A great philosopher once said: ‘If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other.’
Rubbish. I’ve seen grass before but I don’t huff wearily every time I drive through the Yorkshire countryside, no more than any Yorkshireman huffs wearily at least. I’ve been looking at my wife’s face for nine years (not non-stop) and I’m yet to grow fed up with it. If you’re the kind of person who goes around shaking your fist in the air shouting ‘screw you sky! Yeah, well done, you’re massive and blue, big deal. I could do better than that. People have always said I should be the sky, ask anyone who knows me’, then congratulations, for you are the President of the United States of America. Political.
Realistically, the song should go: ‘If everybody looked the same, we’d have no expectation of difference; no conception of an entirely heterogeneous society or what it would entail, and would therefore be unable to grow tired of it.’ In fairness, that’s not so much a catchy dancefloor classic as it is the beginnings of a crazed far-right-wing manifesto. See punchline from last paragraph.
How’s this then? ‘If every stadium looked the same, we’d get tired of going to the football.’ How does that hypothesis stack up?
On the face of it, it makes sense. Given the choice between a charming old ground like Craven Cottage and one of the new grounds that starting springing up on business parks and former gasworks and the like in the 1990s – Huddersfield’s John Smith’s Stadium, say – then clearly I would prefer Craven Cottage. Approaching on foot it’s a genuinely beautiful ground, all red brick and black & white gloss; and no matter how familiar you are with it, the pavilion in the corner that gives the ground its name never ceases to be charming. Take that, Groove Armada.
It is the work of Archibald Leitch, the Scottish architect who designed pretty much every famous old British red-brick football ground you can think of. Yep, that one. And that one. The old Villa Park? Yep, that was his. His work is iconic and nostalgic for an age none of us grew up in but which all of us still have in our heads when we picture walking up to a football ground on match-day, the smell of grass and Bovril hanging in the air.
Here’s the thing with old buildings though: they tend to be bloody rubbish. The Houses of Parliament looks jolly nice, but it’s absolutely falling apart. With windows that don’t shut, doors that don’t open, and urine leaking through the ceilings. A 2012 study concluded: ‘If the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild.’ If the UK’s most iconic building is in such disrepair despite vast government resources, what chance does a League One football club have?
Anyone who has ever had to work at an older football ground can attest to these little annoyances: press rooms with ceilings that will take your head off, desks that have to be gaffer-taped down so they don’t pivot violently and fling your laptop into the back of people’s heads, and player tunnels so labyrinthine that they have their own resident minotaur. Visiting the ground for two hours is one thing, but having to work there 40 hours a week is another.
Above all else, the cost of renovation and maintenance is simply too much of a financial burden for most clubs. This is not a small issue to be dismissed. We have seen the horrifying consequences poor stadium maintenance can have too many times to turn a blind eye.
I see it the same way I see city planning: if you started from scratch, you’d never design London, with its narrow avenues, serpentine main roads and dead ends. You’d design New York City instead: an organised, functional grid that works. Having a go at new stadia for being modern is like criticising Manhattan for not having St Paul’s Cathedral.
Like cities, grounds get their identity not from the bricks and mortar or, these days, glass and steel, but from the fans and their traditions. My favourite place to watch a home win is Rotherham United, because they play Frank Sinatra after victories and it’s genuinely brilliant to see dour old South Yorkshire blokes kicking away like they’re in a Broadway chorus line. You don’t get that in Peterborough. Like their eponymous cities, there are some things the New York Stadium offers that London Road doesn’t.
Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter