I’ve always loved football grounds. When I was introduced to football in the early 1980’s I was brought up watching football at a rather unique looking Plainmoor with its old grandstand before an ex Chelsea right back tried to burn it down, the open and dark away end, the half covered Popside with a steep grass bank propping it up and a brick wall to piss against and then there was the mini stand, erected in the 1970s after the old cowshed blew down in a storm. It was a bit of a hovel back then. The football was good when Bruce Rioch was the manager. Good proper lower league players like Colin Anderson, Steve Foster, Jackie Gallagher and Steve Grapes made it a good place to be. Then Dave Webb arrived. It was dire and there were the occasions when sub 1,000 gates happened far too often with people tiring of watching a team battle re-election.
I caught the football ground bug pretty early on. Subsequent trips to Home Park (dad had a mate from the pub who invited us a couple of times), Barcelona’s Camp Nou and my first away trip with Torquay to Ashton Gate in 1987 whetted the appetite. Pride of place were my Panini Stickers 1985 album (the one with the grounds in the team pages), a Ladybird guide to the 1982 World Cup Venues, the Mexico 86 Panini stickers album. All had photos of the stadiums. I loved them all.
I think the turning point from an interest in football stadiums into a love affair was when I used to go to WH Smith in Newton Abbot after school to leaf through Simon Inglis’s excellent “The Football Grounds of Europe”, which was published just before Italia 90 and had excellent features and pictures on the new addition of a roof to the Stadio Guiseppe Meazza (the San Siro to most), the futuristic Stadio San Nicola in Bari and the visually amazing Stadio delle Alpi in Turin. I couldn’t afford the £14.95 at the time and although I probably read it more than the person who finally bought it I never owned the book until last year. Not much has changed since in Italy. All stadiums are still in use, with one notable exception being the Delle Alpi which was deemed to be too large, too grandiose and unsuitable for football given the distance between the pitch and the spectator areas. Now Juventus have moved to a purpose built 41,000 seater stadium with steep banked seats and Torino now play at the renovated and compact Stadio Olimpico which was once the Stadio Communale, which used to play host to both clubs. Swings and roundabouts. Juventus, rather like Man United, have a diversified fan base in the whole of Italy especially in the South of Italy and Sicily, which is probably down to the migration of workers from these areas in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s to work in Agnelli’s FIAT factories in the north. Seeing as most northern clubs are despised in the South it’s quite a tribute from the old country to the gobbi (hunchbacks as opposition fans call them) in the north.
Simon Inglis, quite rightly at the time, talked up the Stadio Delle Alpi as the most beautiful stadium in Europe. But he also asked at the time if it was really necessary to build a brand new stadium when they could’ve (with the exception of Bari) followed every other host city and renovated their existing stadium in the city (The Communale). But a mixture of Italian Politics (the tax payer footed a substantial part of the cost), Agnelli’s greed and a desire for Juventus to have a bigger stadium to compete with the likes of Milan and Inter seemed to ensure the stadium was completed, over budget and in less than a year and a half. 20 years later it was knocked down and the new fit for purpose stadium for Juventus sits on a once beautiful stadium. Of all the other stadiums, Luigi Ferraris in Genoa is a great football stadium still in heavy use by Sampdoria and Genoa. The Favorita in Palermo and the San Paolo in Naples have been maintained to the resurgence of Citta di Palermo and Napoli in Italian football. I visited the Artemio Franchi in Florence and it’s still a well maintained stadium, the Fruili in Udine and the Sant’Elia in Caligiari have both barely changed since Italia 90, although Udinese are planning to renovate soon and add extra roofing, likewise the Bentigodi in Verona. The Renato dall’ara in Bologna seemed to me to be a bit run down. The San Nicola in Bari, is a little out of place and very draughty but remains a unique stadium and testament to the work of renowned architect Renzo Piano. It’s lasted longer than the Delle Alpi that’s for sure.
Germany seemed to follow the Italia 90 model by renovating all existing stadiums apart from the Allianz Arena in Munich. The Allianz Arena shares a few worrying comparisons with the Delle Alpi being a showpiece stadium, way out of town and detached from the City but there is a couple of differences. The Allianz Arena was designed for football and FC Bayern moved out of the Olympic Stadium, which was unfit for football. I think I can quite safely say that the Allianz Arena won’t be knocked down in 20 years time. The only white elephant of Germany 2006 was the Zentralstadion in Leipzig. Again a visually stunning new stadium built inside the existing old DDR bowl but without a big football team to fill it each week. There is a hope that the newly created Red Bull Leipzig can succeed where other Leipzig teams have failed. In the DFB-Pokal this season they managed to get 31,000 fans into the ground for the win against Wolfsburg. I don’t really like the Red Bull concept but as Darlington fans will testify there’s nothing worse than a couple of thousand fans rattling around a big new stadium.
Ah yes, naming rights to stadiums. The Germans love them. The Allianz Arena, Signal Iduna Park, the AOL Arena, Commerzbank Arena, RheinEnergie Stadion, the AWD Arena, the EasyCredit Stadion (one for the Glazers perhaps). At least the wonderful Schalke 04 have bucked the trend a little and handed the naming rights to the local beer company, Veltins. But is it a loss of identity to traditional supporters and gaining identity of new fans? I have to say that I cringe everytime I hear the term “The Emirates”. I even heard an ITV call Manchester City’s stadium “The Etihad” the other day. Maybe it’s easier for new stadiums to be rebranded. Mike Ashley’s latest little Sports Direct Arena renaming of the fabled St James’s park has the hallmark of a drunken randy bull in a field of placid cows. “Are you going down the Etihad on Saturday?” doesn’t seem to have that believable ring about it for me, but to some new fangled Generation Y posho no eyelids are batted.
It seems incredible to think that the only really proper old school ground left in the Premier League is Goodison Park. That wonderful triple decker mainstand is I think the best in football. I did like Manchester City’s triple decker stand that replaced the Kippax Kop at Maine Road which lasted around 7 or 8 years before the club left Maine Road for “The Etihad”.
I think we’re in mortal danger of losing ground identities. Those choosing to move to new stadiums must try to retain some of the identity and history of the old ground as often most newer grounds seem to have little uniqueness about them. Arsenal’s new ground is perhaps an exception as it’s a wonderful stadium if a little lacking in atmosphere. Again the Germans seem to have got the formula right again by improving existing stadiums by incorporating large stadium areas into the stadiums and then by charging a low price if people want to stand, which for me is the only way to watch football.
The real danger is what happens when clubs replace old stands with new stands at their existing ground. My club, Torquay, have recently demolished their old grandstand which is going to be replaced soon by a modern, functional stand built to a certain budget. When complete it means that the oldest stand in the ground is the all seated Family Stand which appeared back in the early 1990s. I fear it’s going to look a little like a Dutch second division ground. Functional and neat but not much soul. It’s a real conundrum for the likes of Torquay. The new stand will cost around £1.6 million quid. Most of the cost is coming from the football foundation and the local education authority as the stand will have facilities for the local Westlands School (the space age buildings behind the boardings if you stay awake long enough to watch the Football League Show”. It’s being built to a budget and it therefore has to be a lost cost design. Design is all important. If you get it wrong than it looks like Chester’s Deva Stadium which is possibly the most soulless ground I’ve ever visited.
As a photographer of grounds around the English Lower League, Non League and lower European leagues I think stadium designs are lacking a little imagination. I quite like Fleetwood’s Stadio Friuli curved roof affair and Rotherham’s new ground reminds me of the staggered roofing at Chippenham Town and Carshalton but most seem to have ignored the rich tradition of British stadium architecture. Where are the modern versions of Archibald Leitch designs? Where are the retro touches to new stadium designs?
The grounds I want to see in Europe are the ones in Belgium and Scotland. But as I write even Belgian Football grounds seem to be on the verge of re-development and renovation. New stands are being put up at Lierse and Sint Truidense, who actually seem to trying to emulate Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferrara with an upturned shoe box feel to the ground. But there are some gems left in Belgium for everyone to enjoy. I dare anybody to go to KV Mechelen’s ground and not feel like they are in a colourful vibrant stadium with a cracking atmosphere. There will come a day though when even KV might have to leave Achter de Kazerne for a purpose built stadium somewhere. At the moment it’s crammed into between a residential area and a graveyard. No doubt it will be a purpose built soulless dive of the outskirts of Mechelen. Still when the Achter de Kazerne is gone at least we’ll still have Racing Mechelen to visit and that has a fantastic grandstand.
Maybe it’s just my personal preference or a perceived lack of love for modern stadium designs but I wish that there were more instances of renovations and design like Feyernoord’s “De Kuip” back before the Euro 2000 Championships. It was a fairly soulless and very open stadium before but it was transformed by the addition of a fantastic retro roof. Maybe it’s a Rotterdam thing. Neighbours Sparta have completely renovated their “Het Kasteel” Stadium but they’ve made the Castle as the centrepiece and they’ve designed a modern stadium around it without losing the sense of history and uniqueness that made the club what it is today. They even have heaters underneath the stadium roof. It’s not like I’m against modern football or a move to modernise aspects of the game, it’s just that most of the modernisation of Football Stadiums seems to forget history and the clubs ties with it’s communities, run roughshod over certain club’s uniqueness and in England at least the cost is one of alienating traditional fan bases by systematically erasing what attracted us to football in the first place. By us of course I don’t include the masses that turn up at “The Emirates” and expect to be entertained.