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Shifting stands

The match day experience for many, arguably all, football fans in Britain, especially those who follow teams in the top two divisions, over the last decade has changed beyond all recognition.

Huddling on open terraces, paying on the turnstile in decaying concrete and wooden edifices that have seen better days, with little in the way of 'entertainment' beyond a penalty shoot-out competition at half-time or a lottery drawn by an ageing legend whose best days, if we we're to be unkind, married with that of the ground itself, are largely filed away in a draw marked 'yesteryear' in the all-singing all-dancing Premiership era.

Fans of a certain age have been raised in shiny new all-seater stadiums, often out of town, with adequate parking, functioning toilets, big screen video walls and a choice of half-time cuisine. But it wasn't always that way.

The sea change was precipitated largely as a response to two horrific tragedies. The Bradford fire that claimed 56 lives and scarred countless others, in the same year as the Heysel Stadium disaster, and Hillsborough, the one word now synonymous with the fateful day when 96 Liverpool fans went to watch their team play in an FA Cup semi-final never returned.

The needless loss of so many innocent lives caused the authorities to take a long hard look at the environment in which football was watched in Britain and Lord Justice Taylor was given the task of 'inquiring into the events at Sheffield Wednesday football ground on 15th April 1989 and make recommendations about the needs of crowd control and safety at sports events.'

The subsequent Taylor report, as the document became known, contained instructions that had far reaching consequences. Amongst a number of recommendations - 76 in the final report - concerning ground safety most significant was the government backed edict that all grounds should become all-seater stadiums; in the top two divisions by 1994/95 and in the rest of the league by the turn of the century. This was later softened for the smaller clubs, dependent upon them meeting other safety restrictions.

A whole swathe of new stadiums sprang up in Britain in the early nineties at clubs like Millwall, Northampton and Huddersfield, and by the middle of the decade the more high profile venues of Middlesbrough's 35,000 capacity Riverside Stadium; Derby County's Pride Park; Sunderland's Stadium of Light and the Reebok Stadium at Bolton were constructed.

'What clubs were asked to do in 1990 after the Taylor report really forced them to act in many cases rather more quickly than they would have wanted,' Simon Inglis, a writer and researcher on football stadiums and the country's leading authority on the subject told Soccernet.

'I understand all the reasons for that but would have argued, and indeed did argue at the time, that they should be given longer but I was out voted on it on the football licensing authority.

'My argument was that clubs would end up spending money that would in the end turn out to be wasted. In fact, that is exactly what has happened. But, compared with the overall wastage of money in football we're not talking about ridiculous sums.'

The match day experience since '95 has improved totally. I don't think anybody can argue with that. They might be emotionally attached to standing and poorer facilities and greater camaraderie and all that, but they can't argue with the box office figures.
Simon Inglis
The speed of change - top flight clubs were given just four years to convert to all-seater arenas - was such that decisions were hurried and led to clubs with difficulties, like Portsmouth and Newcastle United, seeking extensions to the deadline.

'But on the whole,' Inglis remembers, 'clubs did implement changes very quickly and then just sat back.'

Initially clubs faced opposition from fans worried about losing the terrace culture of standing at football matches; the erosion of the unique atmosphere and passion generated at grounds. But once they were exposed to the comfort and safety of the new arenas opinions began to soften.

Inglis believes that after the frenzied and intense level of change, stadium development moved into a 'second phase' as the millennium approached.

'There were two factors that helped them move it on to the second stage. Firstly Sky TV's money gave them the facility to move forward and borrow money and this led to clubs moving to new stadiums - clubs like Bolton, who by building a new stadium really entered a new era in the club's life. They're a success story because they're still there, in the Premiership.

'But there's lots of other clubs, like Arsenal who in the last ten years, having reviewed their options, decided they just couldn't develop Highbury anymore. So effectively they've had to go to the expense of converting Highbury into an all-seater and now go to the expense of moving to a new ground.

'The second feature was the way in which the public responded. Attendance figures have frankly crushed the anti-seating lobby's argument. Whether you like it or not, the popularity of seating has meant that clubs are now operating at near 100% capacity. Given the incredible success of the Premiership, basically they were vindicated.

'The money was pouring in, the seats were being filled and everything was on this seemingly inexorable upward curve.'

The fashion of upping-sticks to a new purpose built ground has shown little sign of abating. Stoke, Reading, Southampton, Leicester, Manchester City and, most recently Coventry City have all ditched grounds with tradition and history for the lure of improved sightlines.

But what next? Clubs are keen to stress the scope for increased revenue streams; making use of the stadium more often than just on match days. Corporate hospitality, function rooms and the ability to host pop concerts are all aspects of the modern football arena, as is sharing with other sports to split costs.

Despite it being commonplace on the continent, groundsharing with other clubs remains taboo in British football's tribalistic environs. Everton and Liverpool have both mooted stadium moves and currently reside barely a Pepe Reina goal-kick apart and yet, despite worries over financing for both, the idea of cohabitation remains anathema to all concerned.

With Arsenal's new ground rising fast in Ashburton Grove, the troubled Wembley Stadium project well underway, for better or worse, and Old Trafford seemingly constantly expanding, the Stadium boom, along with that of football in this country itself, appears to be on a previously unimaginable high. But Inglis sounds a word of caution.

Galpharm Stadium: Award-winning arches.
Galpharm Stadium: Award-winning arches.
'The negative aspect is that what goes up must come down,' he suggests. 'Whatever point you look at football's history, it has gone through ups and downs. It has covered all types of cycles. Cycles where the gates may have been going up but the standard of football was going down; hooliganism in the 70's and 80s; the failure of the England team; all the disasters of the 80s.

'We have been so used to it going up and up since Hillsborough there is a whole swathe of the football supporting world who came to the sport relatively recently, in the last ten years, who think this is what football's always like.

'People like me who've been around a little bit longer know full well that this is not how it works. Eventually the public will grown tired of football; eventually clubs will price themselves out of the market - that's starting to happen already - and eventually the product will turn sour.

'The question is what impact all this will have on the stadiums. It will mean that, eventually, prices will come down which will save the next generation. If that doesn't happen you'll get a whole generation of boys who only get to see a couple of live games a season, and probably have rich parents.

'The match day experience since '95 has improved totally,' reflects Inglis. 'I don't think anybody can argue with that. They might be emotionally attached to standing and poorer facilities and greater camaraderie and all that, but they can't argue with the box office figures.

'There really is no going back. The only hope for some form of return to the days of old is not in the conditions, it's in the pricing. There is no way terracing will ever be reintroduced in this country. It's just not going to happen.

'There isn't a government that has yet to be elected that will take on the burden of reintroducing standing at major games. It is a political impossibility. And there is simply no point in discussing the rights and wrongs of it because it's not going to happen.'

'Having said that I hope I'm wrong. That's my head telling me, not my heart.'

  • Email steve.wilson@soccernet.com with your thoughts.