Stadiums: Mid-century modern – hard to find

WHEN SCUNTHORPE United relocated to Glandford Park in 1988, they became the first club to move into a purpose-built stadium since Southend United took up residence at Roots Hall in 1955. This said a lot about the lack of redevelopment and willingness in the game to provide comfortable and modern facilities for the customer. Let’s be frank, many grounds in the 1980s was pitifully inadequate, unhygienic, unsafe and unwelcoming. If there was a material that epitomised a football stadium in the era between the 1960s and 1980s, it would either be barbed wire or rusty corrugated fencing.

Not all clubs were complacent, but the same grounds were always selected for big games year-after-year because there were few alternatives. Places like Villa Park, Old Trafford and Hillsborough would be awarded FA Cup semi-finals on a regular basis. But none of these venues were palaces, they just happened to have capacity and infrastructure. Even the old Wembley, with its overflowing toilets, poor catering and bad access, was way behind continental football homes.

When the World Cup came along in 1966, clubs did make some effort to provide some form of refurbishment, notably in the form of cantilever stands. A few years earlier, in 1958, Scunthorpe had made history by building the first cantilever grandstand at their Old Show Ground. This was innovative and represented a step forward from the conventional and traditional form of football architecture, in other words, the Archibald Leitch style of stadium. Sadly, the cantilever stand at Scunthorpe was demolished in 1988, but in some respects, it should have become a listed building.

The establishment has rarely given much respect to football arenas, rather like they used to dismiss the working man’s theatre, the Music Hall. For example, in Pevsner’s Buildings of England, only one ground, Arsenal’s Highbury, would make it into the book for London. 

Given the lack of construction other than necessary repair that took place across football, it is no surprise that what we now call “Mid-Century Modern” is hard to detect among stadiums. Some clubs had facades that were clearly influenced by the 1950s, such as Leeds United and Coventry City, but while Festival of Britain era buildings are now highly-coveted, there’s very little, if any, football architecture from that movement.

The nearest you might find is in the non-league game, especially those grounds that are multi-purpose. These sports arenas have been very unloved by fans, largely because of the running tracks around the football pitch and the distance of the spectator accommodation from the action. Yet these stadiums were often an important part of post-war new town development, providing facilities for the whole community. I particularly recall trips to Harlow, Walton & Hersham, and Croydon – all grounds that were clearly a case of function over form.

The image many people have of football grounds is of a set of largely wooden stands, skeletal floodlight pylons and an industrial landscape with chimneys perched close by. It’s a little like the way many folk see traditional English pubs, all subdued lighting, dark wood and horse-brass memorabilia. Our perception of what constitutes cosy, familiar and friendly has mostly been drawn from Victorian and Edwardian England!

But the classic example of mid-century modern can be found in Enfield, the Queen Elizabeth II stadium in Donkey Lane, which has a very distinctive main stand and turret-like structure and is now the home of Enfield Town FC.  Work started on this ground in 1939, so it has a strong art-deco influence, but the second world war interrupted its construction. Eventually, it was completed in 1953 and over the years, it became a training site for top-class athletes such as Seb Coe. After it fell into disrepair, Enfield Town moved into the ground in 2011 and a couple of years back, the QE2 hosted the CONIFA World Cup final. It is a ground to savour.

What’s quite remarkable is the amount of stadium building that has taken place in the very late 20th and early 21st century, it is a marked contrast to the productivity of the decades that came before. It was, of course, long overdue and it took stadiums disasters to accelerate projects to provide a better supporter experience. Even now, though, football venues are incredibly diverse, from the old school wooden home of the game to the nautical designs and now high-tech architectural statements. That’s what makes it so appealing, I guess.