The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Stadium Moves: Part Two

Part two of our review of every new ground in English football since 1987 covers the years 1999 to 2008, when everyone from fourth-tier strugglers to future champions of England were on the move. There are plenty of examples of how a stadium move should be done – and one that serves as a harsh lesson to everybody else. Catch up on Part One here.

DW Stadium, Wigan Athletic
Opened: 1999 | Capacity: 25,138

The 1998-99 season was, at the time, the best in Wigan Athletic’s history. The Latics celebrated 20 years in the league with their highest-ever finish – sixth in the third division – and won the Football League Trophy. Defeat to Manchester City in the play-offs ended their promotion hopes, but the investment of owner Dave Whelan, and the impending move to a brand new ground, made further progress inevitable. However, even Whelan couldn’t have imagined what was to come in the first 15 years at the JJB Stadium.

Wigan broke into the top flight in 2005, but weren’t done upsetting the odds – after narrow defeats to Chelsea and Charlton, they won eight of their next nine matches to climb into second, before finishing their first-ever top-flight season in 10th place. That remains Wigan’s highest league finish, but years of scrapping for survival were punctuated by an extraordinary FA Cup win in 2013.

Wigan remains primarily a rugby league town, which has had been a hindrance for the football club at times – namely fixture clashes with the ground-sharing Warriors, and low crowds at an oversized venue. But while it may not be perfect, but the JJB (now DW) has been pivotal to one of modern football’s most remarkable rises.

Kassam Stadium, Oxford United
Opened: 2001 | Capacity: 12,500

A few miles up the Thames from Reading, Oxford also put the ill-fated merger idea to bed with a new build of their own. Unlike their rivals, they didn’t enjoy a smooth transition to their new home; the U’s have taken the best part of 15 years to recover from a difficult migration.

The chicken wire fences of the Manor Ground always contrasted with the city’s looming spires, but it was the setting for Oxford’s mid-80s golden era, culminating in 1986 Milk Cup success. Ten years on, the club were forced to relocate in order to maintain their status in the league’s upper tiers. Plans for a new ground were announced in 1995, but halted soon after as the club plunged into financial difficulties.

Four years later new owner Firoz Kassam got the ground open, if not completed. The stadium still has only three sides. The club began life there back in the fourth tier and, after a spell in non-league, they have only just returned to League One under Michael Appleton.

St. Mary’s, Southampton
Opened: 2001 | Capacity: 32,505

When you hear the phrase ‘an awkward place to go’, which ground comes to mind? If you’re of a certain age it’s most likely the Dell, with its narrow, back-garden pitch and cheese-wedge stands. In the mid-90s, Southampton found themselves in a familiar dilemma – how could they progress without giving up a vital card in their deck, selling off their unique home for a flat-pack new arena?

Initially the club tried to stay and converted the Dell into an all-seater ground. The trouble was a capacity of just 15,000 – but it wasn’t easy to find a new site as fans fought hard for the club’s identity. Supporter groups opposed the sale of naming rights, favouring a move to the St. Mary’s district where the Saints began.

Southampton took three months to win a league match at St. Mary’s, even calling in a pagan witch to perform a ceremony in order to remove the curse. The spell was broken in 2005, but Southampton eventually slid into the third tier, playing in a half-empty stadium. Their return to prominence was as rapid as their decline and, thanks largely to a promising production line of young talent, the club sit comfortably in the Premier League enjoying Europa League football this season.

KCOM Stadium, Hull City
Opened: 2002 | Capacity: 25,400

Hull City AFC were born in 1904 but took almost a century to find a suitable home. They spent most of the inter-war years at The Boulevard, home of rugby league side Hull FC. Plans to relocate to Boothferry Park in the west of the city were put on hold by the outbreak of war and, when the Tigers finally moved in, in 1946, occupation by the Home Guard had left the pitch unplayable.

Things never really improved at Boothferry Park. As the club drifted down the leagues, the capacity shrank to 15,000 – not nearly enough for a one-club city. With Hull struggling financially, the stadium began to diminish further in the 1990s – two supermarkets moved into the main stand while other parts were knocked down. There wasn’t even enough cash to replace the dilapidated neon sign – fans called the ground ‘Fer Ark’, the only letters still illuminated.

Eventually Hull joined forces with the local council and the rugby club to create a purpose-built stadium that opened in 2002, several years after the plans were agreed. In the interim, Hull clung to life at Boothferry Park, finishing 90th in the 1997-98 Football League (the entire bottom six makes interesting reading) and sliding into receivership. When the KC Stadium finally opened, Hull’s fortunes skyrocketed. Within six years they had climbed from the bottom tier to the top as their unloved old ground was finally pulled down.

King Power Stadium, Leicester City
Opened: 2002 | Capacity: 32,262

There’s arguably no more successful stadium move on the list than this, but it was a long road to Leicester’s earth-shaking achievements of last season. The King Power Stadium, about as forbidding a title as naming rights will allow, almost began life as the Walkers Bowl. It was built with the club in mounting debt and opened by Gary Lineker climbing out of a crisp lorry with a massive pair of scissors. Things could only get better.

Leicester’s unfashionable Filbert Street home had played host to a swashbuckling team in the 1990s as Martin O’Neill oversaw two League Cup triumphs. No Foxes fan could have expected it would ever get better than that, especially when the club fell into the third tier for the first time in a century.

But after a slow-burning battle to return to the Premier League, the pieces suddenly fell dramatically into place last season. The renamed stadium, with its pristine playing surface and clapper-wielding crowds, became a very modern cauldron of noise. Fans who had endured years of relative struggle got their reward, and then some, as Leicester powered to football’s most astonishing triumph.

Etihad Stadium, Manchester City
Opened: 2003 | Capacity: 55,000

Peter Swales, Sheikh Mansour. Steve Lomas, Sergio Agüero. Brian Horton, Pep Guardiola. These names alone encapsulate Manchester City’s transformation since 1994 when a new, all-seater Kippax stand was the height of their ambition. But one figure from the mid-90s you might not know is Sir Bob Scott, who unwittingly played a huge part in the club’s extraordinary rebirth.

Scott chaired Manchester’s two unsuccessful bids to host the Olympics, but his persistence paid off when the 2002 Commonwealth Games were awarded to the city. Around the same time, Lomas mistakenly played keep-ball as City slid out of the top flight, before they eventually plummeted into the old Second Division.

Their diminished standing paid off in the long run as they gave up on expanding Maine Road and took up the cheaper option of a lease on the City of Manchester Stadium, removing the running track and building a replacement next door.

City fought back to the Premier League, even beating Barcelona in a match arranged to open the new stadium, but it wasn’t until Mansour’s investment that things really took off. The rebranded stadium is now the jewel of the new, state-of-the-art Etihad Campus, half a world away from Maine Road. It may inevitably lack the fierce atmosphere of their old home, but the fans who shook the rafters in May 2012 – when Agüero ended a 44-year title wait in the most dramatic fashion – aren’t looking back.

Liberty Stadium, Swansea City
Opened: 2005 | Capacity: 20,520

Stepping outside of England for the first time in this series, Swansea’s ground had, until very recently, been regarded as an unqualified success. The anger directed towards the club’s new American owners, with the Swans cut adrift in the Premier League relegation zone, is the closest the Liberty has come to mutiny in its 11-year history.

Life has been largely serene for Swansea at a stadium that ticks a lot of new-ground boxes – bowl-shaped, out of town, the seemingly compulsory Frankie & Benny’s – and the Liberty has proved a perfect upgrade on Vetch Field, which was so hemmed in that turnstiles were wedged between terraced houses.

After leaving the Vetch behind with promotion from League Two, the Swans have established themselves in the top flight and been championed as the model for well-run clubs. That status and reputation are suddenly at risk this season.

Ricoh Arena, Coventry City
Opened: 2005 | Capacity: 32,609

From the sublime to the ridiculous. If moves in Manchester and Swansea demonstrate the success a new stadium can bring, this is a very different tale. It began 20 years ago, when a club with a long unbroken top-flight run, who had won the FA Cup a decade earlier, decided to go for an out-of-town move – and go big.

Coventry’s plans were ambitious, to the extent that the unfinished ground was touted as a 2006 World Cup venue, or even England’s new national stadium. However, events on and off the field conspired against the Sky Blues and by the time the asymmetrical arena was officially opened, the outlook was no longer promising. Coventry endured a run of nine successive bottom-half finishes after moving to a stadium that was meant to return them to the big time.

The club dropped into the third tier for the first time since 1964 in an expensive all-seater arena that was now impossible to fill. But the situation was to become even worse. After sliding into administration, a dispute with stadium managers ACL led to one of the modern game’s most absurd scenarios. Coventry ended up playing home games 70 miles away at Northampton’s Sixfields ground as the Ricoh stood empty.

With the team now back in Coventry but labouring at the foot of League One, and rugby club Wasps now in charge of the ground, despised owners Sisu are considering abandoning the Ricoh again – and for good this time. The club could walk away to groundshare with a lower-league rugby team at another out-of-town venue – hopefully this time it works out better for everyone.

Pirelli Stadium, Burton Albion
Opened: 2005 | Capacity: 6,912

Among the mega domes of the early 21st century, Burton’s new ground stands out as a downsized, old-school affair, with three terraced stands and a four-figure capacity. In its own way, the Pirelli Stadium – built on land owned by the Italian tyre company, hence the slightly Serie A name – has proved as groundbreaking as any other on this list.

After promotion to the Conference, Burton decided to relocate down the road from Eton Park to a new ground that was Football League ready. The stadium was filled for two games against Manchester United – an opening friendly followed by a memorable FA Cup tie a few months later. But Burton have struggled to fill their new home ever since, despite climbing three divisions into the Championship.

The club’s new status has partly been propelled by their ambitious stadium move, but Burton have soared higher than anyone expected. If they consolidate their position in the second tier, those terraces will have to go under the terms of the Taylor Report. Burton have also had to improve their facilities for away supporters with Newcastle, Aston Villa and other rivals bringing large followings to the Pirelli this season.

Emirates Stadium, Arsenal
Opened: 2006 | Capacity: 60,432

The largest purpose-built stadium on this list, the Emirates has been a huge success. But it has also served as a lesson on how a ground move can put a strain on every aspect of running a football club, as Arsenal slowly emerge from the financial purgatory enforced by upping sticks in the capital.

Until the interminable goodbye to Upton Park last year, the farewell to Highbury was singularly drawn out – with Arsenal wearing a commemorative kit for an entire season. Perhaps that’s because the club didn’t really want to leave a ground so embedded in Islington that the local tube station bears its name. However, the council rejected redevelopment plans and Arsenal needed a new, expanded home – a tough ask in North London, with affordable land at a premium and enemy territory just a few streets away.

Arsenal began with an audacious attempt to buy Wembley Stadium, but were blocked by the FA. Any enthusiasm for that idea was also sapped by two dismal Champions League campaigns at the national stadium, before eventually a patch of land between two railway lines – and walking distance from Highbury – was secured. That proved to be the easy part. While the team enjoyed an invincible season in 2003-04, the club struggled to get the Ashburton Grove site up and running.

Deals had to be struck with Railtrack and a refuge company who owned the land, while speculative cash injections from Nike and Emirates helped keep the project on track. The team felt the pinch, with Arsene Wenger left spinning plates to keep the team in the top four. It was fitting that Abou Diaby, an unfortunate symbol of those lean years, installed the first seat at the Emirates. It now stands out as a world-class venue that took blood, sweat and tears to build.

Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster Rovers
Opened: 2007 | Capacity: 15,231

Aside from a brief post-war spell in the second division, Doncaster lived out an unassuming existence in the league’s lower tiers until 1997-98 – when the club came to prominence for all the wrong reasons. Rovers’ Division Three campaign that year was an unmitigated disaster – they finished rock bottom, picking up 20 points and conceding 113 goals as they crashed out of the league.

Off the field things were even worse as owner Ken Richardson – having failed to secure a new stadium – took drastic, dangerous measures. Richardson was convicted of starting a fire at the club’s Belle Vue stadium in order to cash in on insurance money and sell off the land. The whole sorry debacle was captured in a Channel 5 documentary, and few expected the club to bounce back.

Enter John Ryan, a boyhood fan who pledged to put Doncaster back in the second tier – and in a new stadium – within a decade. Rovers fans had heard it all before, but sure enough they completed a remarkable comeback with promotion to the Championship in 2008. The team has seen mixed fortunes at the Keepmoat, with two promotions and three relegations, and now find themselves back in the fourth tier – but the bad old days of the late 90s are a distant memory.

Greenhous Meadow, Shrewsbury Town
Opened: 2007 | Capacity: 9,875

Shrewsbury Town’s old home, Gay Meadow, offered one of the league’s more pastoral away days, with the club employing a boatman to retrieve errant clearances from the nearby River Severn. But like so many others, the stadium’s days were numbered by the Taylor Report. In this case it was access rather than seating – every fan entered along one footpath worryingly named ‘The Narrows’.

The club relocated to a new-build on the edge of town that lacks the charm of their old home. Even the pleasant name is a coincidental hybrid – originally called the Prostar Stadium, fans voted to restore the ‘meadow’ suffix when the sponsor changed to local car dealership Greenhous.

The ground has hosted England internationals for the women’s team and men’s junior sides, but offers little else of note. For a club who fell into the Conference while searching for a new stadium, it was the price that had to be paid for new-found league stability.

Weston Homes Community Stadium, Colchester United
Opened: 2008 | Capacity: 10,105

This snappily named stadium is another compact lower-league arena, in keeping with the trends of the late 2000s. It was an awfully long time in the making, however – 30 years, to be precise. That was when the club first looked into relocation from Layer Road, built at the turn of the 20th century.

Layer Road’s capacity was cut, and its timber structure was a dangerous throwback, but still the club dragged its heels – perhaps because results on the pitch kept improving. In their penultimate season at the old ground, Colchester finished 10th in the Championship. At their new ground, they spent eight years in the third tier before relegation last summer.

The ground has lived up to its billing as a community hub, offering an award-winning range of events and facilities. The only trouble is that fans have to be bussed in. Plonked next to the A12 outside of the town, it’s one of the most isolated grounds you’ll visit anywhere in the Football League.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Stadium Moves: Part Two
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