December 19, 2010 3 Comments
A sign of the ever-increasing financial pressure upon the modern game is the fact that many of England’s biggest clubs are in the process of arranging moves away from the sites they have called home for many generations. This isn’t new, in the last decade Manchester City moved away from Maine Road, their home of eighty years, and Arsenal departed Highbury, which had hosted the club since 1913. Arsenal were easily filling their relatively small capacity of 38,419 and were therefore operating with a huge financial disadvantage to their main competitor Manchester United who were hosted at the significantly larger Old Trafford. They took the opportunity to move out of Highbury to the Emirates which itself has been a financial success. But to what extent has it affected the identity and soul of the club? Surely there must be a negative side effect of leaving the home that for them had been the setting of countless triumphs? With Chelsea, Spurs, West Ham, Everton and Liverpool all planning on leaving their stadia for larger and more modern versions, fans will naturally be wary of the transition. All avenues should be pursued to ascertain what could be done to increase capacity whilst retaining the heart and soul of the club. Whilst for the business money and successes are key, the issue is a vital illustration of how for real fans nothing can replace the characteristics and traditions of the club that make it theirs.
For some Arsenal fans The Emirates, whilst seeming a necessary “evil” to continually challenge their richer rivals, struggled to feel like home. For many it was too corporate and lacked a true recognition of their illustrious heritage. For some fans the idea of leaving the intimate Highbury for the larger Emirates Stadium was ‘selling their soul’. Therefore since the move fans have helped pressure the club into a process of ‘Arsenalisation’ of the stadium that finally started in 2009. This was an effort reclaim a true sense of ownership of the place Arsenal played their home games. The names of the stands at the new ground had previously, rather soullessly, been named after colours. They were soon renamed after the stands of their previous home, whilst, over the last close-season a larger version of the famous clock was installed. Large murals were also introduced to remember the payers that had graced Highbury. Fans have welcomed these moves and have been impressed by its intentions. It shows that for all the advantages that a new larger stadium brings, culture and tradition are still an immeasurably important part of the club and must be retained if the fans are to truly feel at home. Whilst clubs feel the need to evolve, and indeed they must in order to survive in the modern game, all of this is artificial if loyal supporters suddenly feel removed and detached from the club.
At the end of the day, nothing represents a club as much as where they play. Ideally, that stadium will remain constant whilst generations of staff, managers, players and fans pass through it. It binds together the past, present and future and is the manifestation of what the club represents in a physical form. This is why the idea of groundshare, whenever it raises its ugly head, should always be rejected if there is any alternative. This has been put forward as an option for many clubs, such as the two Bristol clubs, but most prominently it has been suggested against overwhelming supporter opinion as the “best option” for Liverpool and Everton. Supporters of the idea always argue that if it works for the Milan clubs, why would it not work on Merseyside? Except this is wrong. It doesn’t really work in Milan and both clubs are actively pursuing the idea of their own separate stadium. In 2005 AC Milan vice-president Agriano Galliani admitted it was too difficult sharing a stadium with Inter due to differences with directors and that the way forward should be two new stadiums. Internazionale’s Moratti has also more recently stated his preference for the club to move to their own 60,000-seater stadium. Therefore, if it doesn’t work at a practical level and it is clear the fans don’t want it either, it should surely be the end of the ridiculous idea. Using the Merseyside example as the case study, would Liverpool fans still value their unique Kop if it was painted “neutral” colours and every other week Everton fans inhabited it? Immediately the club would lose a key part of its identity that is immeasurably important to supporters and football fans across the world. Also the idea is hugely disrespectful to Everton who themselves are a massive and historically rich club who should not be pressured into effectively becoming junior partners in building a new stadium with their rivals. They have their own distinct identity and they should do all they can to protect it.
Of course the best option-financially and sentimentally- would be to stay at the ground you are at. However for clubs like Spurs and Liverpool it will be hard in the long run to compete with rivals who are making tens of millions of extra revenue a season from match days alone. Without a billionaire backer it will become increasingly hard to continue to attract the top talent if they are operating on such a financial shortfall.
Even Chelsea and Manchester City with their billionaire owners will need to be competitive with attendances with the new financial fair-play rules coming into effect. Manchester United have been lucky in this sense, their stadium has allowed them to expand their capacity and increase revenue whilst simultaneously retaining the ground that possess the irreplaceable memories of Best, Law and Charlton. This option unfortunately is not open for many clubs and if Anfield, Goodison Park and White Hart Lane are replaced, it will be a sad day for football as the theatres that housed such legendary talents and matches to be cruelly demolished so that these clubs could continue to compete in this money-driven age. But for many to even survive it is a necessary evil. Therefore, this is why if it must be done, it must be done right.
These clubs’ new homes will not be just for the short-term. They will be expected to last beyond our lifetimes. Therefore these stadiums must continue to represent the sort identities and cultures that attract fans into the respective clubs that also possess the characteristics and personalities to retain the current fans that are the lifeblood of the club. That is why Spurs fans should think long and hard about the Olympic Stadium option, whilst impressive and practical, it will be a generic stadium built for other purposes that they would merely inherit when it has completed its function. However hard they try, it will be difficult to make it their own. The lessons of the Emirates should be clear to all and clubs should ensure that the historic elements of the club that are so important make the necessary transition. The Emirates is better with the clock, just as a new Anfield would be immensely poorer if it sacrificed a Kop for short-term financial ease. Some will read this article and consider it daft and overly sentimental that a stadium could mean so much to fans as it does. However, when you see Arsenal fans remodelling their ground and the people of Merseyside fighting for stadiums of their own it should make you smile. They are fighting for their treasured cultures. It is a rare reassuring example that in this age of corporate and commercially obsessed agendas in football, real fans still remain and that they are committed to protecting the identity of the clubs that are so special to them.