Non-League Football

So, how do you fit a ground into a busy town?

Stamford's Zeeco Stadium...proving  the edge of the town isn't the wilderness

Stamford’s Zeeco Stadium…proving the edge of the town isn’t the wilderness

Let’s be frank, some property developers are about as popular as pantomime villains. They fill the role of Mr Nasty. They’re notoriously good at working round the rules and upsetting local communities.  For example, in many new developments, there is a commitment to provide low-cost, social housing, something which some developers really don’t want to do because it compromises their profitability, so they employ “experts” who help them avoid such a commitment and maintain profit margins.

Nobody generally wants a football ground on their doorstep. We live in a “Nimby” world – “not in my backyard”. Some clubs, long-established in their ancestral homes, and certainly outliving local residents, have incredible problems with neighbours who complain about floodlights, crowd noise, litter, atmospheric bad language and car parking issues. Yet the club was there when they bought their property and will outstay them in the locality. The short answer is, if you don’t like what comes with a football club, don’t move next door.

Not in my backyard

But relocating a football club brings with it many issues, not least from the Nimby community who don’t fancy the glare of floodlights illuminating their garden. When football was in its infancy, football grounds were built at the edge of the community, but as villages became towns and towns became cities, the edge became blurred and suddenly, the football ground was in the heart of the development. While there is plenty of cloth-cap nostalgia about swarms of fans trudging through red-brick streets to reach the holy grail of the football ground, there were many objections to the traditional model of “ground at the end of t’street”. Invariably, the areas around football grounds became shabby. If you wanted to know where a ground was, there were two indicators – look for the floodlight pylons and head for the scruffiest part of town!

That’s not always the case, by any means, but including a football ground in an inner-city or town centre development is never going to be easy to achieve. Firstly, they are space consumptive, huge blocks of land with no building on them, thereby preventing a developer from maximizing profitability.  Secondly, a football ground now requires infrastructure around it and provision for car parking – something which post-Victorian football ground builders like Archibald Leitch didn’t have to consider. Even in inner-city areas, not necessarily in traffic-choked London, a huge percentage of fans travel to the game by car, because no longer does a club rely on its immediate neighbourhood for support. Therefore car parking, as well as footpaths, are vital for any new development. And it is this aspect that concerns many town-planners more than inconvenience for pedestrians.

Vulnerable non-leaguers

It’s not just Football League clubs that face this dilemma. They have long been consigned to the edge of town or close to motorway exits. That’s certainly bad news for non-drivers or those willing to suffer the frustrations of train travel, but it shifts the problem from the centre of town to retail parks and standalone stadia. Non-league clubs not in control of their tenancy are also at the mercy of landlords and developers. The problem is, most non-league clubs don’t have the critical mass to have financial or social clout and therefore, their voice doesn’t get heard very often.

There’s always an “investor” who will throw money in a club in return for a development opportunity. There was a group of such people roaming around non-league circles in recent years making “Investments” in return for a chance to develop the club’s existing ground while moving the club on to a new site under land-swaps and other such mechanisms. Fortunately, clubs are now more aware of these characters. But all over the country, there are club chairman laying awake at night over ground issues.

Take Southern League club Hitchin Town. Their landlords are trying to move them to the outskirts of the Hertfordshire town to a purpose-built stadium that will include other sports. Their current ground, which is literally falling down and struggling to keep pace with ground-gradings, is almost a town centre site. Fans love its shabby-chic and reminder of a bygone age. But the poor souls who patch it up annually are fighting a losing battle. The landlords, trustees of an ancient trust, have made seismic errors in judging the mood of the moment and also care little for the welfare of the club, but they may well think they are doing the right thing.  Understandably, swapping a town centre site for a ground on the road to Stevenage was never going to be universally accepted, but not everyone is married to Top Field. While the public meeting and protest march were unequivocally against development of Top Field into a supermarket, the pragmatic element acknowledge that the ground in its current form cannot go on and that a new home, in a more palatable location than Ashbrook, would be acceptable – in a survey answered by around 15% of the club’s fans,  around 60% of respondees said they would consider a more convenient site.

The current proposal is on a precarious road that puts foot soldiers at risk and will strain the loyalty of current supporters. Long-time non-driving fans have already said their patronage of the club will end if it is forced to move to a site 1.4 miles from the town centre. But what’s the alternative – where do you land a football ground that ticks every practical and aesthetic box in an expansionist area like North Hertfordshire?

A quick run around town will tell you that there’s precious room in Hitchin for a new stadium. There was talk of a site within the industrial estate at Wilbury Way or at the former gas works in Cadwell Lane, but both came to nothing. Other large areas of land are either being used or unlikely to be given planning permission. Back in 1990, a proposal was being discussed that would move the club to the Russells-Ransom site behind Bancroft in the town centre, but that area became lucrative housing and a supermarket.  If the club wants to make use of a large population of football-sympathetic people, then the Westmill estate would provide the ideal demographic, but where would you squeeze a football ground? Rumours abounded a year or two back that the football club might be able to secure a site adjacent to either the North Herts College or the Priory School, but that also floundered on a sea of gossip. Whichever way you look, there either isn’t the space or the vehicle access for such a large site in Hitchin and then there’s developer appetite. There’s money in chimney pots and in reality, prime land is never going to be given up for a football club, hence new grounds are being built on brownfield soil and greenfield areas that not generally earmarked for prime residential. So if a new ground has to be built, it is inevitable it will be on the outskirts and retiring farmers – worn down by EU requirements and keen to bolster their retirement funds – are often keen to unload to developers, if the green belt allows. Hence the club’s current dilemma and the continuing battle between landlord and tenant.

It sometimes works

It’s a tragedy that this relationship remains so strained, because when a club works with a landlord, a good result can be achieved. You only have to drive an hour up the A1 from Hitchin to find a club that has benefitted from landlord support. Stamford’s quaint ground sat among the sandy-stoned houses and cottages that proliferate a delightful town. It was in similar condition to Hitchin’s Top Field and represented home to roughly the same number of people. The club enjoyed a cordial relationship with its landlords, the Burghley Estate, for over 100 years. The idea of a new ground took some eight years to come to fruition, but in December 2014, Stamford moved into the Borderville Sports Centre, or the Zeeco Stadium. While it is not “out of town” – the last house in Stamford is just 50 yards or so away – it is some 20-plus minutes’ walk out of the town centre and around two miles from the club’s old ground in Kettering Road.

Club director Guy Walton explains that this has not been a problem with the club’s fans or the Stamford public in general: “There was no opposition from the fans. Our old ground was in a lovely Georgian townscape, but it was old and tired. A few people in the early days of our planning did not think the move would go ahead, but most recognise this has ensured a secure future for the club. It has given us the foundation for the whole club, including young supporters.”

Importantly, Stamford have built facilities that provide a better matchday experience for home and away supporters. There’s no pub in short distance to the ground, although the nearest – the excellent Tobie Norris – is on the route from the town to the Zeeco Stadium. Another plus is that the club have, apparently, agreed subsidised rates for taxis from the town to the ground.

So far, any fears the location might deter fans have been proved unwarranted. Stamford are not doing well on the pitch this season, but their crowds are certainly bigger than any seen at their old stadium. Once you’re there, the ground is comfortable, with plenty of space and the facilities, while very good, look to be scalable. “We are delighted,” says Walton.

In Stamford’s case, it does look like the club is going through a reinvention process with elements like branding and image being taken seriously. The club may have moved to the fringe of the town, but it looks like the public are “buying into it”. Incidentally, one side of town to the other means that you have a big section of the population that suddenly has the club on its doorstep. Too often people do not consider this aspect, but prefer to focus on “two miles from the existing ground”. In an age when around 70% of a crowd use a car to get to the match, does it really matter?

For Hitchin, whose situation is far more complicated, the ideal location will always be their existing home of Top Field. They may need to hedge their bets, because when a football ground costs a couple of million quid, who pays the bill for the much-needed new stadium? Sounds like a property developer with vision is needed…

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