I’m not the biggest stadium nerd around, although I do know what a c-value is and I can occasionally be found over at skyscrapercity.com looking in the discussion threads there at pictures of stadium building sites.
My appreciation of stadiums though isn’t about architecture or a love of giant structures or construction.
It’s more an interest in the social side of things – the way these structures become entwined with communities, the collective history that they represent, the ghosts they house.
The Romans knew about the genius loci – the spirit of the place – and while to them it meant a spiritual or religious entity, it comes closest to what I mean and what attracts me to stadiums.
Stadiums have their own feel and atmosphere. They contain memories of not only sporting events but of hundreds of thousands of individual game days of individual supporters.
It’s not just iconic moments on the field that are remembered, but the little idiosyncrasies and characters; the peanut seller, the corner of roof where the sun shines through at a certain time of day, the look under lights, the sound of the crowd floating down particular streets.
Nothing thrills me more than the sight of people threading their way through those streets – as opposed to barren car parks – to descend on the stadium. The community communing, the stadium engendering a kind of togetherness rarely felt elsewhere.
It saddens me deeply when a stadium is demolished, no matter how amazing or up-to-date its replacement.
The Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano reflected on the memory of stadiums in his magnificent book Futbol a sol y sombra. Even in an empty stadium, he says, you can hear the sounds and scenes and stories of past events – and adds, “The stadium of King Fahd in Saudi Arabia has marble and gold boxes and carpeted stands, but it has no memory or anything much to say.”
He was, of course, writing well before a little team from Western Sydney gave to it a brilliant tragedy which will live long in its consciousness. And, of course, a new stadium will eventually harness memories, especially if there is individuality knits design and an immediate connection to its community.
But the loss of the old ones is still worth mourning in my view.
So when looking at the recent bucket lists published on The Roar and thinking about my own, it occurred to me that my list is filled with impossibilities; visits to places that no longer exist, to experience genii loci that have been expunged in the name of progress.
This is particularly pertinent to me as two of the football sides I follow are in the process of leaving their homes.
The Western Sydney Wanderers are set to leave Parramatta while it is rebuilt. It’s only been a few years of devotions at Parramatta for me – although I know others with long connections to it, whether they be fire and Eel related or NSL grand final related – but I’ve appreciated every minute.
The other is West Ham, who are moving to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford.
On then, with the impossible bucket list comprised stadiums that no longer exist. I’ve tried to keep them within living memory, otherwise the list would become a history lesson; they’re all places I could have conceivably got to, but didn’t.
The Boleyn Ground (West Ham – 1904-2016)
In actual fact, I have been, but only after the old West Stand had been demolished.
One stand may not on the surface appear to make a difference – especially when the replacement is a modern embodiment of the club crest – but in the case of the Boleyn, there is universal agreement that the ground lost something when this happened.
Part of this was tied to the all-seater diktat which hit all top flight clubs in England post-Hillsborough; another factor however was that the redevelopment widened the ground considerably.
The ground had been famous for the proximity of fans to the pitch, including in the old ‘Chicken Run’ at the front of the East Stand. The front rows in some parts were set beneath pitch level and all around within feet of the lines, meaning the crowd were about as close and personal as it was possible to get.
I can vividly remember this being one of the things that, apart from Dad’s approval and a whole lot of other factors I won’t get into here, drew me to the club. Shots of people in the council flats behind the stands and on garage rooves in the streets around also spoke to me about the role of clubs in communities.
Here was a club entrenched in its locale, and you could see it in the ground itself.
Generations of east-enders had stood in the ground, almost going back to when the club was effectively a factory side. It had been bombed in the blitz and the fans had witnessed some of the best continental flavoured football in the country over the years, based on ideas conceived in a caff around the corner.
I could feel it all seeping through the screen, but was too late to really feel it by the time I got there. And of course, at the end of this season, what’s left will be gone forever.
San Mames (Athletic Bilbao – 1913-2013)
I’d always been an admirer of Bilbao’s policy of only signing local players, but what I hadn’t realised until relatively recently was what a fantastic ground they had.
Compact and tall, idiosyncratic with a seemingly superfluous arch atop one of the stands and a couple of odd corners. It was some flyover footage in a YouTube documentary on the new San Mames (of course!) that really sold it to me.
The sides were steep and, like the old Boleyn, appeared to sit almost on top of the pitch. Of course, the ground was a focal point for Basque pride, and this is evident in the way one stadium wall, whitewashed but resplendent with the club badge, appeared at the end of the long narrow approach leading to the ground, drawing in the community on game day.
The atmosphere inside the ground according to most visitors was electric, with the whole stadium inevitably involved in tifo displays or making noise. Its 100-year history is gone in the wind now.
Te new stadium stands almost on the same site, and while it retains the same fans, it’s giant white perfectly even roof and symmetrical layout appears to lack the dignified yet slightly shabby charm and grace of the original.
Tiger Park (Detroit Tigers – 1912-1999)
Another ground built in the early part of the 20th century, this baseball stadium was opened the same day as Fenway Park and last received major alterations in 1938 when a top deck was added to one of the stands.
When Tigers fans attended this ground, they were attending the same steel and concrete construction that the legendary Ty Cobb had made home upon its opening (although it was Shoeless Joe Jackson who scored the first run).
Those top decks with their characteristic steel column supports stretched almost all the way around the ground. Again, the stadium had an incomparable sense of intimacy for spectators, with both the game being played in front of them, but also with the past.
Every starting American League player ever had played on the ground when it closed in 1999; it’s tightness meant that more than 11,000 home runs had been hit, including Babe Ruth’s longest.
While retro ballparks – including Comerica Park, where the Tigers moved to – are all the rage and do a fantastic job of carrying on baseballing traditions, they can’t replicate the kind of feeling that this one seemed to have, and its loss was felt by the locals.
Victoria Park (Collingwood Magpies – 1892-1999)
Back when the AFL was a suburban comp, Victoria Park in Abbotsford had the reputation for having the most parochial and unruly fans in Melbourne, if not Australia.
Until relatively recently – the 1980s, at a stretch – Australian rules home ends were anarchic, vociferous and creative. Snowing – the creation of massive amounts of confetti to cover the ground – streamers and non-sanctioned banners were all commonplace, not to mention barracking, the art of loudly and obnoxiously supporting your side (or heckling the opposition), and Victoria Park was the most infamous example of a ground where all this could be seen in spades.
It was populated by thousands of one-eyed fans in duffle coats and bearing homemade iconography, surrounded by narrow streets with partisan pubs on the corners, located in the heart of an area whose pride above all else rested in the football club.
It was the site of glory (not without power!), the site of long despair as the locals waited desperately for failure to turn a blind eye. It was an ugly place at times – perhaps, even, more often than not.
The black and white ticket booths and rooves and wooden seats had seen it all, and the hodgepodge of stands told the story of passing time too. The shell is still there, and you can still see games in the VFL, but I would have liked to have seen the place at its zenith.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I recognise that updating stadiums is important for all sorts of reasons; we are a different society to that of a hundred years ago, with different needs and expectations.
But it seems to me that a stadium is more than a place to watch sport – it is a place to commune in, to share our experience in. A stadium does hold memory, in its very wood or steel or brickwork. To leave or demolish is to dispense with that, even though that memory is part of what it means to be a rusted on sports fan.
To hold on to the spirit of the place is vital. Why else would West Ham, or Bilbao, or Detroit, or Collingwood fans have carted home wooden benches or other remnants of their home grounds before the ultimate destruction?
So, over to you, Roarers! What are the places you wish you’d visited before their allotted time ran out? And what communities did they represent?