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Grounds for complaint on Merseyside?

Ground-sharing is historically viewed in England as a last resort. It is a time of desperate measures and swallowed pride.

Just ask Charlton fans, who were forced to endure their club 'hiring' Selhurst Park and Upton Park from rivals Crystal Palace and West Ham between 1985 and 1992 because of safety issues at The Valley. Or Wimbledon supporters, who commuted to Selhurst Park for 12 years after it emerged that the cost of rebuilding Plough Lane, in the wake of recommendations from the Taylor Report, was too high.

It is not just the mid-ranking clubs for whom it is anathema, either. Arsenal were so uncomfortable playing their home Champions League games at Wembley for two seasons that the experiment was quickly abandoned.

With club and supporter identity so strongly attached to a single, indivisible home, the entire concept of ground-sharing in England has long been taboo.

But, following Everton chief executive Robert Elstone's revelation that the Merseysiders would consider the option of a shared stadium with Liverpool, could there be a compelling argument for a practice that appears to work well in other major football countries? Dr John Beech, Head of Sport & Tourism Management at Coventry University, believes there are growing economic reasons for ground sharing.

"I love stadiums, Victoria or ultra-modern," he said. "But I am unsentimental about them otherwise. I do not share the typical British view that they can and must only be associated with one club. Their utilisation rate is ludicrously low if they only earn serious money once a fortnight."

In England, shared stadiums have generally been restricted to clubs playing different sports (such as Watford and Saracens at Vicarage Road or Wigan Athletic and Wigan Warriors at the DW Stadium) or to lower league clubs sharing their headquarters with a reserve team from a higher division.

Yet overseas, sharing grounds is viewed as a logical move for big city clubs. Supporters of the system point to harmonious co-habiting arrangements in Milan, Turin, Rome, Genoa, Munich, Rio, New York and Los Angeles.

On the face of it, the economic argument is persuasive. The big savings in costs could be the difference between extinction and survival.

Lancashire rivals Oldham and Rochdale held informal talks last summer about sharing Boundary Park, Oldham's 105-year-old headquarters. Simon Corney, Rochdale's managing director, explained: "If the opportunity arose for two clubs who are struggling in the lower divisions to get a brand new facility, why not explore it? I don't think it is just us. Several clubs in the lower leagues were talking to their neighbours to see if it made sense to move in together."

The economic necessity is perhaps even greater in the top tier of English football. It could be argued that it makes little financial sense for Liverpool and Everton to both build super stadiums costing hundreds of millions of pounds.

Should clubs like the Merseyside giants simply copy their continental cousins and learn to hop into bed with their neighbour?

Milan's magnificent San Siro arena, shared by Inter and AC Milan, is frequently cited as an example where ground sharing can work. However, analysis shows that the two clubs' marketing and sponsorship revenues have suffered from by not owning outright their own home.

A recent study by World Soccer magazine found that Milan's brand had been weakened by its ties to Inter and that the constant switching of advertising within the stadium had resulted in an income shortfall.

Talks have been held involving the two clubs and Milan City Council over plans for both clubs to own their own stadiums. One proposal that has been discussed by top brass is for Milan to remain at the San Siro and Inter to build a new ground for themselves.

"My dream is to see the day where one derby is in one stadium and one in another," Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani said last year. "I don't know how long it will take but myself and Inter 's [owner Massimo] Moratti are pushing the council to start the process."

At a lower level, especially in Northern Europe, the financial advantage of ground sharing can be outweighed by the damage done to the pitch. A spate of fixture cancellations due to wear and tear of the playing surfaces last winter at stadiums hosting two clubs - such as Fir Park - prompted the Scottish Premier League to consider banning ground sharing outright.

Furthermore, there is often an unequal balance between rivals sharing a stadium due to financial backing and playing success. The two Munich clubs, Bayern and 1860, initially joint-owned the Allianz Arena, built for the 2006 World Cup, but, after relegation, 1860 were bought out and now have to pay rent just to play at their 'home' stadium.

It is also worth considering the innate tribalism of football in England. The principle that motivated Charlton fans, ahead of the so-called 'last match at The Valley' in 1985, to break into the stadium overnight and daub slogans outlining their disgust at the club's impending relocation to SE25 still holds true today.

As the fierce fan opposition to former Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer's attempt to create 'Edinburgh United' (Hibernian and Hearts) and Robert Maxwell's failed effort at creating Thames Valley Royals (Reading and Oxford United) proved, the values of tradition and loyalty are enduring.

The emotional attachments to stadiums that remains a critical element of English football culture is far removed, for instance, from the attitudes that exist in the USA, and evidence suggests that the cycle of ground-sharing in Italy could be coming to an end.

If ground-sharing was so obviously economically advantageous, would it not be the rule worldwide rather than the exception? As long as supporters feel it is vital to have a place that they - and they alone - call home, it will take a considerable shift in philosophy to overcome a lynchpin of English football tradition.


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