Could Chelsea's ambitious plans herald a new dawn for stadium design in England?
On Friday, Chelsea launched an audacious bid to make, what would undoubtedly be, the most significant acquisition of the Roman Abramovich era. The club have offered to buy Battersea Power Station, the grade-two listed landmark on the banks of the Thames, with a view to developing it into a 60,000 seater stadium.
For a number of years Chelsea have been looking to increase their match day revenues. The Emirates Stadium, home to London rivals Arsenal, has a capacity of over 60,000. Manchester United's ground, Old Trafford has a capacity of 76,000. Stamford Bridge, Chelsea's home since 1905, is much smaller in comparison, having a capacity of only 42,000. More seats means more cash; a simple equation. With seeming little potential to develop Stamford Bridge further, Chelsea have been looking into the possibility of relocating to a new stadium, and had previously expressed an interest in purchasing the Earl's Court Exhibition Centre.
With the implementation of UEFA's “Financial Fair Play” regulations looming on the horizon, the need to balance the books has never been greater for the west London club, who have essentially been bankrolled by Russian oligarch Abramovich's billions, since his takeover in 2003. When the FFP rules are in place, clubs will not be allowed to repeatedly run at a loss. (Stadium development is exempt from FFP rules, meaning clubs are free to invest in infrastructure.) Maximising ticket revenue is, therefore, crucial to cementing the club's position in the upper echelons of European football.
In the last twenty years, many English clubs have found that they have outgrown their stadiums. Others have found that time has simply caught up with their grounds; they have become tired, dilapidated. Despite the years of history, these clubs have had no choice but to move.
This has given rise to a phenomenon that I believe is a blight on the modern game in this country: the “flat-packed” stadium.
The great stadiums have character: Anfield, Old Trafford, Goodison Park, White Hart Lane. Each has personality, each is different. There are quirks, irritations, obstructed views, but all of these things add to the distinctness of the ground, and have contributed to building the identity of the club that plays its football there.
So many of the new stadiums that have sprung up across the country lack character; they are devoid of personality, and, worse, they all look the same. It looks as if the plans have been drawn up by the same architects (in some cases they have) and there is a “mass-produced” feel about them. Take a look at pictures of the King Power Stadium, Pride Park, the Riverside and St. Mary's and you'll see what I mean.
Football clubs are important to the towns and cities they call home, and their stadiums are local landmarks. Clubs have a responsibility to contribute to their home towns aesthetically as well as commercially, and too many of these new grounds do not fulfil that brief. They are “off the peg,” “flat-packed” stadiums, placing function and - you suspect - profit above all else.
Often, moving to a ground with no history presents an opportunity for a club's board to generate income from the stadium's naming rights. Sometimes the club's owners do not even wait for a move. The Premier League “tour” now takes in the Etihad Stadium, Manchester, the Sport's Direct Arena, Newcastle and the Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent, amongst others.
Championship club Leicester City are becoming serial offenders. Their home for more than a hundred years was Filbert Street. Then there was the Walkers Bowl. Mercifully, that quickly became the Walkers Stadium. Now, less that ten years on from the move, it is the King Power Stadium.
Again, this only serves to weaken a club's identity.
Incidentally, Mike Ashley's move to re-brand St James' Park the Sports Direct Arena was so ill conceived, you suspect it must have been motivated by a certain malevolence, once again sticking it to the fans who abused him, despite the millions he had invested. After all, it has generated no income – Sports Direct being Ashley's own company - and is a decision so unpopular with the fans that surely no right minded company would want the bad publicity that would go with taking on the deal.
Of course building a stadium is expensive - no one would dispute that - and the more ambitious the design the more expensive said stadium will be. (Liverpool discovered that when spending £35 million on architects' fees, for the Stanley Park stadium that never was.)
But surely some compromise could have been reached, so that we did not have to suffer these bland, 30,000 seater clones. You could walk into most of the new stadiums in this country, and, if the seats weren't painted in the colours of their club, it would be hard to tell them apart.
In a tribal sport, where the identity of your club is so important, that simply cannot be right.
When the decision was made not to incorporate the twin towers of the old Wembley into the new stadium's design, it was deemed crucial that an alternative was found; something distinctive was required; something unique that denoted that this was Wembley, this was the national stadium. The impressive Wembley arch was conceived, now a point of interest on the west London skyline.
Which brings us back to Chelsea's bid to develop Battersea Power Station. Without doubt this would be the most exciting and innovative stadium design in the country. The power station itself is already an iconic building.
Not only would this move give Chelsea an identity - and perhaps help them to engender the sense of history that many say that they lack - but would provide the city of London, and the country as a whole, with one of the most architecturally exciting and attractive stadiums on the planet.