Graham Kelly: Community role should overrule ground economics

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The Independent Football

One might sometimes think that a football club was an unwelcome neighbour whose departure would cause few tears to be shed, but the travails of Wimbledon, the temporary homelessness of the former Cottagers of Fulham and the difficulties faced by Arsenal in financing their move to Ashburton Grove have combined to persuade the Culture, Sport and Tourism Committee of the London Assembly to conduct an inquiry into the redevelopment of stadiums.

Its conclusions, after hearing evidence from clubs, Supporters Direct and residents' associations, have relevance not only for the crowded capital's planners, but also for any hard-pressed executive attempting to find a solution for a club hamstrung by a stadium that is years out of date in a part of town suffering from decades of decay.

They decided that, as football stadiums are part of the cultural and sporting heritage, which deliver community and regenerative benefits, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, should be urged to give additional weight in his Local Plan to the grounds remaining in their traditional areas, subject always to the clubs guaranteeing to act as good neighbours by playing their full part in community relations.

The committee felt that clubs should not be regarded as normal commercial enterprises, with their stadiums merely the location where their business is conducted. Rather they have a major and positive impact on their area, with the stadium the focus for community schemes which serve to demonstrate football's broad appeal to young and old.

The committee recommends that Football Association and Football League rules on a club's location should emphasise the importance of retaining links with their historic area, and suggests that the Mayor's draft Local Plan is amended as follows to take account of this need: "Where there is a widely recognised historic and regenerative role played by professional sporting clubs within their community this role should be preserved, and the redevelopment of any existing site should only be permitted if the club has been able to demonstrate that they have exhausted the possibility of remaining at their existing location and they have exhausted the possibility of remaining within their host borough or an agreed neighbouring borough."

This effectively draws on experience gained already in Hounslow where Bees United, the Brentford Supporters Trust - now in day-to-day control of the club - built on six years of liaison between club and community by starting its own political party (ABEEC) and putting up candidates in the 2002 elections. One Brentford Independent Association Supporters Committee member was elected and residents are now working with the club to help them realise the best value for the Griffin Park site, a replacement for which must be acquired before it is redeveloped.

The history of ground-sharing in London over the last 20 years forms an illuminating backdrop to the report. Selhurst Park has hosted Charlton Athletic and Wimbledon, Charlton were tenants of West Ham, and Fulham are playing at Loftus Road, supposedly for two seasons.

The picture thereafter is far from clear. The Fulham Supporters Trust is campaigning strongly under the slogan "Back to the Cottage". Before the change of ownership at Chelsea there were suggestions that Chelsea and Fulham should share Stamford Bridge, but the Hammersmith & Fulham Council refused to agree to the number of matches involved after councillors rallied to oppose any increase.

Arsenal stated in written evidence that, if costs continued to rise, permanent ground-sharing in the future could not be ruled out. However, they felt it would be a major step which would only work if any shared ground was purpose-built "neutral territory". Their manager, Arsène Wenger, has reflected tellingly that clubs having their own grounds is a respected facet of English football culture.

The benefits of a neutral stadium are apparent. A new site would start from scratch in order to eliminate nuisance factors and include sustainable transport links to an out-of-town-location.

Examples from Europe frequently cited are those in Milan, Turin and Rome. However, the stadiums are municipally funded, and in London the fan bases of the clubs are generally of disparate sizes.

In Milan and Rome the communal arrangements are long-standing but in Turin the Stadio Delle Alpi, built for the 1990 World Cup, is deeply unpopular with fans of Torino and Juventus for its poor atmosphere and both clubs are hoping to return to their former sites in Turin.

This did not cut much ice with Islington residents opposed to Arsenal's move to Ashburton Grove, who regarded such qualms as sentimentality.

No doubt the somewhat tame suggestion that clubs should "engage" with the Metropolitan Police to attempt to resolve a funding discrepancy in the region of £5m that could be recovered from Premier League clubs will raise some Londoners' eyebrows too, but this report is a superb one for football.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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