The Anfield club have broken a promise to regenerate an area and may now forever be the poor cousins to their richer rivals
Contemplating Liverpool’s revised plan to stay within Anfield’s confined, squalid streets and enlarge two sides of the ground, the worry intrudes that for the short-term cash flow of relatively new US owners, the club could regret missing a once-in-a-generation chance to build the long-promised new stadium. It is striking that there has been so little questioning of the decision in October, never fully explained, to scrap that project, to which Liverpool city council and the wider community was signed up and planning permission secured.
Largely this was because supporters had waited so long, for the shiny vision to become reality, that like the council, they grew sceptical and just wanted something certain to happen. John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group made it clear from when they bought Liverpool in October 2010 that a brand new 60,000-seat stadium looked very expensive for the 15,000 extra seats it would actually gain. So Ian Ayre, the club’s managing director, presented the scrapping of the stadium, and reversion to the Anfield plan of 14 years ago, as “a great leap forward”.
The council, which wholly supported the new stadium as the basis for planned regeneration of the whole battered area, is now supporting Liverpool staying at Anfield with compulsory purchase powers to ensure the removal of residents whose homes the club wants to demolish. Regeneration is now earmarked around an enlarged Anfield, and the space controversially cleared in Stanley Park will never see a stadium.
Yet after the 20-year legacy of blight the club deepened by buying up odd houses and leaving them empty, this is a historic failure to make good on the promise of the new stadium. These major landmarks are very difficult and expensive for football clubs, local authorities and communities to achieve. It is usually easier not to go through with them than to bring them to fruition, and at the time they are called off, it is often a relief, as it was to many in Liverpool, if not the local residents, in October.
It felt a little like that when Everton, across the park in Goodison, called off the proposal for a new stadium on the waterfront Kings Dock, after boardroom and shareholder squabbles and a struggle to find the money. History, though, puts the day-to-day difficulties into perspective. It is now accepted that the Kings Dock was Everton’s big chance to propel themselves into the modern era and genuinely compete as a big club, and they lost it. A decade later, they are still at outdated Goodison, their £81m turnover a quarter of Manchester United’s, punching above their weight due to David Moyes and careful husbandry, the future uncertain.
History may not consider Liverpool’s retreat under FSG, back to the 1999 plan to expand Anfield, quite the great leap forward interpreted by Ayre. It will of course take into account the ballooning costs of a stadium, from perhaps £140m or less when it was conceived, to the £400m club sources said it would be now, even in a recession and with the construction industry desperate for work.
The long view will see Old Trafford’s relentless expansion to 76,000 seats, the Emirates and Etihad Stadiums which incorporate greatly more facilities than even the expanded Anfield will be able to, plus some space around them. The very idea for a new stadium on Stanley Park came from seeing how constricted Anfield still will be by its surrounding terraced streets even if expanded.
The council became enthusiastic for the new stadium because it was a grander plan for the area’s revival. The stadium itself was intended to be a statement of ambition for a better economic future in Liverpool after the economic devastation and consequent decline of the 1980s. The land on which Anfield stands was to be developed into a commercial centre intended to bring real businesses to the area. The horrors of the housing would be dealt with as part of that whole.
Then the club itself was sold – the sole rationale being that rich owners would arrive to build a new stadium. It will not make great reading in the history of Liverpool that owners finally came who decided they could not afford the plan and went back to one the club could have got on and built in 1999. It risks making the council, too, look like it has not achieved the best possible for Liverpool, compared to Manchester’s. They used the 2002 Commonwealth Games to lever in public money for the new stadium which City occupied, thereby attracting a genuinely wealthy owner prepared to massively invest, as neither Everton nor Liverpool, lacking a new stadium, have been able to.
Funding is difficult and neither club has dared even approach making a vigorous case for a shared stadium, for which both know there is a deal to be done.
Instead, FSG, who may not be the owners of Liverpool very long themselves, decided it makes more financial sense to stay put. That is true now, of course, so the drawing board is chucked in a skip and design costs are written off – but such an opportunity for a new era, will not come again for a very long time.
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