Arena: Coming to terms with the past: 1 Hillsborough: Simon Inglis opens a new series on sporting venues with a look at a ground still in the shadow of tragedy

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The Independent Online
IT CAN take years for a place to shake off the stigma of human tragedy, for the names of Ibrox and Bradford to lose their automatic adjuncts of 'disaster' and 'fire'.

'Hillsborough' has never needed a rider. Mention the name and we register the event, as with Gallipoli or Aberfan. But if 'Hillsborough' is where life on the terraces as we knew it ended, it is also where the new world began. It was not Hillsborough which crumbled on 15 April 1989, it was a system, and a rotten, complacent and hateful one at that.

Blackburn Rovers fans visiting Hillsborough this afternoon hardly need reminding of the new order, as their own, once relatively humble Ewood Park rapidly evolves into one of Britain's swishest football venues.

Hillsborough's own revival has been quite different; less satisfactory in architectural terms, less radical in concept, yet Sheffield Wednesday's home steadfastly remains one of the few grounds which has neutrals gushing in appreciation.

Splendid is the word that comes to to mind. A touch overdone on the blue cladding maybe, but overall, as one descends from the Snake Pass into Owlerton, or marches up the Penistone Road, the first impressions of Hillsborough are still unquestionably splendid.

Visitors should start at the simple memorial to the 95 Liverpool fans who died in 1989, about 100 yards from the visitors' new turnstiles on Leppings Lane. There are also memorial gates in nearby Hillsborough Park.

When Wednesday opened the ground in 1899 they were surrounded by open fields. Now the only rural note sounds from the River Don, which flows behind the South Stand. A vast new grey roof built over the original 1914 South Stand rather detracts from the riverside concourse, but traditionalists have been compensated by the restoration of the old roof's distinctive gable to the centre of the new cover, complete with its decorative finial.

The roof's massive 125-metre ''goalpost' girder certainly overshadows the surviving two tiers of the South Stand - designed by the ubiquitous Scottish engineer Archibald Leitch - but also leaves an uneasy void at the rear. Wednesday hope to fill this with a third tier of seats and perhaps executive boxes, thus raising the present capacity from 36,020 to nearer the magical 40,000 mark.

Rovers fans will be in the West Stand, at the Leppings Lane end. Built for the 1966 World Cup, this is Hillsborough's least attractive structure, although the infamous gate and turnstile area where the disaster had its roots are now gone and the access much improved.

Where some 9,000 once stood on the former Leppings Lane terrace, in front of the West Stand, 2,600 are now seated. Above them is a clumsy roof extension. In contrast, adjacent to this is the North Stand, completed in 1961; the first large cantilevered stand in Britain; the only stand to merit a mention in Nikolaus Pevsner's Buildings of England; a structure which, over 30 years on, still enlivens the spirit. And in 1990, right next to it, they erect a bog-standard roof with four columns.

The North Stand should have been the model for all future work at Hillsborough, instead of which it stands alone as the symbol of a once-optimistic age.

Finally the Kop. Roofed over in 1986 with yet more columns, the Kop was seated last summer, cutting its capacity from 22,000 to 11,200.

Unlike at Arsenal or Molineux, the banking was not cleared and a new stand built in its place. The terracing was instead reprofiled and seats installed. The club is delighted it has sold 8,800 season tickets for the Kop, which sells out for virtually every match.

But there are rumblings. The fanzine editor Daniel Gordon has encountered no praise from Kop regulars and plenty of comments such as 'not enough leg-room' and 'the atmosphere's gone'. Resentment also lingers that the conversion was done a year before the 1994 deadline and announced at very short notice, just before last season's Cup Final.

The new Hillsborough has cost nearly pounds 6m so far, with another pounds 4m to be spent before the European Championships arrive in 1996.

Without 'Hillsborough' and the revolution it sparked, England could never have contemplated staging such a major event. Stigmatic, splendid, Hillsborough is part of our football history, part of us all.

Simon Inglis is author of The Football Grounds of Great Britain

(Photograph omitted)