I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Please, please, for Christ’s sake let’s keep Anfield and stop all talk of a new stadium.

A week ago I was walking the dogs and listening to the podcast of the Press Pass. One rather throwaway sentence was true music to the ears. They said that the club had announced that there were no longer any plans to build a new stadium in Stanley Park. Instead the decision had been made to redevelop Anfield. It was a punch the air moment. Thank Christ. After so many years of chopped and changed plans and a sickening £50 million down the plughole, it seemed that common sense had finally been allowed to prevail.

The feeling of relief didn’t last long. I logged onto Twitter fully confident that all the usual LFC sites would carry links to the story in more detail. But there were no links and there have been none since which makes me suspect that the lads on the Press Pass must have made a bollocks of it.

So it appears that the nightmare goes on. This is something that has got me more and more hot under the collar as the years of the new century have rolled by. Every time a panel of experts discuss the long term prospects of LFC they always gravely agree with each other that until we build a new stadium we are going nowhere fast. Then of course they will run through the same old tiresome list about how City and Chelsea are richer than God and how the matchday income from Old Trafford and the Emirates makes us look like trailor trash in comparison. Oh no. Liverpool will never sniff the big league until they build themselves a new stadium and ratchet up the old matchday income. More corporate boxes. More Executive areas. More wine and dine facilities for bankers. And on and on they go until I could bloody scream.

I have often wondered if this new ground fascination is the sole preserve of panels of experts or do large numbers of match going fans actually agree as well? It seems inconceivable, but maybe I am in a minority in dreading the thought of the some American accountant issuing a kill order and letting loose the wrecking balls on the Kop.

Maybe it is time to start a list and try and make the case for keeping Anfield come hell or high water.

1. Anfield is Anfield, stupid.

 Well, obviously. It says so as the players make their way to the pitch and it has said so for half a century since Shanks put up those few iconic words. ‘This is Anfield’. Just like that. No frills, no bollocks. This is where it goes down, and every now and then, these old stands achieve the kind of magic that nowhere else can match. Cruyff and Barcelona in 76. St Etienne in 77. Arsenal in 89. Back from three down against the Mancs in the 90’s. Olympiakos. Chelsea. On and on it goes. Bricks and mortar that can transform into the 12th man. A wall of all consuming sound that can eat into the soul of the most grizzled of old pros. There is nowhere quite like Anfield when that unique thing happens when crowd and players become a single, unstoppable entity. After the epic Chelsea night on the road to Istanbul it has been noticeable that visiting European teams almost always sell out their allocation of tickets. They come early and they do the museum and the Hillsborough memorial and the stadium tour. Hundreds of millions tuned in for that epic night of mind numbing magic when the Twelfth Man got the lads over the line and gave Mourino his Waterloo. The sheer intensity of the noise that poured down from the stands made hair stand up on the back of necks from Shanghai to Sydney to Seattle. The world tuned in and the world gasped in amazement. Basically this is indeed Anfield and there is nowhere quite like it. Knock it down?

Piss off.

2. New stadiums hardly come up to expectations

Well they don’t do they? Try and think of one where the passion of the crowd has managed to survive. Roker Park or Stadium of Light? Highbury or the Emirates? Pride Park or Baseball Ground? New stadiums look nice enough but they never seem to have any magic about them. Google a few pictures of Roker Park packed to the rafters or Youtube a film of Charlie George and Derby dismantling Real Madrid in the European Cup in the early 70s. Check out the packed, ramshackle stands that almost climb on top of the players. No wonder the Spaniards got twatted. Remember what it used to like going to watch the Reds at Maine Rd under the lights. The Etihad will never have that. It is a concrete bowl named after an Arab airline. No wonder the atmosphere has drained away. Old Trafford isn’t a new ground but it might as well be. Back in 70’s and 80’s the wall of sound that funnelled down onto visiting Koppites in the Scoreboard Paddock was enough to make it hard to breathe. They were always bastards, but Christ were they ever loud bastards. Now the place is like a square of dismal shoeboxes with about as much atmosphere as a gathering of accountants. How can 76,000 people be so quiet?

3. And the name IS important for Christ’s sake.

SportsDirectArena. No more to said really. Anfield is a seven letter word that means something all over the world. The thought of the home of Liverpool Football Club being auctioned off to the highest corporate bidder is enough to make you want to smash things up with a hammer. And why? To line the pockets of a few American tycoons whose pockets are already stuffed to overflowing.

4. The nightmare of empty seats

All through the 70’s and 80’s the capacity of Anfield was 55,000 or thereabouts. But it wasn’t very often that we got anywhere near that number in the ground. Maybe once or twice every season. Derby matches always sold out. United games didn’t. Apart from Everton games, it was occasional massive European nights, maybe one every three years. The average crowd tended to be about 35,000 or so. As in 20,000 under capacity. But here’s the thing. It didn’t seem so bad. The seats in the Main Stand and the Kemlyn Rd almost always sold out and the spaces were all on the terraces. And that meant that the bodies were not packed so tight. The place only stared to feel a bit empty when the crowd dipped under 25,000. As in less than half full. It is completely different in an all seater stadium. There is something profoundly depressing about the sight of row after row of empty seats. Remember the Bolton game at the last gasp of the Hodgson reign? The crowd was down to 35,000 or so and there were 10,000 empty seats. In theory the ground was still more than three quarters full, but it didn’t seem that way. It seemed like about 300. It was godforsaken and dismal and depressing, though at least the sheer misery of the occasion helped to get rid of the wretched face wringer from Croyden.

In the 80’s and 90’s all the action was in Serie A. They had all the glamour and all the big players. Then their crowds started to slip. By the turn of the century, Italians had decided they preferred to watch the match in the pub. Juventus were still a heck of a side, as were all their big clubs. But the TV companies walked away from them. Why? Because every time they screened a home game from The Stadio Di Alpi there were about 20,000 lost souls rattling around an 80,000 stadium. 60,000 empty grey seats. It must have been enough to make any poor sod in the ground feel like topping themselves. The football was still great and the likes of Zidane and Del Piero were up there in the stratosphere. But no matter how good the players were, it wasn’t enough to make 60,000 empty seats seem bearable. So what did Juve do? They knocked the 80,000 stadium down and built a 40,000 stadium in its place. And what happened? Once people knew there wouldn’t be so many empty seats they were happy to go and watch. The ground got filled and Juve won the league. I don’t know what the crowd was at the game against Udinese last night. Just over 40,000 I reckon. There were a few banks of empty seats but not enough to dampen the mood. The atmosphere was good and the game responded. What if we were in a shiny new 70,000 stadium over the road in Stanley park? Would we have got any more? I doubt it. So there would have been 30,000 empty seats and it would have been crap. In fact I would bet that the crowd would have been nearer 25,000 in a new stadium because everyone would have known that the ground would be half full and depressing so they would have stayed away and watched it on the TV instead. Just like the Juve fans did.

5. The even bigger nightmare of empty corporate seats.

            How much do you hate the sight of all those empty corporate seats at Wembley when the game kicks off after half time? It doesn’t matter that it is a Cup Final, those bastards are more interested in getting their full quota of all inclusive champagne. And it means the rest of the ground is made to feel like the game isn’t as big any more. How can it be big when hundreds have decided they can’t be bothered to take up the best seats in the house? Whenever new stadiums are planned, the bean counters always allocate the best view to the suits from the corporations who by an large don’t give a stuff about the match. These are the most visual seats and they remain empty for large chunks of the game. And it makes you want to scream because it symbolises everything that is wrong with the whole bloody world at the moment. Check out the Emirates in the minutes after half time. There is a band of corporate seats that runs all the way around the ground and you barely see a soul there until about the 60th minute. No wonder the Arsenal should adopt ‘The Sound of Silence’ as their club anthem. We don’t have that many corporate seats at Anfield, thank God. I dare say the bean counters from Boston dream about them every night. A new stadium would mean they would get their way and we would have to suffer great empty swathes of red seats for most of the second half. Stuff that.

            6. Has everyone forgotten there’s a recession on?

            This is probably the most stupid thing of all. There is an attitude that if you build a 70,000 stadium you are bound to get a 70,000 crowd. How idiotic is that! In 1982 we had just become the Champions of Europe for the third time. You could pay a couple of quid to stand on the Kop and watch King Kenny, Souness, Hanson, Lawrenson and Rush. Basically £2 gave you ninety minutes with the best football team on planet earth. We were the Barca of the early eighties. That is why we won the league by 11 points that year and we would have won the European Cup but for Brucie having one of his butterfingers moments on an icy cold night in Poland. So what was the average crowd in our mighty 55,000 stadium where you were charged the price of ONE hour’s work to go and watch? 33,000. As in two thirds full. Was that because the people of Liverpool didn’t like football much? Be sensible. We were two thirds full because the city was being taken to the cleaners by a recession that left 3 million on the dole: a recession that hit Liverpool harder than any city in the land. A bit like this one in fact. 1992? Another recession and another season where the average crowd was 33,000. Look at the start Everton have made this season and yet they couldn’t sell out for their home game against Newcastle. Will we still be selling out in a couple of years time when times are even harder? Doubtful. And that is with a capacity of 45,000. And that is with a few thousand football tourists making the trip to come to Anfield to do the whole museum and film the Kop on the mobile phone thing. Would they come to the new 70,000 completely soulless AnyricherthangodArabwithcashtoburn Stadium? Doubtful.

            7. The average age thing.

            When I started going to the match in the early 70’s the average age of the crowd was about twenty. Now it is almost fifty. Which mathematically means that for every twenty year old in the ground there is an eighty year old in the ground. The new generation has no culture of going to the match. They meet up in the pub and watch the big screen instead. Two years ago Bolton had a dead rubber game at the end of the season against Fulham. They were dreading how low the crowd was going to be. So they took the bull by the horns and advertised heavily that it was a quid to get in for under 18s and over 65s. Not a bad deal. A quid for some Premier League Football. How many did they get? 18,000. Just over half full. AC Milan had a similar experience when they had already qualified from the group stages of the Champions League and faced the prospect of a similarly dead rubber against Lille. They worried that too many empty seats in the San Siro would damage brand Milan and so they hit the airwaves to announce that all seats were on offer at 1 Euro a piece and under 18’s could get in free. Now how good deal is that. One lousy Euro to get to go to the San Siro to watch AC Milan. How many did they get? 3000. Oh yeah. You DID read that right. 3000. 77000 empty seats. And no doubt the bars in the city were full as many still preferred to watch it on the box because they knew only too well that the place would be empty and depressing even though it was only a euro to get in. And when all is said and done who wants to shell out a euro to go and get all doomed out? The next generation has never learned the habit of going to the match. They are a big screen Sky in the pub generation and this means that it is likely that crowds will slowly thin out as those of us who got hooked on live football in the 70’s and 80’s slowly become infirm and die off. Liverpool are in a position to buck this trend because Anfield will always be Anfield and therefore we will draw in thousands of football tourists who want to get a first hand taste of the magic. Would they come to a soulless bowl in the park? Would they buggery.

            So will someone please forward this on to John W Henry and company. It seems they are moving to the idea of keeping the place after all and to be fair to them they DID keep Fenway Park. Seriously guys, if you are indeed serious about keeping your treasured brand in tact, then for the love of Christ don’t even think of knocking down Anfield. It would be up there with invading Russia with no winter uniforms in terms of crass stupidity.   

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