Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Save Anfield From Destruction

The big story for most of the week, in case you've been trapped down a mine somewhere, was the sale of Liverpool FC, the club finally prised from the chubby chipolata grip of Tom Hicks and delivered to John W Henry II, cigar-chomping owner of the Boston Red Sox. Now, time will only tell whether this sale represents a transfer from Frying Pan Holdings to Fire Sports Ventures, but with the club's leveraged debt wiped out in one fell swoop, at the moment it looks like good news. What should also be music to everyone's ears is Henry's wait- and-see attitude to building an all-new stadium to replace famous old Anfield. Back in Boston, Henry had once looked into moving the Red Sox, from the venerable Fenway Park to a state-of-the-art plush pad. But tradition eventually won out, and "America's most beloved ballpark" was saved from demolition, renovated instead with only occasional splashes of the ersatz. The British press, though, didn't like the sound of this. Even the reviled George Gillett had initially shown willing to "put a spade in the ground" and dig a "swimming pool" sized hole in Stanley Park, after all. Henry's measured approach represented unacceptable feet-dragging, a sign that he and his fellow consortium members may not be taking their new acquisition in the right direction. For Liverpool to be successful – both football club and city – it was imperative that a whacking great new pleasuredome was erected. No debate. No matter that a sizable number of fans would rather stay put in their old historic homes. (Show me a Southampton fan who doesn't miss The Dell, the most charming venue of the Premiership era. Or an Arsenal – or architecture – fan who doesn't hanker for Highbury. In a 2009 article in When Saturday Comes, David Stubbs – author of the hilarious Send Them Victorious – argued that clubs should "make do and mend ... upgrade the plumbing, repaint the railings, but then leave [their stadium] be ... stadium moves, for all the airy mod cons they offer as inducement, represent the shifting away of football from the community into the corporate, all for the sake of the blind, psychotic imperative of 'expansion' into God knows where and God knows what." He then called for the new flats at Highbury to be demolished and replaced by a 1:1 replica of the old Arsenal Stadium.) No matter that studies have shown that new stadiums don't necessarily bring economic benefits to the areas they're built in. (As the Guardian's Marina Hyde – along with Stubbs a lonely, sane voice in the wilderness – reported this week, "professional sports facilities" have been found to have "a negative impact on the retail sector of a local economy", causing "an average net loss of jobs". All the while, notes Hyde, "evangelists waffle about 'intangible' benefits.") No matter that Liverpool might not actually need the extra money from an extra 30,000 seats. (Sure, more cash would help them. But consider: in the decade 2000-2010, Liverpool struggled along with lower gate receipts than Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Sunderland and Newcastle. Sure, three of those clubs won all the Premier League titles on offer between them. But the other two were occasionally spotted floundering in the Championship. Meanwhile, had Gerard Houllier signed Nicolas Anelka not El Hadji Diouf, and if Rafael Benitez had set up his team to attack Fulham, Stoke, West Ham and Wigan in the winter of 2008/09, poor paupers Liverpool would still have had two titles of their own to celebrate. Point being, it is possible to compete on gates of 40,000, if your manager doesn't make basic mistakes at the crucial moment.) But it's bowl or bust in these modern times. So expect the media to put pressure on Liverpool's new regime to build a new stadium, and raze historic Anfield to the ground in the spurious name of progress. With the way Roy Hodgson's team is presently playing, realistic Liverpool fans may not be expecting many more of their famous atmospheric European nights (a la Saint Etienne 77 or Chelsea 05) any time soon. Should they move to an identikit bowl, however, they may not get any more atmospheric nights at all.

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