’d express my feelings towards clubs who make the move from their respective grounds.
A part of my football soul dies when a club thinks it’s a sensible idea to move from their current ground and replace it with a faceless, uninspiring arena in order to modernise.
My first ever football game was when I was just two years old; Leicester City versus Everton at Filbert Street, our old (and real home), and ironically the same fixture that took place in May 2016 when we lifted the Premier League title. Filbert Street was a place that used to play host to the likes of Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton and Gary Lineker. Now what lies there is halls of residence for the city’s university students.
We moved into our current ground, the King Power Stadium, in 2003 and despite major success; winning League One, the Championship and the Premier League in the 14 seasons we’ve played there, I have little affinity towards it. It’s a replica version of Southampton’s St Marys but in blue. It’s characterless and lacks the charm that Filbert Street once had. Unfortunately, this seems to be the growing trend for most modern football stadiums in England these days.
Maybe I’m a bit of a traditionalist, but many football fans build an emotional attachment to their own ground. Traditions have been set over decades and we find it difficult to move on. You only have to look at West Ham United to see that a football ground forms the soul and identity of a football club.
Upton Park was an old-school ground where fans were housed in close proximity to the pitch. That intimacy and hostility has now gone and it’ll never be replicated.
I was fortunate enough to visit the Boleyn Ground on a couple of times; you got a real buzz and sense of anticipation as you walked through the east end of London, past the tube station, market stalls, cafes and pubs, much of this has now closed down, unable to survive without Upton Park.
Match days are now entirely different, 3.4 miles away and an hour’s walk from the Boleyn. Their East London delicacy of pie mash, liquor and jellied eels has been swapped for Jamie Oliver’s restaurant or Pret a Manger sandwiches at Westfield shopping centre - a sign of the changes from the West Ham old to a futuristic and ‘more progressive’ West Ham.
When inside, you can’t help but think you’re watching football in a stadium that simply isn’t built for it. The large running track around the pitch is dispiriting, creating a sterile, soulless and deeply unappealing feeling.
Part of the progressive movement of football clubs is catering for a different audience nowadays. Gone are the days of football being a working-class game, accommodating instead for half-and-half scarf wearing tourists and corporates has resulted in diluted atmospheres across the country compared to past days.
It’s alright for pundits to sit there and say *enter team name* 'new stadium is fantastic, and an upgrade on their previous ground’. They don’t have an affinity with the club. They don’t pay their hard-earned money to go to games. They don’t go week in, week out.
However, one move that's been a success is Brighton and Hove Albion. Their former home, the Withdean, was an athletics stadium, the track around the pitch was disorientating and reminded me of Rotherham United’s former ground, the Don Valley Stadium. The Seagulls were based there for 12 years between 1999 and 2011. Their new Amex Stadium isn’t one of those typical generic modern bowls, it’s a nice ground to watch football, and it has given them a permanent home even if it’s built in the middle of nowhere.
The likes of Cardiff City, Colchester United, Coventry City, Bolton Wanderers and Doncaster Rovers have all made the move since the turn of the century. But have any of those been successful? It would be difficult to form an argument to suggest so.
All the clubs listed above struggled to fill over 50% of their stadium capacities last season; Cardiff’s stadium holds 33,280 but averaged 16,564; Bolton’s Macron Stadium holds 28,000 but averaged under 15,000; Coventry averaged just over 9,000 in a 33,000 stadium. Colchester’s Western Homes Community Stadium has a 10,000 capacity but averaged under 4,000.
I made the mistake of visiting Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium last August. They topped League Two for large parts of the campaign but averaged just over 6,000 in a 15,000-seater stadium, about 40% full. Even when they achieved promotion, there were still 5,000 empty seats.
Fans are the lifeblood of any football club and in cases like Doncaster Rovers, Reading and Bolton Wanderers, when a stadium is built outside the town centre, a 45-minute walk from the train station and with no pubs in sight it is going to put off supporters regardless of success on the pitch. Their new bowls are devoid of any character and are unable to replicate the atmosphere from previous homes.
Crowds may have increased at Derby County, Leicester City and Manchester City since departures from their former grounds, but if you asked supporters which ground they preferred then it would be likely a simple answer.
White Hart Lane was the latest ground to be dismantled in May, the 33rd English club in the last 29 years to make the move. The likes of Everton, Brentford, QPR, Luton Town and Southend United will all soon follow in the near future. The little imperfections; the drains that leak, the creaky toilet doors and rusty old stands will be replaced for a gleaming but soulless bowl.
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