Sad and troubling news from South Yorkshire, where Rotherham United have conceded defeat in their attempts to stay at Millmoor, and will play for next season at least at the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield. The club had been in negotiations with the Booth family (who own Millmoor) for the last few weeks, but have been unable to agree terms with the owners and will, therefore, be leaving their home for the last 101 years with immediate effect. There are plans in place with the local council to build a new community stadium within the town itself, but it will take a minimum of two or three years for the new stadium to be ready for use, so relocation seems to be the only option for them for the time being.
Don Valley Stadium is five miles from Rotherham, in Sheffield. It is fortunate in some respects for the club that such a facility is relatively nearby. It is the biggest athletics stadium in England (with a capacity of 25,000), and is regularly used as a concert venue by rock bands. Whether it is suitable for League Two football is, however, a somewhat different question. Rotherham attracted crowds of in the region of 3-4,000 people for lehague matches last season, and the prospect of them rattling around Don Valley like peas in a tin can is a far from enthralling one. In addition to this, the presence of an athletics track around the pitch is likely to further affect the atmosphere at home matches. Finally, although five miles doesn’t sound like very far, there is also the concern that travelling such a distance may be enough people off travelling to see them play. People in the immediate surroundings of the new stadium could reasonably be expected to already have allegiances to Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday that will not be broken because a new, less successful club from out of town have moved into the area.
The club’s new owner, Tony Stewart, has had a lot on his plate over the last few weeks, having already saved the club from extinction when such an outcome appeared to be likely to the point of being inevitable. He is, unsurprisingly, putting a positive spin on the move, talking up the “opportunity” aspect of it. If Rotherham were to make a success of moving to an athletics stadium, though, it would put them in a minority of one amongst the clubs that have tried it. The highest profile club in England to use an athletics stadium are Brighton & Hove Albion, who moved to The Withdean Stadium in 1999 after two seasons of playing their home matches at Gillingham.
To say that the conditions of their lease are onerous would be one of the biggest understatements that I could manage. They’re not allowed to play any music over the PA until the teams come onto the pitch and then a further fifteen minutes at half-time. No parking is allowed within a mile of the stadium (which has meant that the club has had to launch a park & ride scheme from Brighton railway station), and the residents of the area have blocked any attempts from the club to make the area more football friendly. In 2005, when they renegotiated the terms of the lease with Brighton & Hove Council, a local resident spotted a loophole in agreement signed and, presumably hoping to get them evicted, made the council and club go through the whole application process again. The lease on Withdean is financially crippling for Brighton & Hove Albion, and goes ninety per cent of the way towards explaining why the move to a new stadium in Falmer was so critical to the club’s survival. All of this doesn’t even take into account the terrible atmosphere there on matchdays, when any attempts at creating an atmosphere seem to catch the wind and blow away over the South Downs. Ultimately, Withdean is an athletics stadium, and is ill-suited to hosting League football.
A different yet similar situation has arisen in Manchester, where FC United of Manchester have been groundsharing with League Two club Bury. The cost of renting Gigg Lane is high and the additional limitations on what the club can earn from additional revenues (food within the ground, for example, is controlled by Bury) mean that every home match is a struggle for them to break even. The fighting fund that they have set up to try and secure a ground that they can call their own, therefore, is reliant on donations and not much else. It’s a catch-22 situation which suits no-one apart from, one suspects, Bury FC (and whilst I wouldn’t wish ill on them given their recent financial difficulties, a smaller club is suffering because of the circumstances in which it finds itself).
The long term future of Rotherham United, therefore, depends on their being able to return back to the town of Rotherham as soon as possible. It is, therefore, critical that the council and club act quickly and decisively to secure a site for a new stadium and begin work on it as quickly as possible. Five miles may not seem like a great distance, but when that five miles takes you over the boundary and into a neighbouring (and considerably bigger) city, one fears that the identity of the club could be in danger. Lack of atmosphere and the feeling that “this isn’t Rotherham any more”, when twinned with the additional distance, could have a serious effect on attendances.
It is true to say that Don Valley Stadium is council-owned and one would hope that the council would intend to help Rotherham United by limiting the cost of renting it and allowing them to make money from merchandising and refreshments on match days, but this is far from guaranteed. The last few weeks have seen Rotherham United fight against all the odds to secure their very existence and now, and now, not long after it looked as if they had done enough to pull through, a new and potentially graver threat to the club’s existence has chosen to rear its head. I just hope that the Booths enjoy the money that they will get from the sale of the Millmoor – they’re making a lot of people suffer for it.