From London to Liverpool England’s richest football clubs are wringing the last few drops of money out of their communities by boarding up properties and homes for future developments.
Football is, or at least was, the working mans sport. The great clubs of this country were founded in the gritty working class areas of our towns and cities. The founder members of the Football league from Blackburn , to Stoke, to Everton were set up where the men lived who worked in the heavy furnaces of Britain’s industrial heartlands.
Life was hard, but for ninety minutes on a Saturday afternoon working men could go and cheer and jeer their team a few minutes walk from where they lived. It created communities and identities for areas that frankly looked pretty much the same. Perhaps in the back of many football supporters’ minds was the remote possibility that they, their son or grandson could one day become a player for the club too. Occasionally it happened; Stanley Matthews was born around the corner from the Victoria ground where he became a legend for Stoke City, Bobby Moore was born just up the road from West Ham in Barking, and Paul Gascoigne was born over the river from Newcastle in Gateshead.
But many things have changed. Football has become a mega business. The Premier league (where Blackburn, Stoke and Everton still play) has become the biggest revenue-generating league in the world. Broadcasting matches to vast worldwide audiences and recruiting vastly paid players from every corner of the globe.
The working class man might well ask what this has all got to do with him and his hometown anymore. First the heavy industry disappeared, then the club moved away from their grimy inner city homes to smart corporate stadiums on the city ring road. Finally the once remote chance of his son playing for the team disappeared altogether.
The final insult is the dismissive way some of the reaming inner city clubs are landbanking property around their grounds. This week housing minister Grant Shapps criticised Liverpool council and football club for the delay in redeveloping Anfield stadium. This extraordinary saga has been dragging on for the best part of fifteen years. In the late 1990s Liverpool FC’s neighbours Everton asked the council if they could build a new stadium in the nearby Victorian municipal park; Stanley Park. Not surprisingly the council said no. But in a breathtaking act of cheek Liverpool FC then made the same request but with the added threat that if they didn’t get what they wanted they would move away from Liverpool altogether. Fearing that they would loose vast income from the club the council capitulated. Planning permission was given in 2008, but a change of ownership of the club meant the proposal was put on hold where it still sits. Meanwhile the club keeping its options open had acquired houses around its existing Anfield ground. All of the houses on Kemlyn road were demolished in the early 1990s to make way for a new stand. Homes in nearby Skerries and Lothair Roads were bought up and boarded up. To the club’s credit the Skerries road houses were eventually renovated and sold, but today virtually every house in Lothair road remains empty and boarded up waiting in case the club change their mind again and decide to expand their current stadium.
In London many houses on Tottenham high road stand empty and boarded up following August’s riots and arson. But fifteen have been empty for much longer. They form the frontage of the road behind which Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane ground sits. The properties were bought by the club for an apparently aborted plan to build a public piazza in front of the ground. These weren’t just any old buildings they included Georgian and Victorian houses many of which are listed buildings. The demolition of buildings like these would in normal circumstances be prohibited, but taking a leaf out of Liverpool’s book the club threatened to walk away altogether if it didn’t get what it wanted. Plans were mooted that the club would move into Wembley stadium and a bid was submitted to set up home on the site of the Olympic stadium.
As the country searches for answers as to why the inner cities erupted into disorder and violence in August, some of the football clubs that once defined these areas might pause for thought. Have their actions and search for wealth added to the sense of purpose and stability of the areas they represent? Or have they exploited them and threatened to walk away if they don’t get what they want? The streets of vacant property surrounding football grounds suggest the latter.