The Grounds That Never Were: Derby County’s Wembley Of The North
In the first of an occasional new series on football grounds that never quite came to be, Ian King takes a look at an ambitious post-war scheme to move Derby County into a then-state of the art stadium that came to nothing.
In 1997, Derby County left The Baseball Ground, their home of 102 years, for Pride Park. Cramped and with an often almost unmanageable playing surface, The Baseball Ground had long been an unsatisfactory home for The Rams, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the club should have looked at the possibility of moving to a new ground before The Taylor Report and a rush of Premier League money led to numerous clubs leaving their ancestral bases. What may be surprising to some readers, however, is that one of the plans for Derby to leave The Baseball Ground involved the possibility of moving to a ground that would have been by a long way the most modern in Britain, and which may well have become one of the world’s great football venues.
Maxwell Ayrton was the architect responsible for possibly the most iconic single building in British football. As the man behind the design and construction of Wembley Stadium between 1921 and 1923, Ayrton had been responsible for the Twin Towers, a trademark that came to take on a significance far beyond merely being two concrete pillars marking the entrance to the stadium. Meanwhile, just over 100 miles away in the East Midlands city of Derby, a new sports venue of more modest dimensions was being completed in the same year. The Municipal Sports Ground had been built by unemployed soldiers, returning from the First World War. It was intended primarily as a cycling venue, but the angle of its corners and the quality of the concrete used for its banking meant that it could never be used for serious competitive cycling.
Derby County were offered the use of The Municipal Sports Ground, but turned it down and purchased The Baseball Ground, which they had been leasing since they moved in there, outright the following year. The Municipal Sports Ground continued in use and Derby County even temporarily used it at the very start of the Second World War but, after The Baseball Ground was seriously damaged by an air raid in 1941, perhaps the seed of the idea of leaving the ground began to germinate again and, at the end of the war, the club started to look into redeveloping The Municipal Sports Ground, only this time there was considerably more detail in the plans, and the man that they had called upon was Maxwell Ayrton.
If The Empire Stadium at Wembley had been a striking piece of design, Ayrton went to town on the new Derby stadium. It was planned to hold 78,600 people, including a huge terrace running the length of one side of the pitch which would hold almost 30,000 people on its own, with the rest of the pitch with three cantilever stands, meaning stands supported by load-bearing beams. Such designs are commonplace in stadium development, but such innovation (the design meant that all spectators’ views would have been unimpeded) was unheard of in British stadium design. In addition to this, the plans were part of a larger municipal complex, to contain a health centre (containing badminton courts and a swimming pool), a cinema, a concert hall, lecture rooms, a ball room and a cafe.
In terms of design, it was literally decades ahead of its time. Indeed, looking back at photographs of the design, what is most striking about it is how similar the three stands look to the redeveloped Ibrox Stadium, construction of which didn’t start until 1978. Ayrton was very much aware of the fact that health and recreation were essential to the development of a healthy community, and his innovation, even at the planning stage, was recognised by the industry at the time. In the August 1945 edition of Art & Industry, the editor noted that:
Understatement is a national characteristic which has cost us dear in international appreciation. It would ill become us now to go to the opposite extreme and shout blatantly from the house-tops, but we ill-serve our cause if we fail to acclaim British achievement. Here is a piece of industrial design, in its best and widest sense, worthy to be compared with the conception of our international, but friendly, rivals and, so far as we are aware, it is a new development of the conception of the development of social usefulness of a football stand that has never before been attempted.
Small wonder, then, that the project soon came to be known, especially consider the previous work of Ayrton himself, as “The Wembley Of The North”. His vision, however, was out of step with that of the owners of Derby County FC. The ground would, uniquely for the time, have paid for itself over the course of time, but the project never got off the ground. The club patched up the Osmaston Stand (the stand damaged during the war) and carried on as they had before, adding a new stand in 1969. The club certainly never saw the 76,000 crowds that Ayrton might have envisaged – the club’s record attendance still stands as 41,826, for a match against Tottenham Hotspur in September 1969, which they won by five goals to nil.
Perhaps the project was deemed inappropriate in the austere years immediately after the war. Perhaps, and this would not have been out of step with the attitude of many football club owners at the time, it was considered to be a waste of effort to work in tandem with their local community and create something modern and innovative to benefit the supporters of the club. British football certainly lost out. As mentioned above, it would be thirty years before something as modern in terms of stadium design in Britain would actually come to fruition. Even a relatively simple concept like the cantilever stand wouldn’t become a reality until 1958, when Scunthorpe United had one built for them by the United Steel Structural Company at the now-departed Old Show Ground. Sheffield Wednesday would take the idea to a spectacular conclusion with their new North Stand, which opened three years later. It took over fifty years for Derby to find their new home. We’ll never know how different the story of Derby County in those intervening five decades might have been had Maxwell Ayrton’s vision ever have been seen through.
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