If we are to be concerned about the future of football in the twenty-first century, one issue that perhaps doesn’t get the attention that it should do is the loss of grounds themselves. The major citadels of the modern game – Old Trafford, The Emirates, Wembley – are safe, but smaller clubs find themselves in a perilous position as small, often loss-making businesses that, in a lot of cases, are the owners of prime town centre real estate. This has been a particular problem in London, where grounds in Edgware, Leytonstone, Wimbledon, Enfield and Hendon (amongst others) have been lost forever with no replacements having been built elsewhere.
It’s not all bad news, though. Many local councils now actively encourage the preservation of the football facilities that they own in the full knowledge that they carry a benefit that cannot necessarily be measured in pounds and pence. In Chester, for example, the active involvement of the local council played a huge role in ensuring the future of football in the city after the extinction of the local club earlier this year. And today has been a good day for those of us that fret about such issues, with planning permission having been granted for two clubs, one of which was evicted from its home and the other of which has been fighting for a home of its own since its formation.
Rotherham United played at Millmoor for 101 years, before their eviction at the end of the 2007/08 season. The club had been owned by the scrap metal dealer Ken Booth since 1987, but after the ITV Digital collapse of 2002 the club fell into severe difficulties and entered into administration twice, in 2006 and 2008. The Booth family had been a literal presence at Millmoor for many years, the cranes of their scrap metal yard plainly visible behind the Millmoor stands, but relations between the club and its patrons ended at the end of the 2007/08 season with the club leaving Millmoor behind for Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield and an uncertain future.
Quite asides from being an unsuitable venue for league football, Rotherham were leaving their home town, even though they were only moving four miles away. The Football League gave the club just four years to find a new home back in Rotherham itself, so the race was back on to get the club back to the town itself and this required the goodwill of the local council in order to get them home. After just over two years of planning and lobbying, though, today was a day for celebration for the club’s supporters as planning permission was granted for a new stadium, which will see them return to the town in the summer of 2012.
The new ground is a perfect solution for a club that has been close to the edge on several occasions. Built on the site of the former Guest And Chrimes Foundry near the town centre, it will have a 12,000 capacity and will be within walking distance of the local railway station. After four years of purgatory at Don Valley, it is time for Rotherham United to start celebrating and planning for the future and the return of football to the local community is obviously to be welcomed. After everything that the supporters of the club have been through over the last few years or so, they thoroughly deserve their new home.
The dilemma facing FC United of Manchester over the last six years has been a subtly different one. Stuck at Bury ever since their formation, thirty minutes by tram from the centre of Manchester in the suburbs and paying £5,000 per match for the pleasure of it, those running the club have been acutely aware of the need to set down some roots and build a home of their own. The costs that come from their match-day revenue have been the biggest reason for the club’s stasis on the pitch over the last couple of years. For the (by comparison with other clubs in their league, the Northern Premier League Premier Division) massive crowds that they get, they have been stymied by the literal cost of their existence.
A site, however, was identified, and the feeling of home-coming for the club had been growing for some time. The Ten Acres Lane Sports Centre in Newton Heath has obvious significance for anybody with a connection to Manchester United, and the plans for the ground were made public earlier this season. Today, however, a meeting at the chambers of Manchester City Council confirmed what their supporters have been praying for since the formation of the club – final planning permission has now been granted for the new ground. The next question that arises is how such a ground will be paid for a club that eschews many of the trappings of the commercialism of the game and has been paying a fortune just to be in existence since it founded.
That a club that can offer something as innovative as the concept of supporters choosing what they pay for their own seasons tickets should have come up with a solution to this shouldn’t be a major surprise. The estimated total cost of the Ten Acres Lane site is £3.5m. Of this, the club itself needs to raise £500,000 in order to get the project moving and this is coming from donations from the membership to a Ground Development Fund. The total amount raised so far by the GDF amounted, as of the 20th of October, to £307,000. To find the remainder without slinging a fresh albatross of debt around the club’s neck would obviously be an even greater challenge, but they have also proved to be up to this.
The FC United Community Shares Scheme is, the club hopes, going to raise a further £1.5m towards the development of the site. The Community Shares Cheme is supported by the Development Trusts Association and Co-operatives UK and offers people the chance to invest in the new stadium and get a modest return for their investment but without saddling the club with a massive debt. Individuals can donate from £200 to £20,000 and it is hoped that there will be sufficient interest to give the club a real springboard towards a new ground. Ten Acres Lane will be a community hub, offering local people the chance to utilise its facilities and is completely in keeping with the ethos of the club that is it seeking an alternative way of doing things in a football financial climate that often seems to be beyond help or reparation.
These two Uniteds are at different stages in their journey, but today was a critical one for both of them in getting home. For one of them it will be returning home. For the other, it will be moving to a home of their own for the first time. It’s cheap (and not completely true) to draw the analogy of football as having taken the place of religion in the twenty-first century, but if we can be allowed a degree of artistic licence for a moment, the loss of some of our football grounds over the last twenty years or so has been, in its own way, a process of deconsecration. Today has been a good day for all of us, the start of a return journey home for a club that has been homeless for the last two and a half years and the promise of a bright future for an alternative vision of what our game could be.
There will be a full write up of the recent events surrounding FC United’s trip to Brighton on Saturday on Twohundredpercent tomorrow, and don’t forget – you can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.