Around a quarter of football clubs in the top four English divisions have now moved away from what fans would regard as their “spiritual homes” in the last 20 years or so, to purpose built, modern stadia.
The reasons behind this are normally similar. The old ground was crumbling, and would cost too much to rebuild or update, many original grounds are in the centre of town, so are now prime real estate locations and will have been sold off to pay for a new out of town development.
While supporters and boardrooms a like see the new stadium as a vital source of income and envisage crowds to rise and a prolonged period of success to follow a move, the reality is often something very different.
In the Premier League, eight teams are in new stadia, but only one of those teams, Arsenal, have spent the whole period in their new home in the top flight. Stoke, Swansea and Wigan all had their new grounds built while further down the leagues, and been promoted on the back of a sound business plan and what from an outsiders perspective seems a pragmatic spending approach and a willingness to live within their means.
For Stoke and Wigan especially, their current chairmen have played significant roles in transforming reasonable small provincial clubs into long term Premier League outfits and it is safe to say that this would not have happened had they remained at their old Victoria Ground or Springfield Park.
Reading, Southampton and Sunderland have all been in both the Premier League, and the Championship, and in Southampton’s case League One since moving into their new grounds, and while they will consider being in the Premier League now a success, there are schools of thought that the new stadiums have not totally fulfilled the promise with which they were delivered.
All three sides increased their capacities significantly when they moved, and this additional revenue will have been essential in stabilising the club following relegation, and also bringing in the funds needed to compete while establishing themselves amongst the big boys. Sunderland seem to have managed this now, under the more assured guidance of Martin O’Neill, but it will be a big ask for the two newly promoted sides.
Manchester City are the remaining side who have moved, and while last season was an unequivocal success for blues fans who had become accustomed to life bouncing between leagues, their new ground was only the catalyst to the owner coming in. While Maine Road was by no means one of the worse grounds in England, the move to Eastlands enabled the club to fulfil more of its potential, which is undoubtedly what Sheikh Mansour bought into.
The new stadium was not an integral part of the success which has followed the move, but it is doubtful that Mansour would have been as tempted to invest had City still been residing in Moss Side. Being in the Premier League and in Arsenal and City’s case, the Champions League will be seen as justification in having the faith that a new stadium is the way forward and will give guaranteed revenue and comparative success for the foreseeable future, as long as these clubs are run in a sustainable way.
Not all clubs can boast this success when moving into a new home. The likes of Leicester, Middlesbrough, Derby, Bolton Hull and Coventry have all enjoyed spells in the top flight after moving into purpose built grounds. However, Leicester and now Coventry have along with Southampton spent time in the third tier of the football pyramid, with their new stadium at the time proving more of a hindrance than a benefit.
Coventry in particular are feeling the negative impact of being stretched too far, and along with Doncaster, who also have a relatively new ground, will never have envisaged division one football in two thirds empty stadiums as part of the blue print.
Further down the league structure, Chesterfield having been promoted from division two in their first season in their new stadium were promptly relegated again last year, scuppering any thoughts of following the likes of Wigan through the divisions. Colchester United and Shrewsbury have shown glimpses of improvement, but staying in League One will be the extent of their ambitions for the foreseeable future.
A success story in the making could be that down on the south coast at Brighton and Hove Albion. Since moving into their new Amex stadium, crowds have near quadrupled and success has followed on the pitch with the team proudly sitting on top of the Championship table. A new stadium has been essential for Brighton for some time, and it appears that success and a return to the Premier League Promised Land may be on the Sussex horizon.
The club of caution, the model not to be followed though has to be Darlington. Their giant new stadium, and the man responsible for it has brought the once proud club to the brink of extinction, with the ground now sitting empty since the liquidation of the original club who now ply their trade at their near neighbours Bishops Auckland’s ground.
The overly ambitious scheme and the unscrupulous running of the club should be held up as the way not to proceed with a new stadium plan. A new stadium now seems the way forward, as part of the sanitisation of football, and while all seater stadiums were brought in for a valid reason, and they now have to be in use seven days a week, 365 days a year to be justified,
A new stadium is not the only way to run a successful and profitable football club, and in some maybe more extreme cases, a move from their old home has brought more heartache than could ever have been dreamed possible when those first exciting plans were being drawn up.
image: © Ben Sutherland