The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Stadium Moves: Part Three

The final instalment of our three-part guide to English football’s new stadiums takes in a journey back from oblivion, a storm over seat colours, and a modern-day Olympic tragedy – plus a few unusual extra venues…

Part One, Part Two

Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff City
Opened: 2009 | Capacity: 33,280

On the face of it, there’s much to admire about Cardiff City’s new home. It was built across the road from the run down, unrefined Ninian Park, a modern upgrade that kept the Bluebirds close to their roots. It sits alongside a new athletics stadium and retail park to help cover costs, and helped catapult the club back into the top flight for the first time in 50 years.

The ground has also become home for the Welsh national team, who remained unbeaten there in qualifying for Euro 2016. So far, so good – and since opening in 2009, the stadium has even been expanded under the ownership of Vincent Tan.

Look up at the top of the Ninian Stand on matchdays, however, and you’ll start to see problems. Two immediately spring to mind – the seats are red…and empty. The installation of red seats in the new extension was part of Tan’s infamous scheme to change Cardiff’s colours from blue to red. It lasted just two full seasons, including one tumultuous campaign in the Premier League, which saw Tan booing his own team from outside his executive box.

As the team returned to the Championship attendances fell dramatically. The extension is now only open when Wales come to town, providing Tan with a stark reminder not to undertake a similar folly in future.

Proact Stadium, Chesterfield
Opened: 2010 | Capacity: 10,600

The first game of football played at the Recreation Ground on Saltergate, Chesterfield, took place in November 1871. At the time, the ground that would come to be named after its local area was little more than a field. As Chesterfield FC grew from the town’s various amateur teams, it developed and survived for 139 years – although the last couple of decades have been perilous at times.

In 1997, the Spireites enjoyed their most famous moment, reaching the FA Cup semi-finals and almost defeating Middlesbrough at Wembley. Behind the scenes, their home – badly outdated, and forced to take on a raft of safety measures – was struggling to meet league requirements and causing the club financial grief.

Supporters voted unanimously to abandon redevelopment and move to a new home on the site of an old glassworks. The ProAct Stadium follows the trend of lower-league teams building pragmatically – it adds just 2,000 to Saltergate’s capacity, with potential to expand to 13,000. It may lack their old home’s history, but isn’t entirely without colour – the south stand is named after Karen Child, a local lottery winner.

Globe Arena, Morecambe
Opened: 2010 | Capacity: 6,476

It was one of Christie Park’s darkest nights that paved the way for Morecambe to leave their old ground behind. Manager Jim Harvey suffered a heart attack during the home match against Cambridge and was replaced by assistant Sammy McIlroy while he recovered.

McIlroy led the Shrimps to the Conference play-offs, and controversially kept the job ahead of Harvey. Two years later, McIlroy led the club into the Football League for the first time, and plans to relocate were accelerated.

The Globe Arena may sound rather grand (it’s named after the company that built it), but in reality it’s a lot more old school than the other stadiums on this list. Closer to the town centre than Christie Park, it boasts an open terrace where 600 hardy fans can brave the elements. Morecambe have consolidated their position in the Football League, but one reminder of their non-league past remains: mascot Christie the Cat, who still bears the name of their old home.

American Express Community Stadium, Brighton & Hove Albion
Opened: 2011 | Capacity: 30,750

Few teams have suffered a more fraught road to relocation than Brighton. The Seagulls left the Goldstone Ground in 1997, with the land sold for conversion to a retail park in order to cover mounting debts. The trouble was that the board hadn’t thought to find a new ground and, had Brighton not avoided relegation to the Conference on the last day of the season, the club could feasibly have ceased to exist.

Instead, Albion struggled on in a different county, playing home games at Gillingham’s Priestfield stadium 70 miles away. When they did return to the south coast it was at the Withdean Stadium, an athletics venue woefully under-equipped for a major football club. A maximum of 8,000 fans perched in temporary stands beyond the running track – but under new owner Dick Knight the team flourished, climbing back to the second division.

A permanent home was vital to the club’s hopes of further progress, and clamour grew to leave the Withdean behind – fans even released a single to help fund the move, reaching an impressive No.17 in the charts. With cheap land at a premium, years of wrangling ensued over a field in Falmer, straddling the boroughs of Brighton and Lewes. It wasn’t until 2011, 14 years after the Goldstone gates were locked, that Albion moved into their new stadium.

Known simply as ‘the Amex’ by supporters, the ground has been a huge success with capacity already upped from 24,000 to more than 30,000 – almost four times the gate at the Withdean. With the lower tiers below ground level and an asymmetrical design, it’s also one of England’s more unusual new grounds. Brighton may be set to break into the Premier League but the Amex’s most famous moment so far came in another sport – when Japan stunned South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

New York Stadium, Rotherham United
Opened: 2012 | Capacity: 12,021

Rotherham are another club exiled to a different town as they searched for a new ground. The Millers spent four years at Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium after a dispute with Ken Booth, the owner of their former home at Millmoor. The purpose-built, bowl-shaped ground they eventually moved into in 2012 isn’t named after a sponsor, but rather the island in the river Don where the New York Stadium sits.

The club hierarchy had hoped the name might inspire investment from across the Atlantic, but so far their optimism has been unfounded. As the Arctic Monkeys put it, the club aren’t from New York City – they’re from Rotherham. On the pitch, however, the new place has worked wonders, with the club climbing from the fourth tier to the Championship in successive seasons. Millmoor, meanwhile, is still standing – and used by a local junior team.

The Hive, Barnet
Opened: 2013 | Capacity: 5,176

The penultimate entry on the list brings an interesting new idea, as fourth-tier Barnet effectively relocated to their own training ground in order to grow. The process began a decade ago, with club owner Tony Kleanthous buying up a plot of land in the neighbouring borough of Harrow and converting it into a state-of-the-art training base for the club.

The centre was opened by Trevor Brooking and Fabio Capello in 2009 with the club still searching for alternatives to Underhill, their home for over a century but rapidly falling apart. Having planned a move to the Barnet Copthall site for years, they were left exasperated when the local council handed the land to rugby union side Saracens instead.

Barnet decided that the Hive’s on-site stadium, built for non-league neighbours Wealdstone in Canons Park, would serve them well as a temporary home. After returning to the Football League, the club realised they were on to a good thing and decided to stay put. The on-site training facilities have been used by the German, Chilean and Brazilian national teams, providing a handy stream of additional revenue.

London Stadium, West Ham United
Opened: 2016 | Capacity: 60,000

We end as we began, in a field near Scunthorpe. The field in question was grown in Lincolnshire then moved down the A1 to Stratford, forming the first patch of grass at London’s Olympic stadium in 2007. Nine years later, and efforts to find a lasting use for the venue still feel unresolved. West Ham are the tenants, handed the venue in a cut-price deal that could set the club up for unprecedented success – but fears about transplanting a football team into an athletics venue have proved prescient.

Plenty of teams have made difficult starts to life in a new stadium, but West Ham’s struggles at the rebranded London Stadium have surely set a new bar. Despite extensive efforts to make the place feel like home, the old sightlines – focused on the track and not the pitch – and retractable seats, built at significant ongoing cost, have made it enormously difficult to generate any sort of atmosphere.

Worse still, the absence of police and experienced stewards has led to fighting between fans. Away fans have begun to dread the trip to Stratford, even though the Hammers have often been more than accommodating on the pitch.

The fundamental problem is that the stadium wasn’t built for football, and was designed to remain a low-capacity athletics venue after the 2012 Games. Eventually Premier League money talked, leaving Tottenham and West Ham to battle it out. Spurs’s plan was to build a brand new football stadium and rebuild the Crystal Palace athletics stadium into the bargain. But after two tenders and a mountain of paperwork, West Ham’s dual-purpose bid was preferred, as it supposedly created a stronger athletics legacy in Stratford.

The ground has enjoyed moments of post-Olympic success, hosting matches in both rugby codes as well as motorsport and the IAAF world championships next year. Football is the odd one out, with some suggesting that West Ham should rebuild the ground entirely. It is surely too soon for such drastic measures, and this list at least shows that, by and large, moving home proves the right decision in the long run.

West Ham should perhaps have heeded other warnings in the history of stadium migration; simple, sensible, and sustainable new grounds stand the best chance of success, and a balance between risk and reward must be struck. It is still early days, but the London Stadium risks becoming an example of how not to move home.

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We close with a few more entries that don’t quite fit in the list above, but merit a mention…

Lamex Stadium, Stevenage

The Lamex, or Broadhall Way if you prefer, is one of two current Football League grounds built between 1955 and 1987 – the other is Accrington Stanley’s Crown Ground. Neither club was in the league at the time – Stanley began using their ground after reforming in 1968, while Stevenage Borough didn’t form until 1976. The club took over Broadhall Way, built in 1961, from Stevenage Athletic.

Athletic’s owner, still the leaseholder of the stadium, didn’t take it too well – digging a trench across the pitch to leave it unplayable. But once that unfortunate business was over with, Borough became a non-league force to be reckoned with, before bustling into the league in 2010 when they shortened their name – another dig at Athletic and their former owner.

Stadium:mk, Milton Keynes Dons

Here are the facts: a vision for a purpose-built football stadium in Milton Keynes was put forward in 2000 by Pete Winkelman’s Intra MK Group. A league team had long been a goal for a rapidly growing new town and Winkelman sought to make it a reality – but rather than support eighth-tier Milton Keynes City, he looked for a league team to relocate to the area. Wimbledon, ground-sharing with Crystal Palace since 1991, fit the bill.

After a three-man panel controversially approved the move, Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes in 2003 and were renamed MK Dons the following year. Four years later, they moved into Stadium:mk, a brand new 30,000 seat arena. That would have earned them a place on the list but for the rise of AFC Wimbledon, formed in 2002 as the move to Milton Keynes drew near.

AFC Wimbledon have climbed the league ladder all the way to the third tier in just 14 seasons, and are now above MK Dons, making a mockery of both the panel’s derision towards a new Wimbledon, and Intra MK’s refusal to invest in a non-league team.

It also means that, to any reasonable observer, AFC are the continuation of Wimbledon, and MK Dons are a new team; Winkelman accepted as much when he returned the 1988 FA Cup to Merton council in 2007, the same year Stadium:mk opened its doors. As for AFC Wimbledon, they are set to finally return to Plough Lane in a brand new ground, ending 25 years of upheaval.

Reynolds Arena, Darlington

The history of the Football League has seen countless clubs merging, reforming, going under and springing back to life – but as far as we can tell, just two teams have slipped out of the league after building brand new grounds in the post-Taylor Report era. The first, Chester City, fell into oblivion, only for phoenix club Chester FC to rebound in the Deva Stadium, built on the Anglo-Welsh border in 1990.

The other is a sorrier tale altogether. Darlington joined the league in 1921 and spent the vast majority of their stay in the fourth tier, playing at the 8,000 capacity Feethams ground. Like many other lower-league clubs, they ran into financial trouble trying to upgrade their home, coming close to administration before local businessman George Reynolds rode to the rescue.

What Reynolds did next still serves as a cautionary tale for small-town teams. He poured cash into a new, 25-000 seater arena which he named after himself, attempting to recruit Paul Gascoigne for Darlo and coming close to actually signing Faustino Asprilla. Reynolds had talked up the arena as the club’s ticket to the Premier League, but two years after it opened he was sent to prison for tax evasion, leaving Darlington facing financial ruin.

With a capacity restricted to 10,000 by local planning laws, the Darlington Arena struggled on as the greatest white elephant the league has ever seen until the club, terminally burdened by the cost of Reynolds’ folly, folded and reformed as Darlington 1883. They now play in a 3,000-capacity ground, Feethams lies derelict, and the Arena is owned by Darlington Mowden Park, a third-tier rugby team with average crowds of less than 1,000.

Northumberland Development Project, Tottenham Hotspur

The thirst for new stadia shows no sign of abating, with plenty of teams in the process of drawing up ambitious plans before drastically scaling them down. Everyone, from Chelsea with their new steampunk vision for Stamford Bridge to Forest Green Rovers and their stadium built entirely out of wood, has a trick up their sleeve.

Tottenham’s new home is far closer to completion. Building work has begun right next to White Hart Lane while the team play (and lose) Champions League games at Wembley – a stadium paying off its own redevelopment by hosting anything and everything – including regular-season NFL games, which will eventually move to Spurs’s new home.

We’ve seen all manner of events held at new grounds to help pay the bills, but Spurs’s new 61,000 seat stadium will have NFL functionality built in. After failing with their bid to move to the Olympic Stadium the new ground will have a retractable pitch and backroom facilities tailor-made for NFL teams. It will host two NFL matches a year for a decade, paving the way for a potential groundshare with a London franchise.

Dockland Stadium, Portsmouth

And finally, a word for those new stadia that were never meant to be. From Everton and Liverpool ground sharing to Chelsea moving into Battersea Power Station, almost every club has seen a crackpot idea emerge and quickly disappear in the last 20 years. Few have been quite as ridiculous as Portsmouth’s idea to move to what can only be described as a floating gold stadium.

Ten years ago, high on an era of cash-fuelled success, Portsmouth commissioned Herzog & de Meuron, architects of the Bird’s Nest and Allianz Arena, to design a new stadium. They let their imaginations run wild, designing a 36,000 seat, gold-clad blob, perched on an artificial island in Portsmouth Harbour. The project was expected to cost £600 million and immediately ran into problems – the stretch of sea Pompey wanted to reclaim was owned by four different parties.

Soon after Portsmouth hit financial meltdown, and the project was hastily mothballed. At their lowest ebb, the club considered selling Fratton Park and ground-sharing with Havant & Waterlooville. They also weighed up a cut-price new home on a former landfill site. Ultimately, they may do what they had planned to in 2003 – upgrade Fratton Park, at a net cost of £6m, and put one of modern football’s craziest pipe dreams to bed.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Stadium Moves: Part Three
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