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TEAMS IN TRANSITION: HOW TO GET A STADIUM MOVE RIGHT

June 3, 2017

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TEAMS IN TRANSITION: HOW TO GET A STADIUM MOVE RIGHT

June 3, 2017

Atletico's new Wanda Metropolitano under construction

 

Have you been to the new Wembley stadium? I was there again the other week for the League One Play-Off Final and I still don’t think all that much of it. Maybe it’s because I hold it up to an impossible invented standard left by the ground that previously stood in its place (that I never visited) or because most of my visits have been for FA Cup or Play-Off games and lack the near-universality of a home fixture but, over ten years after it opened, something about it feels corporate, lifeless, and generally disappointing. I wouldn’t expect a three pound pint, and I can abide the in-your-face ‘Club Wembley’ bollocks, but even with adjusted expectations, it’s difficult to come away from Wembley feeling that you’ve visited the home of British football.

 

This isn’t by any means an original observation, and it isn’t one specific to Wembley; home and away supporters at grounds such as the Emirates and the Olympic Stadium bemoan the lack of ‘atmosphere’ and ‘passion’- fluffy buzzwords that ultimately emanate from the disruption of time-held traditions and behaviours that were encoded in Highbury and the Boleyn Ground. Before this, the push for modernised, all-seater stadiums in the wake of Hillsborough and the Taylor Report led to the most widespread period of relocation in football history, with teams being forced further from the urban centres of the towns and cities they represent, with varying levels of success. Football grounds form an integral part of a team’s identity and projected experience, and any abrupt change to this dynamic can have adverse effects both on and off the pitch (just ask Brighton fans who watched their team play their home games in Gillingham in the mid-nineties or Coventry supporters who followed their side to the depths of Northampton for the 2008-9 season). Sociologists Chris Gaffney and John Bale go as far to say that the stadium itself is a historical experience, working as a ‘container of collective emotion and energy’ that produces knowledge and memories that rely on the grounds themselves as much as they do on the events that take place within them. Football matches are a contained, multi-sensory experience, and the stadium forms an important part of this - consider how the quirks of any particular ground affects your vision of the players on the pitch, the sound of other fans around you, the smell of incubated balti pies at half-time, the disappointing taste of said pie, and the feeling of the contents of the pie dropping onto your trainers.

 

Whilst owners and administrators clearly have a lofty list of complex for clubs that extend beyond short-term results and even fan satisfaction, the successful stadium relocation is a complex and imprecise science. With Atlético Madrid set to move from their historic home at the Vicente Calderón to the Wanda Metropolitano and Tottenham taking up residency at Wembley, this coming season proves to be yet another historic year for team relocations.

 

So what makes a stadium move successful? Perhaps the easiest to gauge, such as in the case of Juventus’ move from the Stadio Delle Alpi to their own eponymous ground, is when a club leaves a short-lived multi-team ground that was hated even amongst its own fanbase for a purpose-built location. It’s probably also useful, as in the case of Juve, for the moving team to win the league title six times in a row immediately after moving. It’s also, despite what your grandad tells you, relatively indisputable in the case of teams like Sunderland, whose average attendance this past season at Stadium of Light was almost double the Taylor Report-restricted 22,500 capacity at Roker Park. It’s more contestable in the case of Arsenal’s departure from Highbury, a ground that, whilst definitely limited in capacity and potential for development, was long-linked with the history of the club and had been the site of the domestic success in recent years. The net-spend brigade might now embrace Emirates with open arms, but there was a point not too long ago when there were as many new-stadium cynics as there are Home Counties kids wearing those weird semi-fake retro shirts amongst the Arsenal faithful.

 

Sunderland's Roker Park and the Stadium of Light, one of the most successful transition in recent English football history- and Jeremy Corbyn's favourite away day

 

Then you have Coventry, whose move to a 32,000 seater complex three miles outside the city has been followed by ten consecutive years in the bottom half of two different leagues (and a relegation to the bottom tier this year), or Darlington, who went into administration less than a decade after moving into an ‘arena’ three times bigger than their old ground. The plight of these last two can’t solely be put down to their relocations, but they’re both easily identifiable, massive metal symptoms of the deeper problems that infected these clubs.

 

However, there’s a lot more that can be looked at regarding stadium moves than the competitive records of the teams who undertake them, and whilst I know everyone loves reading about win ratios, to focus solely on that would be like describing a meal by talking solely about the turd that comes out the other end. Speaking of which, think about the recent move of West Ham to the Olympic Stadium, a relocation that has come seen its fair share of criticism from supporters and non-supporters alike. One of the biggest issues, particularly in the first half of the season was the wide-reported lack of an atmosphere that felt unique to the club, especially in contrast to that at the Boleyn ground (whether this complaint would have been so persistent had the club’s on-pitch results been better, or if the team’s performance was worsened by their surroundings is a question for another time). This has been largely put down to architectural problems such as the distance of the pitch from the stands, a common problem in other athletics-football hybrid arenas such as Bayern Munich’s old Olympiastadion, or how the poor acoustics means that fan noise effectively evaporates rather than echoes. However, a lot of the complaints came from fans (who, generally, were initially supportive of the move) that seemed to be more miffed by the fact that their normal way of doing things at games had been disrupted by the relocation.

 

Notably, supporters that had been accustomed to standing in areas at Upton Park found themselves asked to sit down by stewards and other fans alike. Rather than get bogged down in another plodding argument about the case for ‘safe standing’ in football, it’s important to consider the presence of micro-traditions and precedents inside stadiums, as well as how these traditions give grounds meaning and a sense of belonging in the minds of the supporters who spend their time there. Think about your club - there are sections you know will make the most noise, parts where families sit, blocks where people stand for 90 minutes irrespective of the score. This knowledge, generally unspoken, helps to form our attachment to clubs and grounds they play in. Back to Bale and Gaffney - they note that the sense of ‘place’ offered by a familiar stadium invokes a sense of collective identity and ‘belonging to processes that stretch backwards and forwards in time’. Moving to a new stadium almost always disrupts this, and replacing these traditions organically can be a tricky undertaking.

 

It’s also important that these changes appear natural and unforced. I can’t think of three words that inspire more bile in the hearts of supporters than a stadium announcer commanding them to make ‘make some noise’, and whilst some sections of support (particularly Crystal Palace’s Holmesdale Herberts) have embraced the pyro and tifos usually associated with European ultras, football fans here have for the most part resisted the co-ordination more commonly found on the continent.

 

Whilst of course there’s a difference between the forced joviality of the modern corporate game and fan-driven displays around the world, they share a sense of pre-meditation that even now manages to rub a lot of supporters the wrong way. It’s why we all took the piss when New York City FC handed out song sheets before their fixtures a couple of years ago, and it’s one of the many reasons that John Terry’s 26th minute ‘guard of honour’ brought ire. It’s this disinclination for the choreographed and propensity for spontaneity, or at least the collective illusion of being spontaneous (supporters, after all, engage in a number of unspoken rituals, both general and particular to their club - take the Millwall fans at Wembley last weekend who headed to the toilets to smoke immediately after entering the stadium) that has largely characterized the mood of fan behaviour in England at least since the hooligan era, and it in turn makes the invention of new traditions in new settings all the more difficult. In this regard, redevelopments like the expanded Kop at Anfield or the ever-increasing capacity at Old Trafford are ideal as they allow the club and its supporters to retain an identity that is embedded in their ground whilst allowing owners to indulge in their accelerationist capitalist fantasies, but this obviously isn’t a possibility available in all cases.

 

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of letting an identity, atmosphere and sense of belonging emerge naturally, or for it at least to look natural. To take a bit of a left-field example, it’s helpful to look at the recent development of stadiums in Major League Baseball, a league where the oldest active stadium was opened in 1912 and the most recent came into use this year. MLB teams have a huge amount of freedom in designing new stadiums, to the extent that they can decisions on the dimensions, surfaces and boundaries of the field of play to an extent not seen in other sportsHowever, cynical attempts to emulate this quirkiness in more recently opened stadiums, such as the 30-degree upward incline in the centre outfield at Houston’s Minute Maid park have largely resulted in indifference and disdain, resulting in ‘Tal’s Hill’ being flattened in 2016 to create a new seating area in the stadium.

 

This transparent and visible attempt to invent manufacture tradition in a new stadium was unpopular amongst fans and visiting players alike, and can teach a valuable lesson to football clubs looking to redevelop or relocate - modernisation is eventually, albeit often begrudgingly, accepted, but blatant attempts at artificiality are almost always seen through. It’s why ‘plastic’ is one of the most overused insults among modern supporters, deployed against the slight whiff of inauthentic fandom or support for a team without a base of ‘proper’ (usually working class and living close to the ground in question) fans.

 

No pyro no party?

 

So what makes a stadium transition successful? I hope it’s not too much of a cop-out to suggest that the pre-existing conditions in and around a club play just as big a role as the specifics of the move and the new stadium itself. The state of the old stadium, general supporter faith in the vision of club owners and administrators, recent domestic success and the general culture of fandom surrounding the club all play a role in the short-term acceptance of a new ground by fans (long-term disavowal of a team’s home stadium is far less common, but not unheard of- see Juventus and Coventry). It’s why, notwithstanding a half-decade gap between their move to the Etihad and Sheikh Mansour’s financial takeover, Manchester City’s move from Maine Road in 2003 is seen now seen by most as a popular and almost inevitable decision. With this in mind, despite legitimate grievances from sizable chunks of support, the recent steady upward trajectories of Atlético and Tottenham make their imminent relocations seem like a safe bet for both clubs. That being said, in the case of West Ham and countless other teams, the material flaws of a stadium and poorly planned clunky disruptions of the practices of support can throw a spanner in the works of even the most fan-backed relocation.

 

In any case, Spurs are spending the upcoming 2017/18 season playing their home games at Wembley, so any new stadium is bound to feel like like an improvement compared to that hollow shithole.

 

 

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