Since I visited my first in 1983 as a very young boy, I have been somewhat in awe of football stadiums. It’s not something I’m particularly proud about nor ashamed, it is simply the case. I was taken along with my father and grandfather to see Hibernian play Aberdeen at Easter Road Stadium in Edinburgh on a cold October afternoon but before the teams even took to the field I was already marveling at the massed banks of terracing, floodlights and even the electronic scoreboard which didn’t work and would never work on all my return visits, of which there were many. It was actually a strange introduction to football as Hibs won 2-1 against an Aberdeen side managed by Alex Ferguson and who were at the time, the European Cup Winners Cup holders. As I was to quickly find out, seeing Hibs win wasn’t a regular experience but you have your team and you stick with them through thin and thinner. As I always say, being a Hibs and Scotland fan from an early age helps to harden your skin for the inevitable disappointments later life can throw at you. There is some tremendous archive footage of Easter Road taken in 1980 and can be seen here, the fact that it’s soundtracked by the Mogwai classic Hunted By A Freak is somewhat of an extra bonus.
Only two years later I would again see the two teams play one another but this time it was in the League Cup Final at Hampden Park. As far as the the actual game was concerned, it could only be described as an unmitigated disaster. Inside the first 12 minutes we were two nil down and would go on to lose three nil. This was obviously extremely disappointing for me and the many, many thousands of others who had travelled through from Edinburgh. However, on the plus side, the national stadium was a breathtaking sight to behold. It was no longer the biggest in the world as it had been before the Maracana was re-developed in Brazil but to a small child’s eyes and I’m sure a great many adult ones it still looked mightily impressive. It was huge, foreboding even, but totally captivating and the details all around intrigued me. The height of the floodlights, the massive roof covering one terrace behind the goal, the press box on top of the main stand which seemed to hang there regardless of the laws of gravity, the crush barriers on the terracing and the stanchions attached to the goalposts. I didn’t know at the time but I was in a city which at one point could claim to have the three biggest stadiums in the world (the other two being Celtic Park and Ibrox) and which was also the birthplace of Archibald Leitch, the pioneer of British stadium design. I didn’t need this extra information at the time to make the visual experience any more exhilarating however.
Although the stadiums I once visited no longer exist in their previous form due to vital modernisation they still hold a special place in my heart and I believe, an importance for society as a whole. Of all the buildings in the public realm, stadiums enjoy the highest profile – millions of people across the world worship at them every week, far more than can be found attending churches. But what do we really know about them and what makes a stadium special? Today the football ground can be regarded as among the most important buildings a city possesses. The stadium is much more than just steel framework, bricks and mortar – it embodies a club’s history, many of its major triumphs and disasters and is often as familiar to the fan as his or her local high street whilst providing a focus for the community. On a global scale, they act as symbols for a nation. Their architectural features can be viewed in the same light as a cathedral and can cause as much controversy as the latest modern sculpture to be discussed and dissected in the media. In recent history such celebrated architectural feats as the “Gherkin” building in London, the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh and the Millennium Centre in Cardiff ultimately lack the profound effect the stadium architects continue to have on the Britons who inhabit their structures. They are seen by many more on television in all corners of the planet while a game is being played but there are still many areas of interest to unearth long after the whistle has blown and the spectators have gone home.
Firstly there are the architectural and historical factors to take in to consideration such as the fact that some stadiums, or at least certain parts of them have acquired the status of listed buildings. Therein lies the reason that although Arsenal no longer play at Highbury the two main stands have been converted in to housing as opposed to being demolished. Then there is the sociological, why did certain areas of certain stadiums produce better atmospheres than others? Aside from perhaps the most obvious example of The Kop in Liverpool there was also The Jungle at Celtic Park and the Shelf at White Hart Lane to name just two more, there are countless others of course. Next there is the psychological, the idea of grounds as fortresses and the intimidation factors generated. It is perhaps unsurprising but not widely reported that the design of a ground can help or hinder the affect of the referee. This is examined in a Salford University research paper entitled “How stadium design affects football results” and details that if fans are further away from the pitch due to a running track, they are unable to exert as much psychological pressure on the referee than if they were closer. Lastly there is the political. The recent arguments over who should occupy the Olympic Stadium after the 2012 games in London ended up going straight to the heart of government. Before this and due to the disasters at Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough, political legislation has had huge affect on the stadiums of the UK and beyond.
All areas of the UK have their own individual stadium stories and histories. To take one such area as an example, the north west of England, it becomes evident that the stories are as interesting as they are varied. For instance, Manchester United‘s Old Trafford has appeared in more feature films than any other British club ground. These films include Charlie Bubbles starring Albert Finney (1968), Hell Is A City, with Stanley Baker and Donald Pleasance (1960), Billy Liar, starring Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie (1963) and The Lovers with Richard Beckinsale and Paula Wilcox (1972). Less favourably, and going back a little further, this was also a club who in 1910 were christened “Moneybags United” due in part to other peoples jealousy as the ground contained a billiard room, massage room, a gymnasium, a plunge bath, a capacity of 80,000 and attendants to lead patrons to their five shilling tip up seats from the tea-rooms.
While Liverpool FC couldn’t quite boast the material wealth of their great rivals they are a club where the political and psychological aspects of football stadiums are intrinsically linked. In the history of stadium disasters Liverpool have been at the centre of two of the worst – Heysel and Hillsborough. Aside from the obvious emotional ramifications the disasters also had a huge affect on Anfield itself. For one it has meant that the most famous terrace in British football, The Kop, is now all seated. It is also a terrace with a strange nautical history. When the Kop was extended and covered in 1928, the Kemlyn Road corner of the terrace saw a new landmark installed. It was a tall white flagpole, which had been the top mast of The Great Eastern, one of the first iron ships in the world whose maiden voyage was in 1860 but by 1888 lay broken up in the Mersey docks. When the Kop was completed, the surviving top mast was floated across the Mersey and hauled up to Anfield by a team of horses proving that re-cycling was happening long before the council decided to hand out bags to each household by way of an incentive for green living.
More strange yet fascinating stories can be found across Stanley Park at the home of Everton, Goodison Park. In 1913 the ground became the first to be visited by a ruling monarch when George V and Queen Mary came to inspect local school children there. Soon after the First World War the US baseball teams Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants played an exhibition match at the ground with one player managing to hit a ball straight over the main stand. The club even dealt with the problem of housing in close proximity to the ground in a swift and decisive way. In preparation for 1966 World Cup, they bought and demolished some terraced houses behind the Park End Stand in order to build a new entrance. A quick yet pragmatic action indeed. Famously, at one corner of the ground sits a church, St Luke the Evangelist. Proof if it were needed that the football stadium hasn’t completely replaced the church as the heart and focal point of the community.
The one complaint that some Evertonians may have nowadays is that although their stadium has maintained a traditional appearance, the old fashioned nature of Goodison doesn’t exactly lend itself to comfort and uninterrupted views. Conversely, a club who have seen a monumental volte-face in terms of spectator comfort and environs are Bolton Wanderers. Where now a Bolton Wanderers fan can marvel at the futuristic Reebok Stadium, the memory of the old Burnden Park is still vivid in many of their minds and was also immortalized in the L.S. Lowry painting Going To The Match. Furthermore, this was a ground where in its last few functioning seasons until demolition in 1999 had a brand new supermarket replace the traditional terrace behind one of the goals and begs the question, did supporters buy their groceries before or after taking in a match?
There are of course many more tales to uncover from football grounds not just in the north west of England but all over the UK and beyond. For those seeking more information I would always direct them firstly to the excellent Football Grounds Of Great Britain by Simon Inglis and his follow up books The Football Grounds of Europe and Engineering Archie: Archibald Leitch – Football Ground Designer. There are also many web sites dedicated to football stadiums old and new with a good first port of call being The Football Ground Guide which contains information on existing stadiums, pictures and retrospectives on old ones and a message board for users to discuss all aspects of football ground culture. It was while browsing this busy message board some time ago that I realised I wasn’t alone in my secret passion, not alone by a long stretch.
Image – Football Ground Guide