Recent decades have seen football undergo many changes which have affected the entire fabric of the game. Many of the changes have been decried as being purely monetary-based and of ‘ripping the very soul out of football’.
These aspersions are perhaps particularly pertinent regarding the establishment of the Premier League and Champions League, where most if not all of the shifts in emphasis in recent years seem to have been designed at making as much money as possible as well as maintaining the status quo.
However, although many of us old enough might like to hark back to the ‘good old days’ through rose-coloured spectacles, nobody could really argue with any conviction that matches are infinitely more comfortable and safer to attend than they were in the ‘glory days’ of old.
That it took the combined tragedies of Hillsborough, Heysel, Birmingham and Bradford to finally put into motion the changes and the necessary legislation to ensure they were followed through on is shamefully indicative of where priorities lay at the time. What cannot be contended, however, is the fact that the match-going experience has changed forever in the past two decades.
Prior to the Taylor Report released in 1990, clubs were pretty much left to their own devices with regards to how they built and maintained their stadiums. The majority of grounds were anything up to a century in age or older, and most of them looked it.
There was a certain charm and independence surrounding many grounds, it’s true, but a large number were cramped, cold, draughty places designed to hold as many people for the most amount of profit as possible.
That said, some grounds ‘back then’ were unforgettable. A delve into the treasure trove that is my ageing memory thus follows.
The first ‘proper’ ground I ever went to was Colchester United’s old Layer Road ground. In 2008, after 98 years of continuous use, the gates were locked for the last time and the club moved to an all-new, multi-purpose stadium on the edge of the famous Essex garrison town that couldn’t be more different from the beloved ramshackle old ground.
Whilst the new ground is bland, to say the least, Layer Road was oozing with style. That it was also oozing with dry rot, rust, woodworm, and, quite possibly, sepsis, is perhaps beside the point.
It was to all intents and purposes a non-league ground. Elected to the league in 1950 before being relegated out again half a century later, it is no exaggeration to say that not one iota of work or renovation was done on the ground in fifty years. It was, to be honest, a safety nightmare and it was perhaps only by the grace of a higher power that no serious incident ever occurred there. Entry to the ground was only possible through turnstiles behind one goal and supporters were then left to roam around the entire venue at will in true non-league manner.
Both the main stand and, almost unbelievably, the terraces behind one of the goals were wooden in their entirety, and just thinking about the possible safety consequences now is enough to send a shiver through the bones.
Nearby Ipswich Town’s Portman Road stadium was a ground I regularly visited during my formative years, and I always enjoyed my trips there. Back in the hey-days of Sir Bobby Robson, Portman Road was a quaint stadium with four old fashioned stands, each with sloping roofs. A new main stand was built, and a few years later a larger one on the other side of the pitch, but basically the ground retained its atmosphere and appeal. It was largely standing room in those days – as were most stadiums at the time, with seats only available in the upper enclosures of the main stands.
This meant that those wishing to get a decent standing ‘spec’ for the big matches would usually have to be in place anything up to 90 minutes before kick-off. This is something that has become a not-lamented thing of the past with the advent of all-seater stadiums, of course.
Similar in stature and draw to Portman Road was West Ham’s old Upton Park ground (I’m not calling it the ‘Boleyn Ground’ – nobody ever did). Four old-fashioned stands, also with sloping roofs, were cobbled together seemingly a couple of feet away from the pitch. Even when the ground went all-seater and three new stands were produced, the ground maintained its uniqueness.
Upton Park was one of those grounds that remained instantly recognisable no matter how many changes and refurbishment it underwent.
This brings me nicely to another ground I visited semi-regularly in the eighties: that of QPR’s Loftus Road ground. Now, this is a stadium that has not changed one iota since the Taylor Report other than seats being installed on the former terraces. Not one new stand has been built, or even an old one refurbished at Loftus Road in almost four decades. I have always thought that Loftus Road looked like a Subbuteo stadium with its meccano-esque stands.
The first time I ever visited the ground in 1983, the old banked terracing behind the goal was still visible when queueing outside the ground. It was a weird sight looking at the stand that had been built on top of the terracing, and I believe the high banked terracing remained unused and out of sight for several years before finally being demolished.
Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road ground has also not changed in any fundamental way in the past four decades other than going all-seater and a roof being put on the old ‘Kop’. A fascinating ground built literally amongst the housing of the surrounding areas, it is, to tell the truth, long overdue for demolition and a move to pastures greener and altogether more salubrious. My one and only trip here was in March 1984 when I bore witness to one of the worst games of football ever played in England’s top-flight – a scoreless draw with Liverpool.
Everton’s ground, Goodison Park, is another (but larger) ground that has remained largely untouched over the past twenty-five years or so, save for the demolishing of a strange stand and terracing behind one of the goals at the Park End in around 1994. Previously a large terrace, the lower enclosure was closed off in the mid-1970s and its capacity was vastly reduced. As with Loftus Road, the terrace remained hidden out of sight for a number of years before being demolished.
Goodison has managed to retain its magic over the years but is looking decidedly dated now. Plans are afoot for Everton to move into a new stadium in the next few years and although necessary, it will be a sad day when the padlock is finally secured on the Goodison Park gates. Incidentally, my only visit here was also to witness a 0-0 draw.
Of course, many clubs have either totally rebuilt their existing grounds or else moved to completely new ones in the wake of the Taylor Report. The most well-known examples of rebuilt stadiums are Tottenham and Wembley. Both new grounds are vast improvements on what they replaced even though some contend that the new Wembley lacks the atmosphere and sense of history of the old.
My hometown club, Blackpool, similarily also totally rebuilt their old Bloomfield Road ground from scratch and have ended up with a stadium that is a far cry from the absolute tip they called home twenty years or so ago.
Owen Oyston took the club to the very brink of extinction in his near-three-decade tenure in charge and ownership of the club, but he was responsible at least for the provision of a new stadium.
However, it should be noted that the new stadium only got fully completed by order of the FA who insisted a fourth stand be added in the summer of 2010 following the club’s unexpected promotion to the Premier League. Prior to this edict, Oyston had been happy to allow the club to operate in a three-sided stadium.
The onset of new grounds throughout the country has been criticised in some quarters, with a train of thought regarding the lack of originality and uniqueness being expressed by many.
The majority of new grounds do indeed tend to largely be rather impersonal bowl-like arenas with little other than the colour of the seats and the occasional club crest visible to distinguish them apart.
Arsenal, Manchester City, Sunderland, West Ham have all moved into large cavern-type bowls that while aesthetically pleasing on the eye, and, in the main, comfortable and safe, are somewhat lacking in individuality. Other clubs such as Derby, Southampton, Middlesborough, and Leicester have produced ‘mini-me’ versions of the same which at least have slightly more of an intimate feel about them.
There are clubs further down the pyramid that have moved into new stadiums that appear to have been designed with a smidgeon of creativity. These include sides such as Scunthorpe, Yeovil and Wycombe.
Some clubs, most notably Newcastle and Manchester United, have simply extended their stadiums by building up to the sky and adding on extra tiers and sections seemingly at will. The results have not been that impressive really, and the modern Old Trafford and St. James’ Park both look a bit of a mess in my opinion, with poor vantage points in large sections of the grounds.
Certain other grounds have evolved nicely though, and have retained their individuality despite undergoing extensive redevelopments. Liverpool and Aston Villa undoubtedly fall into this category, as do the stadiums of Ipswich, Fulham, Charlton and Portsmouth.
A final quick note perhaps regarding the most charming ground I ever went to. I loved Wimbledon’s old Plough Lane ground, and while I am delighted for the AFC club that they will soon be playing on almost the same location, I can’t help feeling it won’t be the same as in the glory days of Vinnie and the Crazy Gang.