YEARS AGO, England was always excluded from any realistic bid to stage a major competition. Part of this was the appalling record the country had in terms of its hooligan fans, the other factor was the sub-standard stadiums around the UK. Some cynics felt that UEFA and FIFA were very anti-England and given that 30 years separated 1966 and 1996, they may have had a point. But the realists among us knew they had their reasons.
There’s no denying that English grounds had fallen behind many countries in Europe. Hillsborough and the Taylor report changed all that and over the past 30 years, we have seen a revolution in spectator facilities, one that is still in process.
As a result, you can forget the days of urine running down the terracing (yes, that did happen, it is not an urban myth), Westlers hamburgers steaming away in vats of tepid brine-infused water and poorly-designed and badly-lit exits, for England now has some fine football stadiums.
The exception to the drive to introduce creature comfort comes in the form of the turnstiles, which are way too narrow and make no concession to the fact that people are larger than they were in 1905. Catering, too, tips its hat in the direction of high-fat, salt and sugar – totally contradicting those clubs that claim to be part of initiatives to encourage better eating habits and lifestyles!
Of the current 20 Premier League grounds, eight have been constructed in the past 30 years and others, such as Chelsea, Manchester United and Newcastle United bear little resemblance to the past. Of the new builds, Arsenal’s is arguably the most comfortable and aesthetic, although it does lack atmosphere. The new and delayed Tottenham stadium looks impressive, but West Ham’s doesn’t work too well. Of the country’s blue riband clubs, the lack of development at Chelsea (expansion of capacity) and Everton (modernisation) puts these clubs at a commercial disadvantage. Chelsea’s new stadium has been put on ice, but Everton are still talking about a new ground.
Some Premier venues have long histories. Burnley moved into Turf Moor in 1883, while Liverpool made Anfield their home a year later. Fulham set up shop on the banks of the River Thames in 1896.
For most clubs, the stadium has become part of the brand profile, with strong corporate visual identity, hideous and gormless mascots, statues of notable players (everyone’s a legend these days) and a commitment to blasting the senses of the fans with loud, thumping music that makes communication near impossible. Tannoy systems are, invariably, useless, which is more a reflection on the stadium design than the technology itself.
Regardless of these irritations, the football experience is definitely more comfortable today than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. People get all misty-eyed about old stadiums, but frankly, many of the old grounds, fringed with barbed wire and fences, were not terribly attractive or indeed, inviting. What the new type of ground has given the modern fan, as well as higher prices, is a better seat, a better view (can we really say that the sight lines from Chelsea’s Shed End gave the fan a decent perspective on play at the North Stand End?) and less chance of intimidation. The price, as well as the ticket, is a more sanitised environment where fans are constantly distracted by their own personal effects.
The concept of “the stadium” has changed, but so too has the idea of being a fan and the definition of the game as spectacle. Watch the crowd when a penalty is awarded and see the volley of smartphones aiming for the sky like a “lighters aloft” response to a classic song at a gig. Or perhaps the curiosity of fans actually filming the game from the vantage point of their seat – a pointless exercise that, at best, will see some very poorly recorded action posted on social media.
Whereas the crowd played a role in the game in the past, today it is enough for some people to provide evidence that “I was there”. This means the contribution is not the passion of a person urging the team on, it is a little bright light that confirms the record button has been activated!
In some ways, what people today see as acceptable facilities also reflects the way society has changed. Our town centres, in many cases, are strewn with tumbleweed as they struggle to find a worthwhile role in the 21stcentury. The reason that butchers, bakers and fishmongers have all but disappeared from our high streets is you can pick-up everything you need in one place in a retail park giant supermarket. As society becomes hooked on the instant gratification the internet provides, people are not satisfied by the limitations of the very linear high street of old.
It is no longer good enough to be a coffee bar serving rubbish coffee, it has to be a lifestyle experience. The football match is not just where you watch 90 minutes of football, it is “an event” and therefore, the stadium has to be fit for purpose to stage that event. How long will it be before stadiums also have UEFA-type “fan zones” that capture the disposable cash of the people about to enter the ground? If you’ve visited the Etihad, it is clear they are moving very much in that direction. It’s not unpleasant, but it is a million miles away from L.S. Lowry’s Going to the Match.
But the new fan experience is what people clearly want, or at least are prepared to buy into. Premier League stadiums are at 95% capacity and if you take Tottenham and Wembley out of the equation, that figure jumps to 97%. The top flight in England has never been so popular and its stadiums have never been better equipped. The purist, or let’s say traditionalists, might not like the new football venues, but back in the 1980s, one of the chief complaints from the When Saturday Comes generation was the way clubs neglected spectator facilities. We are surely in a better place than we were in those grim and unwelcoming days.