The Grim Reality of Modern Football Stadiums

 

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On Tuesday night, I had the privilege of visiting Upton Park for the FA Cup 4th Round Replay between West Ham United and Liverpool. As a staunch Arsenal season ticket holder, this was very much a case of invading enemy territory! Although the Gunners have never had a particularly intense rivalry with the Irons, a London rivalry still remains.

My initial thoughts? Fantastic. I’ve previously travelled to the Boleyn Ground on two occasions to see Arsenal, but this was a totally different and unique experience. Strolling around the surrounding streets prior to kick off felt like a harp back to fond memories of walking to the North Bank at Highbury, a feeling that like so many others, has not been replicated since the move to the Emirates.

It’s difficult to explain this feeling to anyone but a football fan. The Emirates is a fantastic arena and of course an incredible way to watch top-level football; but it isn’t Highbury. The atmosphere at the old ground was often criticised, but it at least felt as if the 38,000 supporters were there as one. As Alan Davies has often stated on ‘The Tuesday Club’ podcast, Highbury didn’t die for this.

While sat in the Bobby Moore Stand on Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but be overawed at the supporters noisily getting behind their team. These all seemed like local, working class people who couldn’t wait to cheer for their side. As an outsider, the prospect of joining in with this support seemed almost blasphemous, but after an array of suggestive looks which almost seemed to question my lack of encouragement, it wasn’t long before I was belting out “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” with everyone else.

At Arsenal, the polar opposite applies. Sat in my lofty perch in the East Stand Upper, so much as a raised voice is met with disdain. This isn’t football; this is the theatre.

The support was infectious. Liverpool at times looked as if they were going to nick a winner and I genuinely would have been gutted had West Ham not prevailed. A goal in stoppage time was the perfect end to a perfect night. Supporters were hugging one another and cheering in a way that is normally reserved for away fans. This is how football should be; a proper home end full of proper fans.

Among this stand crammed full of die-hard Hammers, the unity was palpable. The whole end stood for the entire cup tie and not once did a steward venture up to request that supporters take their seat. At Arsenal, no sooner have the fans risen to declare their hatred and disgust towards Tottenham Hotspurs, they are politely asked to return to their seats and put an end to any rowdiness.

Being so close to the pitch at West Ham also has a huge impact on proceedings. The days of shouting obscenities at opponents and match officials and genuinely feeling like you are having an impact are over at Arsenal. Those wishing to make an atmosphere have been all but priced out and replaced with those content at sitting for 90 minutes and applauding gently from time to time. The aggression and animosity shown towards referee Roger East and the Liverpool players made for an intimidating atmosphere, something that should prevail at all grounds.

It’s a tragic shame that West Ham will be leaving Upton Park at the end of the season. Despite the attraction of playing at the Olympic Stadium, it’s difficult to envisage Tuesday night’s electric atmosphere making the short trip to Stratford intact. Clubs in England simply have to make this change in order to keep up with the rest of Europe, but as each historic stadium sees its untimely demise, a small part of football dies forever.

Arsenal’s home support is of course a particular exception with regards to atmosphere. I’m not suggesting that the Emirates noise levels will be replicated at all new stadiums, but I’m willing to place money that it will not match the traditional old grounds that so many clubs seem willing to ditch.

In addition to West Ham, Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool are all making major adaptations to their homes or moving completely in the coming years, and it seems inevitable that the atmosphere at these grounds will suffer. Supporters of these clubs excited by the future should be careful what they wish for; I would happily see Arsenal return to Highbury in a heartbeat.

As a Gooner, I hate everything about Spurs, but the thought of yet another ground being torn down and replaced with a modern dome saddens me. White Hart Lane is an intimidating venue and the support from the home fans is usually outstanding. These same fans will no doubt attempt to make the new ground their own, but with a higher number of corporate seats and increased prices, it will simply not be the same.

Football is changing. It’s an almost numbing sentiment when the reality and finality of the statement sets in. The game that I once loved because of the community and unity associated with it is slowly but surely becoming unrecognisable. My addiction for the game remains, but the love that I once had has died for good.

 

 

 

One Response to “The Grim Reality of Modern Football Stadiums

  • Strange article… Every game the North Bank stands at the Emirates.. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a steward telling people to sit down.. A change in tact from 3-4 seasons ago.

    And the atmosphere at the lane is awful for the average game, as it is at every big stadium in the country sadly..

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