In many respects, the idiosyncracies of British football grounds add flavour to the match day experience of the football supporter. Slowly but surely, however, the more individual characteristics of our clubs are being eaten away by what is commonly referred to as “progress”. In Scotland, a row has erupted this week over Brechin City’s Glebe Park and the club’s failure to comply with UEFA regulations regarding the width of their pitch. Brechin City seem unlikely to ever break into the upper echelons of Scottish football. They currently inhabit the Scottish Second Division, with a record attendance of just over 8,000 for a Scottish Cup match against Aberdeen in 1973 and an average home crowd of just over 500. However, the SFA has signed up to UEFA’s licencing project to standardise facilities within its member leagues, and this means that Brechin’s pitch falls short of UEFA’s requirements on size.
UEFA rules state that a pitch must be a minimum of seventy yards wide, and Brechin’s weighs in at a mere sixty-seven yards. At most clubs, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem. It could simply be extended by a metre and a half on each side and everyone would be happy. Unfortunately for Brechin, however, this isn’t an option. The ground is already hemmed in on one side by their main stand and on the other by a hedge that runs the length of the pitch. In order to comply with UEFA rules, Brechin are likely to have to remove this hedge and turn Glebe Park into a three-sided ground. They have already appealed to UEFA for clemency over this rule, but the appeal was rejected this week. The cost of the conversion has been quoted at £100,000, an amount of money that may be beyond their meagre budget.
There is an extent to which this story has been misrepresented in the press. The SFA has different regulations regarding pitch widths to UEFA, and it has been said that Brechin are being forced into widening their pitch for European matches that they will almost certainly never host. This is an over-simplification of the situation. UEFA does have different rules for pitch widths, but these are general rules that all clubs that play in European leagues will have to subscribe to. The matter of European football is, to this extent, an red herring. It has also been reported that the SFA have failed to assist Brechin in this matter. The truth of it is that the SFA is pretty much unable to assist Brechin City with this, short of helping with their appeal. Ultimately, UEFA make the rules and the SFA have to enforce them.
The “rules are rules” argument is an unappealing one, but there are practical reasons why they are in place. Facility improvements cost money (often a lot of money), and clubs are often reluctant to pay this money when they may not even see any significant benefit from them. There is, however, a degree of division between club owners over how this sort of problem is dealt with. Most clubs swallow hard and cough up, but a minority will seek to avoid carrying them out and then play the “this is officaldom gone mad” card in the hope that they can be exempted from the rules. Anyone with any knowledge of how football clubs work knows that clubs don’t do this to save money for a rainy day. They do this in order to spend more money on player wages, obtaining an unfair advantage over those that have abided by the rules. There is no suggestion that this is what is happening at Brechin, but it is the biggest single reason for the stringency with which these rules are applied.
The problem with this ruling, however, is the lack of discretion which is being used. One of the principle aims of the very existence of UEFA is to promote football in Europe. Brechin may have to leave their stadium, leaving a community without a football club and a club playing miles from home as tenants of someone else. They may be able to widen the pitch, but only by a series of cripplingly expensive changes to their ground. Quite how this benefits the game in any way whatsoever is anybody’s guess. Critics of UEFA are right to point out that the pitch at Glebe Park has been deemed to be big enough for over a hundred years. Why is it suddenly not big enough? No convincing answer to this question has yet been provided by UEFA above and beyond some corporate speak about “improving the supporter experience” (my inverted commas), and no-one seems to know why seventy yards has been selected as the minimum width that a football pitch should be.
The simplest way to resolve this problem is an amendment of the rules. When standardisation rules such as these are introduced, they should be to the benefit of clubs and supporters. As such, the minimum criteria should be set low enough for everyone to be able to comply without unnecessary expense being accrued. In acting in such an inflexible way, UEFA sets it up to be shot down in flames (you can imagine the free-marketeers of club football, who would very much like to wrest control of the entire game from the current authorities, muttering, “typical UEFA – this would never happen if we were in charge”). If they are unable to do this, then they have to have the power to make exceptions to it where there are extraordinary circumstances to be taken into account and a club could be put into serious difficulties in order to comply. No-one is suggesting that Brechin City should be exempt from the rules. The rules should be more flexible, and that is UEFA’s problem rather than Brechin City’s. A three yard strip of football pitch shouldn’t need to be the cause of this level of debate.