The folk that build stadiums

IN THE past, football stadiums impressed people by their sheer size. Facilities were often spartan, but any ground with vast banks of terracing, accommodating swaying hordes of supporters, was considered to be among the best in the land. Scratching the surface, the truth was most were similar, with primitive toilets, catering and safety features but it was basically all about scale, even if the aforementioned facilities were woefully inadequate for big crowds.

In those days, many of the grandstands had a common appearance and that was hardly surprising given that one engineer, Archibald Leitch, seemed to have a hand in all the major stadiums, including Anfield, Hampden Park, Highbury, Goodison Park, Old Trafford, Ibrox Park, Hillsborough, Molineux, Roker Park, Stamford Bridge, Villa Park and White Hart Lane.

More than any other individual, Leitch shaped how we all saw the archetypal football ground and it was a model that endured until the 1990s. Some Leitch classics are still in operation, such as Fulham’s Johnny Haynes stand at Craven Cottage, but many have been demolished and built over. Some have, thankfully, been listed.

While Leitch’s style epitomised the game between the two world wars and into the 1950s, one of Britain’s less celebrated clubs, Scunthorpe United, became a trailblazer in building the first cantilever stand in 1958. This set a new trend for stadium design in that the roof had no pillars to impede the crowd’s vision. This stand was designed by one Raymond Tear, who later became chief designer for the United Steel Structural Company. The stand took less than five months to complete – a remarkable feat even by today’s standards – and was opened at the start of the 1958-59 season. Scunthorpe also sparked a wave of new grounds when they opened their current home in 1988. I was at that first league game against Hereford United and I recall how strange and functional it looked compared to traditional stadiums with banks of crumbling concrete terracing and cavernous Dutch barn stands.

Archibald Leitch died just before the second world war, but his legacy lived on, indeed still lives on. Because of the war, and the austerity measures in the years after the conflict, Leitch’s constructions probably outlived their usefulness. In Britain, there were new stands built – such as at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park –  but until Scunthorpe’s Glandford Park, no new sites were built, not even for the 1966 World Cup despite a number of improvements.

The most intriguing of modern designers is the Swiss partnership Herzog & De Mauren, who have built some outstandingly beautiful grounds, including Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, Bordeaux’s Nouveau Stade, Basel’s St. Jakob Park and the startling Beijing “Birds Nest”. They were also earmarked to work on Chelsea’s new Stamford Bridge until owner Roman Abramovich ran into difficulties. The early designs looked spectacular, but it’s a great shame the ambition probably won’t be realised.

The US firm, Populous, has also created some eye-catching football projects, including the Emirates, Wembley, Tottenham Hotspur and the City of Manchester (now Etihad) stadium.

Some people don’t always warm to modern grounds, but today they have to fulfil many roles and become more community-oriented. They are certainly more comfortable than the old “pack ‘em in” days. Clubs have long realised they need to use their most valuable tangible asset more than just once a fortnight and at many stadiums, every day is a hive of activity.

There is still an air of expectation when you approach a new build, although you cannot use floodlights to guide your route any more. Stadiums have become an essential part of visual identity and therefore, there’s a degree of machismo involved in ensuring they represent the image and power of the club. Tottenham were especially pleased that they outdid neighbours Arsenal in terms of capacity!

In the main, clubs want to be perceived as modern, go-ahead and slick rather than stuck in the past. You look at the Allianz in Munich and you think “Bayern” and also associate the stadium with a successful, contemporary footballing institution. Tottenham are undoubtedly hoping that their new home has the same effect. There will be some that argue the old ground had more noise, just as Arsenal’s fans don’t seem to have fully embraced the Emirates. But football crowds are different these days, just as stadiums have evolved and consumer habits have changed. It is not the building that creates its mood, it is the people inside it – just listen to away fans at grounds that are supposedly lacking in noise. There’s no shortage of atmosphere. The really good new constructions are combining function with form and they deserve recognition, but it’s up to the spectators to create the ambience.

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine. Reproduced with permission.


Photo: PA


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