In a week when yet another football club is in danger of losing its long-time home, in exchange for an out-of-town site, prompting “over my dead body” reactions from its supporters, the curious relationship between football fans and stadiums comes to the fore once more.
It seems that Britain is almost unique in demanding an umbilical attachment between a football team and its ground. Pragmatism goes out of the [main stand] window. There seems to be something almost autistic about the male attitude to football – and we’re all guilty of it – that goes hand-in-hand with other adolescent obssessions like train spotting, beer-mat collecting and record collecting, to name but a few.
Many people see their fortnightly trip to their local football ground as an extension of their home. Some have favourite spots in the ground where they stand, week-in, week-out. They have matchday rituals that they may have observed for decades. Any hint of change or enforced deviation from this behavior is treated like a heinous crime. Hence, when the ground is in danger of being sold, redeveloped or even moved, it is something they cannot comprehend.
What many football fans fail to accept is that their club is only relevant to a small part of society, especially if that club happens to be a non-league outfit. In other words, the trials and tribulations of a non-league club will only matter to a very limited number of people. And when people get very suffragette about the continuance of ramshackle structures in dire need of redevelopment, you have to question the sanity of those holding the placards.
Property developers are at the heart of much of the angst surrounding ancient football grounds. Town centre sites have long been the target of developers, mostly due to the premium they yield in terms of real estate prices. While some clubs can become vulnerable if they are not the owners of the site, they are often as guilty as farmers that sell their farmland to property developers. In other words, if a club owns its ground and it sits in ideal housing territory, the temptation to cash-in on property prices will be too much to resist. Clubs don’t like to be told they are being relocated, but at the same time, if it suits them to sell, and very few illiquid clubs can afford to turn down a big cheque, then they will gladly move. Opportunist property developers often prey on football clubs because they know they may get a deal if the price is right.
Who do you support, the ground or the team?
That doesn’t mean that the supporters will gladly accept a club’s decision to move, but even they generally know that the club’s finances will be greatly improved by the sale of a lucrative site. Yeovil Town were once one of the biggest clubs outside of the Football League and had a ground that was centrally located. They sold it, moved out-of-town and their fortunes changed. They are in their 12th season as a Football League club, but 18 years ago they were in the Isthmian Premier Division. Their ground, the Huish, was an iconic non-league home, but now they are on the outskirts of Yeovil and doing quite nicely.
There were undoubtedly some complaints, but Yeovil have clearly prospered from their move. The onlooker and outsider would look at this scenario and assume that if it works and if it makes sense, why would there be any protests?
But then they are discounting the emotional ties of a football ground. “It may be shabby, but it’s our shabby.” But there’s another way of looking at this. People move home to places they can afford, that provide easy access to their place of work or to where their family might be. They are mobile. Gone are the days when a club represented a town or city – today they represent brands. And to be blunt, if everyone supporting Liverpool or Manchester United lived in those cities, the population in those places would be the size of the European Union. Many fans have never even been to Liverpool or Manchester. It’s hard to identify a team with its domicile when your centre forward is from Montevideo or Abidjan and your manager’s native language is Portuguese. But some non-league clubs are clinging onto this outdated ideology of “club=town”, despite the transient nature of both population and players.
The argument is, “who do you support, the team or the stadium?” can be met with the response, “they’re one and the same”, but conversely, if most aspects of football are indeed, transient, why does the ground have to remain a constant? Some might argue, that because so much of the game is variable – players and coaches – that the ground, at least, should be a fixed asset.
Soulless perhaps, but eminently sensible
In the 1970s and 1980s, football grounds were largely disreputable places. If you’ve ever stood in a toilet area where there is no roof, no hand-washing facilities, no proper lighting and no reliable drainage, then you will know what I mean. Entrances and exits were deplorable, catering was diabolical, seating was filthy and safety was debatable. It had to change, but without Heysel and Hillsborough, it is questionable whether the mindset would have shifted so radically.
When Scunthorpe United built their Glandford Park stadium in 1988, it was the first new ground in England since 1955. The club had previously played in the town centre at the Old Showground, which was sold to a supermarket chain. The reason behind Scunthorpe’s move? – they could no longer afford the upkeep of their stadium. To some extent, it has set the narrative.
Glandford Park looks like so many lower-tier grounds that have sprung up over the past 20-odd years. They may lack the charm of older grounds, but they work, despite the fact they require a bus-ride or car journey to get there. Again the romantic view is that supporters all head for their local ground like ants, but people are forgetting that in the red-brick inner cities, the population has long decamped to out-of-town estates. Bolton Wanderers’ old Burnden Park, for example, probably drew the majority of its modern-day support from fans that drove or came by public transport to get to the club’s ground. Demographically-speaking, a lot of the current residents of the inner cities are not especially interested in football and the aspirational modern man – not even Nick Hornby clones – find living next door to football grounds particularly appealing. When speaking to a Harrow Borough supporter about his club’s poor crowds, he attributed it to the fact that most local residents were either Indian or Sri Lankan, with more interest in cricket than minor league football.
Pointless or rebirth opportunity?
But getting back to the non-league game, most clubs do not have the critical mass in terms of support to warrant public enquiries. Does it really matter when the club in question draws fewer than 200 people every fortnight ? In other words, the contents of a downtown nightclub on an average Saturday night? Sometimes it might be just as easy to close a football club down than move heaven and earth to accommodate the passions of a few people. That’s a hardline approach, but it may also be seen as a realistic one. How many people does a club need to be truly relevant from a community perspective?
One of the biggest costs for any club is maintenance, especially if your ground is an ageing mixture of corrugated metal and damp wood. A new, purpose-built ground may lack – to use estate agent’s parlance – “character”, but it is also relatively easy to maintain. And if you team that up with a 3G pitch, you have a much more sustainable deal. Moving to a new ground is also an opportunity to relaunch a club – countless Football League clubs have done this with varying degrees of success, but the result has more often than not been positive, with increased attendances and greater levels of community engagement. The younger fans are much more likely to identify with a shiny new ground than rotting timbers.
Scarcely a week goes by without news of a football club in distress reaching the media. Running a club is financially challenging, but securing its future is often just as tricky. If the club owns its ground, much of this is in its own hands, as long as it manages its finances properly. If it is at the mercy of developers, landlords, trustees and local councils, then it can be even more complex. You only need look at the stories of Aylesbury United, Wealdstone and Hayes & Yeading to see how things can go wrong around grounds.
Sometimes, however, the current incumbents of the “supporters club” have to realize that a club’s future doesn’t belong just to them, but also upcoming generations. In other words, what has been “fit for purpose” for years may not be suitable for the decades ahead. However much it may hurt that the “popular end” might become “Acacia Close”, sometimes there’s really no alternative. But that doesn’t mean they should be bullied into it by opportunist developers…