Theatres of dreams are left to the imagination

Terraces filled with seats, crush barriers consigned to history and floodlight pylons all but extinct. Phil Shaw examines the new identity of the Euro 96 venues
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Imagine the scenario. Villa Park and Anfield have been razed to the ground, replaced respectively by a DIY hypermart and a furniture warehouse, while Aston Villa and Liverpool have moved to new green-belt sites. And Hillsborough has been dismantled, brick by brick, before rising again as a futuristic bowl.

It will probably never happen. But something very similar has taken place within the past 10 years in Italy, where Bari and the cohabiting Turin clubs relocated, and their equivalents in Genoa had their shared home rebuilt beyond recognition.

The impetus for the changes was provided by the World Cup finals of 1990. The sums involved ranged from pounds 30m in Genoa through pounds 65m in Milan to nearly pounds 90m in Rome.

Nothing quite as original as Genoa's Luigi Ferraris Stadium, with its terracotta towers and enclosed "British" atmosphere, has sprung up in England during the build-up to Euro 96. Nor anything as grandiose as the Stadio Delle Alpi in Turin. Not, at least, among the designated venues, for some of the most imaginative new stadiums and redevelopment schemes - notably Huddersfield's McAlpine Stadium, Molineux and Highbury - will unfortunately stand empty this month.

Yet foreign visitors will still find, possibly to their disappointment, that the old architecture of English football has been largely swept away. No more cavernous banks of terracing and crush barriers on which to sing and sway; precious few towering floodlight pylons; and a dearth (if not yet an absence) of sightline-spoiling pillars.

The driving force behind the changing face of the leading English stadiums - as they can now be called, as opposed to grounds - was neither a desire to offer the best facilities to Premiership spectators nor to impress the Continent. Rather it was the carnage of Hillsborough in 1989 and the subsequent Taylor Report. Standing accommodation had to go, the Lord Chief Justice concluded.

The edict has meant that many grounds, having had only the odd roof added between the 1930s and '70s, now required revamping for the second time in less than 20 years. A few clubs, such as Arsenal, have been at pains to preserve aesthetic integrity. Far more, like Leeds and Nottingham Forest, Euro 96 hosts both, opted for functionalism. Even Old Trafford could be accused of uniformity and lacking flair.

After the horrors of Hillsborough and Bradford, it became easy to dismiss opponents of all-seated stadiums as irresponsible romantics. But is it too much to ask for safety with a modicum of style? Preston's new ground, modelled on Genoa, incorporates a portrait of Tom Finney in the seat pattern. If a lower-division club can do it, why not their wealthier brethren?

The possibilities for future development are finite despite the support of the Football Trust (which has ploughed pounds 20m into improving the tournament venues). Liverpool, for instance, have long wanted to add a second tier to the Anfield Road end. Residents keep blocking the move because a new structure would plunge their homes into darkness.

The prospect of any of the Euro 96 stadiums undergoing a further facelift in the next decade or two must therefore be doubtful. But some of those left behind - notably Sunderland, who staged World Cup matches in 1966 - are putting substantial resources into catching up.

Let us hope the architects do not omit to incorporate a little character, the odd Prestonian flourish to distinguish it from other, depressingly similar all-seaters. Perhaps then we will find Sunderland, along with Huddersfield, Wolves and the dazzlingly refurbished homes of the Glasgow giants, on the shortlist for a joint British bid to host the World Cup in the new century.

WEMBLEY STADIUM Capacity: 76,000

Heaven and hell is the same place, claimed the Littlewoods hoardings - and that place is Wembley. Ossie Ardiles, whose knees went "all trembly" at the prospect of playing there, learned better as a manager. "It's a wonderful place, the best in the world when you win," he said. "But when you lose it looks dirty and empty."

Therein lies the Wembley paradox. The self-styled Venue of Legends is like a footballing Stonehenge in that it exerts an almost mythical allure. Alas, its facilities and public relations sometimes appear to date from a distant era too. If it is not overflowing urinals or overpriced programmes, it is the poor perspective afforded by certain seats, particularly in the lower tiers.

Compared with many club grounds, the look of the place is relatively unchanged since the ends were roofed in the 1960s. One big difference is that it is no longer exclusive or special: everyone from Grimethorpe Miners' Welfare to Genoa has played there lately. Major changes, harnessing sci-fi technology, could produce a 21st-century centre of excellence if Wembley gets the nod over Manchester as the new national stadium. Until then it is deservedly on borrowed time.

OLD TRAFFORD Capacity: 54????????,000

The theatre of dreams, to quote Bobby Charlton's memorable encapsulation of Manchester United's fortress, is more than a mere stadium. It is also a shrine where pilgrims come to worship (Tommy Docherty likened it to a cathedral, "buzzing with atmosphere even when empty") and a corporate marketing-fest to make most rivals resemble corner-shop operations.

But once inside, what a stage for Cantona and Co; French with tiers. As Old Trafford has been rebuilt over the past three decades, the planners have co-ordinated each development within a grand design. Witness the satisfying way the stand roofs join up. The pace of progress has been such that the 1960s cantilver stand, with its curving roof and dubiously pioneering executive boxes, has been replaced by the triple-decker, pounds 28m North Stand.

United are the only club in Britain playing to 50,000 crowds. Whether the place will pulsate without them is debatable. The World Cup games in '66 were a bit of a damp squib, likewise the recent semi-final between Aston Villa and Liverpool. Still, the Munich and Busby memorials should be popular with visitors. Thousands are expected, from faraway places, along with a handful of Mancunians. No change there then.

ANFIELD Capacity: 41,000

The sign above the players' tunnel still advises "This is Anfield", but to the teams playing on the red side of Stanley Park this summer it will be a statement of the obvious rather than a weapon in a psychological war. Not that the passion and decibel levels will necessarily drop because Liverpool are not involved, as the Dutch and Irish demonstrated last December.

Continental visitors will be struck by the ground's definitively British location among rows of 19th-century terraced houses. Several were demolished in Kemlyn Road (after much haggling with residents) to make way for the two-tier Centenary Stand, the scale of which has the effect of dwarfing the Anfield Road end as well as what is still officially the main stand.

No danger of the Kop being overshadowed, despite the passing of the heaving terraces and the web of ironwork into which countless anthems drifted down the decades. Since it was erected in 1906 (and named Spion Kop after a hillside battle in the Boer War), little changed until 12,000 seats went in two summers back. Atmosphere remains good, though spectators will be blessed if the fare matches that served up at Everton in '66 by Eusebio, Albert, Bene and the North Koreans.

VILLA PARK Capacity: 39,000

Standing on the site of a lake which formed part of a 19th-century amusement park, Villa Park still reflects Victorian values as it nears its centenary next April. Not because one of Aston Villa's two new double- decker stands bears the name of Doug Ellis, a chairman with the paternalistic bent of a benevolent factory owner, but because the past still has a presence there.

When the Taylor Report obliged them to rebuild the Holte End, the largest behind-goal stand in Britain, Villa took the trouble to make its exterior tie in with the classic turn-of-the-century facade of the Trinity Road Stand. But within these new yet traditional red-brick walls, the ground has a less integrated feel, the characterful old main stand looking almost like a relic of the 1890s amid the concrete, steel and plastic.

Some pounds 20m has gone on redevelopment. A pity, then, that Mr Ellis did not invest more in pitch care. The lack of undersoil heating and poor ventilation led to embarrassing postponements last winter and a threadbare surface. Re-seeding has taken place, but woe betide Villa if the dreaded June frosts strike.

ELLAND ROAD Capacity: 39,000

The most intimidating venue in Europe, Alex Ferguson reckons, though noise and hostility levels have arguably dipped since the terraces disappeared. In their place, on one side of the ground, has emerged the colossal East Stand. With a roof measuring 5,900 square metres and a span of 52 metres, not to mention the 17,000 seats, it is the largest cantiveler construction in the world.

Its impact goes beyond the loss of atmosphere. The South Stand, which at the time seemed a swish replacement for the tiny Scratching Shed terrace, and even the Revie Stand (aka the Kop), look ludicrously small by comparison. The West Stand, built 40 years ago after a blaze, completes a somewhat patchwork picture.

The latter's distinctive facade has given way to a corporate banqueting suite which has deprived Elland Road of one of its few focal points. On the plus side, it is the perfect stadium for motorway travellers and connoisseurs of cod-and-chips (United Fisheries opposite the gates).

CITY GROUND Capacity: 30,500

The official supporters' guide to Euro 96 lists Brian Clough alongside DH Lawrence and Robin Hood among Nottingham's "famous sons". While that might surprise his fellow natives of Middlesbrough, it was the current Forest manager, Frank Clark, who surveyed the City Ground's banks of red seats and admitted they would never have been possible but for Old Bighead.

Clough's legacy is not exactly a stylish citadel, rather a compact, largely unified stadium befitting a relatively successful provincial club. The Trent End, with its anachronistic low roof, was the last part of the "old" ground to go. A new double-decker has slotted into the tight space between the pitch and the river.

Opposite, the Radcliffe Road End takes a sudden strange dip in the corner nearest the Trent Bridge cricket ground. This design anomaly is explained by a local by-law preventing structures being built which block out the light from residential dwellings. Otherwise one of the tournament's more featureless venues, with the vast Executive Stand dominating a main stand which rose from the ashes after a fire in 1968.

HILLSBOROUGH Capacity: 40,000

The mere mention of Hillsborough conjures images of the tragedy of 15 April 1989 at the Leppings Lane End (now renamed the West Stand). If the loss of life was appalling, the tarnishing of the name of such an evocative sporting arena was also sad. All the more heartening to see it sharing in a festival of football again.

Four fixtures were staged there in the World Cup of '66, by which time the North Stand had already been getting the word "cantilever" a good name for five years. Claimed as the most advanced stand ever built in Britain, it cost pounds 150,000 and, uniquely, runs the length of the pitch. It manages to look modern in any era and blend in with the ground's more traditional facets.

The Kop, once home to an "alp of humanity", in Patrick Barclay's exquisite phrase, has been covered for 10 years now and is full of seats, but still has a unique feel. The South Stand roof also holds a rare treat, an original pointed central gable (pictured), complete with clock, designed by the great football architect Archibald Leitch. A sight to behold in a setting forever synonymous with sorrow.

ST JAMES' PARK Capacity: 35,000

Still visible from the far bank of the Tyne, though anyone making the trek to our friends in the North-east after a gap of 10 years might struggle to recognise St James' Park. The Leazes End, for example, which had a steep slope and a roof in the 1960s but lost both in the 1980s, is reincarnated as the Sir John Hall Stand. That, in turn, is largely indistinguishable from the Exhibition Stand opposite.

The latest bout of bulldozing began in 1992. It has set the Hall regime back pounds 25m and bought a cohesive, if somewhat anonymous, arena; awesome by comparison with the ramshackle past, yet lacking the twists that give a ground real identity.

What does distinguish St James' from most grounds is its close proximity to the city centre. A five-minute walk from the Bigg Market, round the corner from the Co-op and there it is - facing you, like a giant space station. By happy coincidence, the city's Chinatown, and the chance to sample the Dragon House's wondrous Singapore vermicelli, lies in between.