The good, the bad, and the ugly of stadium moves: Part One

Just outside Ousefleet, North Lincolnshire lies Britain’s dullest place – an Ordnance Survey square with nothing in it except for a lone electricity pylon. Given the modern football ground’s reputation for unremarkable environs and atmosphere, it’s fitting that the first of its kind, Scunthorpe’s Glanford Park, lies ten miles from here.

On a far more storied patch of grass 175 miles to the south, we are currently witnessing what happens when a modern stadium doesn’t deliver on its promises. The violent scenes at West Ham’s London Stadium this season are usually non-existent in new-build grounds, where the much-maligned sterility is perhaps the price you pay for safety.

Whatever your view on modern stadia, they’re popping up at an exponential rate. Since the revolution began 28 years ago at Scunthorpe United, more than 30 current Football League teams have relocated following a gap of over 30 years without a single new league ground (Southend’s Roots Hall in 1955, since you ask).

While these gleaming new arenas were built in an era of feverish change in football – from the Taylor Report to the enormous influx of foreign talent and investment – the results have been mixed.

For every success story, there’s a move gone awry. For every team losing a piece of their history, another has gained a new identity. As we’re about to find out, it’s been a bumpy road from Scunthorpe to Stratford.

Before we begin, a disclaimer – this list covers teams currently in the top four divisions, including those in non-league when their grounds were built. I’ve pondered their inclusion for longer than is healthy, but in each case their new home is undeniably a factor in their rise. There are teams who have fallen out of the league after moving, teams who relocated in the 1960s and have since joined the league (thanks for nothing, Accrington Stanley) and a whole host of other thorny issues (that whole Milton Keynes business). All of this will be covered in brief at the end of Part 3. Now – to Scunthorpe!

Glanford Park, Scunthorpe United
Opened: 1988 | Capacity: 9,088

Fourth division Scunthorpe United, facing hefty renovation costs at the Old Showground, could have done what many clubs did back in the mid-eighties, and let things slide. Instead, they took the bold move to build a brand new stadium and began a revolution. Local hero Kevin Keegan returned to Scunthorpe to open the ground, but any further glamour was a long time coming.

Fans at the compact four-sided stadium, perched in a foreshadowing out-of-town location, were subjected to 17 successive seasons of fourth-tier football, before a recent resurgence has seen the team climb as high as the Championship. While the Iron toiled in the lower leagues, the timing of their move was somewhat significant; the club’s first season in their new home was 1988-89, which ended in the horror of the Hillsborough disaster.

That led to the publication of the Taylor Report in 1990, and the requirement for grounds in the top two divisions to be all-seater – a catalyst for a huge number of moves to new stadia. Glanford Park was not, and remains not, an all-seater stadium. As a result, the club need to fund significant renovation to establish themselves in the Championship. A familiar predicamen with a familiar answer – Scunthorpe are set to pack up and move again after less than 30 years.

Huish Park, Yeovil Town
Opened: 1990 | Capacity: 5,212

Huish Park replaced Yeovil’s old non-league ground, the Huish, with its famous sloping pitch. This tiny stadium retains a distinctly non-league feel, its miniature stands flanked by trees with only a tarpaulin by the main road to guide the way – yet it has played host to a remarkable rise all the way to English football’s second tier.

If the old Huish was a crucible of FA Cup giant slayings, the new ground welcomed bigger teams on a regular basis as Yeovil gatecrashed the Championship in 2013. Yet even as the champagne was uncorked following their League One play-off final victory, chairman John Fry took a look around Huish Park and thought to himself: “Hang on a minute, we have to get the money in here”. The team’s modest environs stifled further growth, and they quickly fell back into League Two.

Adams Park, Wycombe Wanderers
Opened: 1990 | Capacity: 11,776

Adams Park opened with Wycombe still a non-league side. It replaced Loakes Park, an uncompromising venue with an 11-foot sloping pitch. Serving as a blueprint for other non-leaguer clubs hoping to climb into the Football League, the Chairboys achieved promotion to the fourth tier in 1993 under the stewardship of Martin O’Neill.

The ground, named after local legend Frank Adams, has played host to league football for over two decades – as well as top-flight rugby union, with Wasps sharing Adams Park for 12 years before relocating to Coventry. The stadium is not without its faults – set in an out-of-town location among the Chiltern hills, access problems mean the capacity is always changing. It’s not inconceivable that Wanderers could relocate again in the near future.

Banks’s Stadium, Walsall
Opened: 1990 | Capacity: 11,300

Originally known as the Bescot Stadium after the area it was built in, Walsall’s home is one of three to open the season after the Taylor Report was published – but the only one to begin life as a Football League venue. The Saddlers’ first competitive game at the ground, against Torquay in 1990, didn’t get off to a great start with Matt Bryant scoring an own goal after 65 seconds.

Things were to improve in the coming years, with the team muscling into the second tier – ahead of Manchester City – in 1999. That created its own issues, though, as the ground’s terracing needed to be converted, adding additional expense to a stadium that had cost just £4.5m to build. The club had planned to take advantage of the Bescot’s location alongside the M6 motorway by converting the back of one stand into Europe’s biggest billboard. In the end, the team returned to the third division, and the controversial scheme was quietly dropped.

The New Den, Millwall
Opened: 1993 | Capacity: 20,146

Millwall FC have led a nomadic existence around London’s less desirable areas, playing in four grounds on the Isle of Dogs before relocating to New Cross in 1910. The Lions, cheered on by the supporters’ ‘Millwall roar’, were an intimidating outfit throughout the 20th century, culminating in two seasons in the top flight at the end of the eighties.

The club gained an ugly reputation for hooliganism, and toyed with uprooting and even renaming the team in an effort to wipe the slate clean. In the end they moved to an unassuming new stadium just a quarter of a mile away. They called it the New Den, and then simply The Den. The new ground was a world away from the old site where Gary Lineker admitted he was scared to score.

The New Den was the first all-seater built in the aftermath of the Taylor Report, constructed with supporter safety in mind. Exits are easily accessible and there is a fenced-off path for away fans that leads directly to a nearby train station. Having largely shaken off their grim reputation, Millwall must now combat a new threat – the club are facing a land grab in gentrified Bermondsey. As the closest team to the City of London, they continue to fight for their home.

John Smith’s Stadium, Huddersfield Town
Opened: 1994 | Capacity: 24,500

Huddersfield’s all-seater ground is now sponsored by John Smith’s, the nearby Tadcaster brewery owned by Heineken. Its first title tells us why this particular new build is so important – for a decade it was known as the McAlpine Stadium after the architects who constructed it, helping the club pay for a stadium that was innovative in both design and ownership model.

The ground’s four curved, interlocking stands struck a balance between progression and tradition. With manageable costs, the ownership was split three ways between the football club, rugby league side Huddersfield Giants and the local council, in the hope that two underachieving clubs and the surrounding community could all benefit from a facility that won RIBA’s Building of the Year when it opened.

Sadly, things are never quite that simple, and the football club found themselves deep in the mire in the early 21st century, having gambled heavily on reaching the top flight. Giants owner Ken Davy temporarily bought out the Terriers’ share of the stadium until they could afford to take it back in 2013.

Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough
Opened: 1995 | Capacity: 33,746

Modern football’s Venn diagram of Premier League arrivistes and gleaming new grounds is surprisingly sparse at its intersection; only seven teams on this list have begun a top-flight campaign in a brand new arena. The first to do so were Middlesbrough, promoted in their final season at Ayresome Park, and soon welcoming Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli to their new home.

The Riverside heralded a new era of success, with 13 of its first 14 seasons hosting Premier League football as well as the road to League Cup success and the 2006 UEFA Cup final. After relegation in 2009, Boro felt the flip side of life in a large, expensive stadium, as attendances dwindled in the Championship.

Now back in the top flight, the Riverside needed a few upgrades to make it fit for Premier League purpose again – changes that have cut the capacity to just under 34,000. After relocating out of town, the club have tried to pay homage to their roots – a hulking cargo ship towers over one stand while the Ayresome Park gates, memorably locked as the club faced liquidation, were moved to the new site.

Stadium of Light, Sunderland
Opened: 1997 | Capacity: 49,000

Seven years after the Taylor Report, 1997 saw a host of new grounds appear on the map in northern England. Sunderland, then a second-tier side with a significant fan base, had frantically searched for a new site, with Roker Park hemmed in by housing and unsuitable for expansion. Eventually, they found a spot by the Wear, the site of the old Wearmouth Colliery. The ‘Stadium of Light’ is a reference to a miner’s lamp, rather than an incongruous nod to Benfica.

Until Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium was built, the new ground was the biggest new stadium in England. Initially the club’s ambitions were matched on the pitch as Sunderland – who dropped their ‘Rokermen’ nickname in favour of the ‘Black Cats’ – briefly chased European football under Peter Reid. Since then, things have been decidedly mixed. Fans have sat through embarrassing relegation seasons, but have also enjoyed three Championship titles before settling in for an endless purgatory of miserable campaigns that end with miraculous escapes.

iPro Stadium, Derby County
Opened: 1997 | Capacity: 33,597

Derby’s new ground also opened in 1997 and was known as Pride Park until 2013, when ‘hydration partner’ iPro bought the naming rights for £7million. The Rams didn’t reinvent the wheel with their relocation – they copied the design of Middlesbrough’s stadium and plonked it next to a Frankie & Benny’s on the edge of a business park. But Pride Park did break the mould in one way – it was the first new ground to be opened by the Queen, perhaps marking a shift in how the establishment viewed the national game.

All didn’t quite go to plan on the big day: construction was still ongoing leading Prince Philip, in one of his more repeatable anecdotes, to ask the builders if they had been paid. The first competitive game, against Wimbledon, was called off due to an electrical failure. In the longer term, the ground proved a hit, with Derby finishing in the Premier League top ten in their first two seasons away from the ramshackle Baseball Ground. These days, it’s a top-flight ground in exile, as crowds averaging 29,000 have watched the Rams repeatedly fall short of promotion.

Macron Stadium, Bolton Wanderers
Opened: 1997 | Capacity: 28,723

It may now be known as the Macron Stadium, but to anyone older than Marcus Rashford this is The Reebok, a place synonymous with Sam Allardyce, Jay-Jay Okocha and Arsene Wenger’s impotent rage. While the commercial name caused consternation when the ground opened, fans gradually warmed to their new identity. Reebok were founded in Bolton but hometown pride was spoiled somewhat by the ground’s location – 10 miles down the M61 in Horwich.

As with Derby, Bolton began the 1997-98 Premier League season in their new home. But unlike the Rams, they failed to settle and went straight back down. After a few years of yo-yoing, Allardyce established the team in the top half of the Premier League, with the Reebok serving as a fortress for his uncompromising team.

The rebranding of the ground has coincided with Bolton’s fall from grace all the way down into League One. The Reebok’s glory days may be gone, but few would trade it for their old home. Burnden Park, which is now the site of an Asda superstore, was the scene of a fatal disaster in 1946 when 33 fans were crushed to death and 400 injured. The tragedy demonstrated a growing need to take crowd safety seriously, one that went unheeded for far too long.

Bet365 Stadium, Stoke City
Opened: 1997 | Capacity: 27,902

Life at English football’s most old-school new stadium started terribly for Stoke. In their first season the Potters dropped into the third division, going down with opponents Manchester City on a grim final afternoon at the Britannia. Since then, the club’s trajectory has been almost continually upward, with their new home becoming the fortress that the old Victoria Ground never quite managed.

From the outside, Stoke’s ground doesn’t especially stand out among the plethora of modern identikit stadia; it’s perched on the edge of town and circled by car showrooms. Inside, the steep, windswept stands lend it a forbidding feel that’s lacking from so many others. The venue was perfect for Stoke’s ascent under Tony Pulis, culminating in a run to the 2011 FA Cup final against Manchester City.

Europa League football also came to town, albeit with altered pitch markings – Pulis’ preference for a narrow playing field prohibited by UEFA regulations. Since then, Mark Hughes has expanded the surface and style of play, while a new sponsorship agreement has seen the stadium renamed in accordance with the Bet365 brand. To many, it will always be the Britannia, and those cold, wet Wednesday nights.

Checkatrade.com Stadium, Crawley Town
Opened: 1997 | Capacity: 6,134

Among the sleeping giants of the north, there was one other current Football League team who moved into new digs in 1997. At the time Crawley were in the middle of a 20-year stretch in the Southern Premier League, with league football merely a pipe dream for the part-time club. Gradually they inched their way up the pyramid, but struggled to stay afloat in the Conference, avoiding liquidation by just one hour in 2006 and turning to Steve Evans in their hour of need.

With the injection of new investment the club began a cash-fuelled charge up the leagues, climbing to League One and reaching the last 16 of the FA Cup as a non-league side. Financial instability continued, with the Broadfield Stadium sold to the local council to secure the club’s league status. With Evans jumping ship, ambitions have been curtailed – although recent stadium improvements to meet Premier League requirements suggest the dream isn’t over yet.

Madejski Stadium, Reading
Opened: 1998 | Capacity: 24,161

Closer to a motorway junction than the town, built over a landfill, and part of a curious late-20th century trend for chairmen naming grounds after themselves, Reading’s new stadium ticks a lot of unwanted boxes. But life at the ‘Mad Stad’ is infinitely preferable to what might have been.

For two months in 1983, the Royals faced the frightening prospect of being merged with local rivals Oxford, as U’s owner Robert Maxwell toyed with creating a Frankenstein football club to go by the name of Thames Valley Royals. Thankfully, the scheme never came to fruition, but with both sides treading water in cramped, outdated grounds, a solution was still needed.

Reading’s hand was forced by promotion to the second tier in 1994, which meant Sir John Madejski had to find his club an all-seater home. Elm Park, the club’s ground for over a century, never hosted top-flight football, but Reading have reached new heights following their move. It may not be remarkable, but the Madejski Stadium has allowed the club security that was sorely lacking 30 years ago.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of stadium moves: Part One
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