Great view that loses sight of the past

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The Independent Online
As demolition balls rain upon the undefended ramparts of the latest batch of our sporting citadels to be condemned as old and unsuitable, the more tradition-sensitive amongst us are urged to ignore the ruins and delight instead at the gleaming stock of new stadiums that will emerge in their place.

This is not easy. Much as we force ourselves to welcome the age of Meccano architecture, pristine tiers of plastic seats, executive accommodation, ample comfort stations and rows of refreshment opportunities, there is something unsettling about destruction when it involves the sites of so many of our memories.

Cardiff Arms Park was gutted by bargain hunters last weekend before they began dismantling the home of Welsh rugby in readiness for a new stadium on the same site but at right angles to the old one. The arguments about the merits of the development are likely to be still going on when fans file into the new place in 1999.

At least, the Arms Park ghosts won't have to move far unlike their kindred spirits at the famous old football grounds shortly to become rubble. Stoke City's Victoria Ground is the oldest of all League grounds, with the longest continuous occupancy and the largest remaining terrace. But, even after 119 years, sentiment won't keep the bulldozers from the door and they'll be allowed in after Stoke play West Bromwich Albion today. West Brom were the ground's first visitors in 1878, so there'll be a sense of symmetry as well as history.

Bolton Wanderers have just ended their 102-year tenure at Burnden Park but local teams will be allowed, at a price, to play on the pitch until 1 June when it will be cut up and sold. Bolton, who played in front of 70,000 in 1933 will move to their new 25,000-capacity ground which will be called the Reebok Stadium - named, apparently, after one of their trainers.

Derby County have lived at the cramped but atmospheric Baseball Ground for the same number of years and before they move to Pride Park they have a match against Arsenal on 11 May. Sunderland's occupation of intimidating Roker Park ended officially after 99 years yesterday with the Premiership game against Everton but the hard-hats will be held at bay until later in the month when Liverpool, the first visitors in 1898, will play a friendly finale. For a fiver you can have your name printed in the last Roker programme and for the same price you have your name on a brick to be used to build the replacement ground half a mile away at Wearmouth.

Dilapidation is not quite the reason behind Brighton & Hove Albion's controversial move from the Goldstone Road after 93 years but the supporters have already taken their farewells and large parts of the ground as well.

The death last week of Lord Taylor of Gosforth provided a reminder that this urge for resettlement is not wholly born of a desire for more glittering and lucrative premises. Lord Taylor's report on the 1989 Hillsborough disaster emphasised the need for all-seater grounds and was the catalyst for an improvement that, helped by the demands of Euro 96, has provided the nation with some of the world's finest grounds.

The upgrade in facilities had already been kick-started following the tragic fire in the stand at Bradford's Valley Parade. It resulted in the Safety of Sports Grounds Act that was interpreted by some local authorities in a draconian fashion that almost crippled some clubs. Senior police and fire chiefs who had long enjoyed being the guests of their local clubs were suddenly condemning grandstands they'd been happily sitting in for years.

Obviously, the incentive to improve safety and comfort was necessary and what we are seeing now is that some clubs can't achieve the higher standards required without re-locating. There is also the point that most old grounds were built on what have become prime redevelopment sites - but we needn't dwell on that aspect.

Perhaps, there is a more positive way of regarding these nostalgic heaps as the 20th century prepares to cough its last. Far from mourning, we should marvel at how defiantly the ancient arenas have hung on to their existence when so many of the edifices that served as the main gathering places of life in the first five or six decades of the 1900s have long fallen to changing habits and the grasp of developers. Theatres, cinemas, churches, pubs... the gaps in their ranks began to appear far earlier and in greater numbers.

Little else has survived the century without dramatic change so why should football expect everlasting life in its original form? The simple answer is that the game is now venturing so far from its birthplace among the masses that we must wonder whether the passage of another 100 years, or even 50, will see it survive as strongly.

As a product of the packed, swaying and dangerous crowds of the post- war years, albeit in the boys' enclosure, I must question whether the love and loyalty passed down through the generations in those days will flourish in the future; we used to fight for a view, never mind a breath, among crowds of 40-50,000 and the bond created was a powerful bit stronger than that to be forged in a comfortably seated, 25,000 capacity stadium.

It is good that football's following has been gentrified, that the hooligan element is on the sharp decrease and discomfort is to be banished, but to pine for the glorious old grounds is not merely to indulge in old-codgery but to worry that the cosseted will never quite feel the same affinity towards it.

IF Sky could capture the exclusive rights to general election coverage, they'd hold one every six months. It was riveting television. In the early hours of Friday morning a friend rang to say: "I used to think sport was the best thing on TV but this is much more exciting."

Indeed, depending on your political persuasion, it was like watching your favourite football team score goal after goal. But our new leaders mustn't think that their massive majority will protect them from the sporting lobby. They'd hardly dropped the Alka Seltzers into the glass on Friday morning when they received a fax from a group of governing bodies complaining about their intention to siphon off some of sport's lottery money. It is an area into which they should rush very slowly.

THE snooker player Darren Morgan attracted the sarcastic ire of Prince Naseem Hamed's camp last week when he complained that he was intimidated by the boxer's presence during his quarter- final against Stephen Hendry at the Crucible. Naseem, who is a friend of Hendry's, sat in the press seats which are beneath the television cameras at the black end of the table.

I once survived three frames sitting there. The seats are so close the tension is scarcely bearable and you feel that even to make a note would distract the player at the table. So there was no way that Naseem, who was wearing a silver coat, could escape notice whether or not he was attempting to be intimidating.

Naseem did not take kindly to the criticism and accused Morgan of making excuses for his defeat. But he shouldn't have been there and no one should doubt Morgan's right to complain.