Today marked the two-year anniversary of FSG’s purchase of Liverpool. There have been several ups and downs in that time and several issues that Liverpool fans still felt as though the owners had to yet to properly address.
One of those issues that FSG inherited is what can only be called ‘the stadium issue’; to put it simply, Liverpool need a bigger stadium. That has been apparent for years as Liverpool cannot generate the same funds on a matchday as some of the other Premier League teams, despite having an enormous fanbase that most clubs would kill for, with demand for tickets far outstripping supply. This is because while Manchester United and Arsenal can fit 60,000+ fans into their grounds, Liverpool are restricted to 45,000 and currently have fewer corporate boxes, which are the real cash cow for football clubs, than other EPL teams.
That need to generate funds has become more acute as European clubs are now subject to Financial Fair Play rules that mean that clubs can no longer run up huge losses, therefore, the more money that comes into the club the more money can be spent on transfers and wages and attracting better players.
Opinion has always been split with regards to the stadium issue as to whether a new stadium or a redeveloped Anfield was the best way forward, but everyone agreed that something had to be done. Unfortunately, this turned into a saga that has dragged on for over ten years now. After then-owner David Moores decided that redeveloping Anfield was not feasible, the plan has been to build a new stadium. Planning permission was granted in 2003 for a stadium in Stanley Park, which is across the street from Anfield, and had things gone to plan, the stadium should have opened 6 years ago. However, a lack of funding meant that project never got off the ground.
When Tom Hicks and George Gillett took over the club, they recognised the need for a new stadium and somewhat unwisely announced to their world their intention (which isn’t the same as a promise) to get things moving quickly, doing so before they’d had a proper look at the stadium plans. What then happened was that after consulting with architects, it was decided that the original design was obsolete and rather than spending hundreds of millions on a stadium that would have a short shelf-life, a new design was drawn up.
A new design meant that the consultation with residents and planning permission phases of any building project had to start again, and as any resident of Britain knows, getting planning permission takes a long time.
While planning permission was being sought, the cost of building materials rose sharply, meaning that the cost of the stadium build almost doubled. By the time the red tape had been cut through, the global credit crisis had happened and the lines of credit that the owners were depending on were suddenly no longer open to them and as a result, that project never got off the ground and ultimately led to Hicks and Gillett having to sell Liverpool.
While Liverpool were trying and failing to get a new stadium built, people in the media started to look across Stanley Park at Everton, who also need a new stadium and had struggled to get any of their potential projects up and running, and started to talk about a potential shared stadium. It was sort of the Sesame Street ‘you need a stadium, we need a stadium, let’s cooperate!’ solution; an utterly blinkered, short-termist answer to something that will affect both clubs for years to come, which not glossed over the fact that shared stadiums don’t really work long-term, but completely ignored the fact the two clubs have different reasons for needing a new stadium, Liverpool need to expand while Everton just need a more modern version of Goodison Park.
I’ve written on more than one occasion why I believe that a shared stadium is totally unnecessary and would not work; there have been two football stadiums in Liverpool for 120 years, and there’s no reason why that should change.
Since FSG have taken over the club, the stadium issue has been the elephant in the room that the owners have managed to ignore. Shortly after taking over, they announced that they would explore all avenues with respect to the stadium issue, including redeveloping Anfield. That was fair enough in my opinion, I had no problems with them taking their time and hopefully coming to the correct decision.
Time passed and no decision was forthcoming. There were the odd noises, suggesting that the owners favoured redeveloping Anfield, then a few weeks later you’d hear something that suggested that they were looking at building the new stadium, but the was never anything concrete. This has led to some fans questioning the motives of the owners and there has been more than a hint of scepticism that something would ever be done.
That changed today, as it was announced, with much fanfare, that FSG’s plan is to redevelop Anfield. The refurbishment, which is estimated to cost around £150m, will mean that the capacity of Anfield would increase to 60,000 upon completion. It is believed that the idea is to build new stands behind the existing Anfield Road and Main stands, to minimise disruption and loss of revenue while the build is happening.
There are many advantages to staying at Anfield. Firstly, there’s cost. Redeveloping Anfield will cost substantially less than building a new stadium and that lower cost means that the club can pay for the building work more quickly and start reaping the financial benefits earlier. Also, there is the sentimental value in staying in the only home the club has ever had.
For those who have never been, Anfield is in a residential area of Liverpool, surrounded by houses on three sides, with the fourth side, the Anfield Road end, being directly on Anfield Road, with Stanley Park behind that.
To stand any chance of developing Anfield, the club would have to buy some of the houses surrounding the ground so that the club could demolish them and build over the land. Over the years, that’s what they have done. The problem has been that, because some of the residents didn’t want to sell, the club were only able to buy a few houses at a time and those houses were left derelict and ended up becoming the target of vandals and arsonists, which has meant that an already badly-deprived neighbourhood has ended up becoming even worse over the years, a situation that Liverpool’s managing director, Ian Ayre, apologised for today. There are still residents in the streets earmarked for demolition, and Liverpool have promised to pay above market value for their homes.
The idea of redeveloping Anfield is not a new one, but there have always been stumbling blocks that have stopped that idea dead in its tracks in the past. In the UK there are ‘right to light’ laws, which means that you can’t put a big building up and block someone else’s daylight. This has always prevented rebuilding stands in the past. A few months ago some plans for the regeneration of Anfield and the surrounding areas were leaked, which if true, will get around this by building a hotel behind the ‘new’ Main Stand. As that building is commercial rather than residential, the right to light rules no longer apply, so there would theoretically be no obstacle to building new, taller stands.
What sets this plan apart is that it seems to have the backing of the Mayor and the local authorities as it dovetails nicely with a plan to regenerate the area around Anfield, which has suffered badly from social depravation in the past.
While part of me is pleased that Liverpool will stay at Anfield, I can’t help but think that this represents somewhat of a missed opportunity. As much as most of my fellow scousers would protest otherwise, Liverpool needs it’s out of town fans to bring money to the club and in my opinion, don’t do enough to help those out of town fans. If you don’t know where you’re going, Anfield isn’t that easy to get to. It’s in a part of the city that, unless you have friends or family that live there, you wouldn’t go to. No tourist goes to the Anfield area of Liverpool for any reason other than football. Public transport links to the stadium are terrible, the traffic around the stadium on a matchday is chaos and there isn’t a great deal in the way of car parking. These issues probably would have been addressed had a new stadium been built and I’m not sure that if the club stays at Anfield they will be addressed.
What is strange about this announcement is just how much of what was announced by Ian Ayre is not set in stone. For starters, this is just the beginning of the process. The consultation with residents has yet to happen, and it’s believed that the initial planning application won’t happen until next summer, so if all goes well it’ll be 2014 before anything happens.
It’s unclear exactly how long it’ll take, how the club will be paying for it, exactly what the final capacity would be, just how much the capacity will be reduced during building and whether or not a ‘new’ Anfield will be accompanied by hiking up the price of tickets.
There is of course, the very real possibility of nothing happening at all.
Liverpool fans have been waiting for years for the stadium issue to be settled. Other owners have tried and failed to solve the stadium issue and all Liverpool fans will be hoping that this announcement today does not prove to be yet another false dawn.