For all of the occasional claims to the contrary, English Football has become very adept at shedding its traditions in recent years. Badges and colours have come and gone, stadia which a more enlightened society might have protected as listed buildings have been bulldozed, and the media has successfully turned a joke that football started in 1992 into a truth, of sorts.
At some levels, though, tradition remains whether the game’s great reinventors like it or not, and one of the great remaining traditions of the game in this country occurs shortly before kick-off at Goodison Park, in Liverpool every other weekend. To a rising crescendo of crowd noise, the near-atonal introduction to the piece of music based on the traditional folk song “Johnny Todd” (better known, even now, as “The Theme To Z-Cars”) strikes up, and the Everton players – along, these days, with their opponents – take to the pitch.
“Johnny Todd” may well survive football’s ongoing and relentless march towards modernisation, but Goodison Park probably will not. For longer than many people can remember, various owners of Everton Football Club have been trying to move the club from its home. The impulse to do so is natural, in some respects. Goodison Park is almost uniquely hemmed in on all four sides, limiting its capacity to the 39,500 people that it currently holds, with really no further room for expansion, and other clubs have left their homes, so why should Everton feels duty-bound to stay in what increasingly feels like an outdated home?
Somehow, though, it does feel a little as though the loss of Goodison Park from English football will hurt our culture more than most. From Merseyside derbies to FA Cup semi-finals, from the permanence of unbroken top flight football since the early 1950s to merely the relatively unusual look of the stadium, its loss will, when it comes about, be the most widely felt since Highbury was converted into executive apartments more than a decade ago. But amongst the myriad of peculiarities that surround this most unique of football venues, one of the most under-appreciated is the fact that Goodison Park was significantly redeveloped in the middle of a period during which very little other stadium redevelopment was taking place in England. There are several reasons as to why this might have been so rare at this time, most pressingly the fact that club revenues were starting to tail off after the immediate post-war boom. But at Everton, 1969 was the year in which the club decided to replace one design classic with another.
The original Goodison Road Stand was designed by Archibald Leach and built in 1909. It was, of course, a typical Leach design, a lower tier of terracing with an upper tier of seats and that distinctive gable sitting in the centre of its roof, a design detail that is now forever and indelibly linked with football in England during the first half of the twentieth century. By the end of the 1960s, however, time was taking its toll on the old stand. The cramped nature of the ground meant that a complete rebuild if Goodison Park was to retain its position as one of the senior football grounds in England. In addition to this, the club had a greater ability to expand this side of the ground after having purchased houses on Goodison Road, demolishing them as part of development required for the hosting matches at the 1966 World Cup finals.
Work began on the new stand in 1969, and the project was an immense one. It would stand at twice the height of its precessor, so tall that the floodlight pylons had to be taken down with the new lights – as at Highbury, and unusually for the time – being built into the underside of its roof. The cost of the stand was an astronomical £1m (by way of comparison, the British record transfer fee at the time of the beginning of the stand’s construction was the £165,000 that Leeds United paid Leicester City for Allan Clarke in June 1969), and it also became the tallest stand at any English football ground, although this particular record lasted for just four years before Chelsea’s new East Stand snatched this particular record.
Not everybody was completely enthused by it all, but contempary reviews were generally positive. Writing for The Times in December 1970, the legendary Times football journalist Geoffrey Green remarked that, “Goodison Park has always been a handsome fashionable stage for football, a living thing full of atmospherics-like a theatre. And now it has stepped into the demanding seventies with a facelift it scarcely seemed to need compared with some I know. New giant stands in place of the old; the latest in dazzling floodlight systems that cast not a shadow. A cathedral of a place indeed, fit for the gods of the game.”
The scale of it means that the Goodison Road Stand retains its capacity to impress to this day. Unusually – particularly for the time when it was built – it has three tiers, the bottom of which was terraced until 1987. Its synonymity with Everton feels only further exacerbated by the appearance of St Luke’s Church in the corner of the ground, although this has been mostly obscured for television viewers since the introduction of Jumbotron screens in 2000. Somewhat unusually, the Goodison Road Stand has three tiers, the bottom of which was terraced until 1977. The top row of the top tier of the stand is recommended for those who appreciate a good view as much as they appreciate a football match, offering, as it does, a spectacular skyline view which takes into account nearby Stanley Park and,in the distance, Anfield.
The costs of redeveloping Goodison Park did not end with the construction of this new stand, though. Six years after its completion, the Safety of Sports Grounds Act (introduced as a response to the Ibtrox Park stadium disaster of 1971) found that the ground needed further work. With outdated entrances and exits, the club found the capacity of Goodison Park reduced from 56,000 to 35,000, forcing it to spend a further quarter of a million pounds to get the capacity increased back to 53,500 people by 1986.
The all-seater era saw Goodison Park finally lose some of its sheen, though, and plans to move away from the club’s ancestral home for pastures new have been kicked around for more than two decades. They resurfaced again in the summer of 2016, with new ownership of the club, with two potential sites having been identified as potentially suitable for redevelopment. At the time of writing, it is not known which direction the club will take in this respect, but with a rash of new ground development having already started in London, with Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea both spending considerable amounts of money on rebuilding the grounds at which they already play, it is likely that other clubs will feel the need to consider expanding again. With Goodison Park being as cramped and hemmed in as it is, there seems no likelihood of the club ever being able to redevelop it to the extent to which it would like, which means that departure from the ground, although still a pipe-dream in a practical sense, it seems inconceivable that it won’t come to pass in the fullness of time.
So, we need to brace ourselves for this loss. The closure and subsequent demolition of Upton Park the season before last was mourned in the media to an almost undignified extent in the media over the last few weeks and months, but the loss of this ground – along with White Hart Lane, which followed it at the end of last season, albeit with mercifully fewer mawkish headlines – will likely pale into insignificance once the time comes for Goodison Park. This is one of the great traditional homes of English football, a venue for football that stretches back to the nineteenth century and, in the way in which it came about (Everton’s former home at Anfield and a landlord dispute which led to the club leaving home, all of which resulted in the formation of Liverpool FC), forms the basis of one of world football’s oldest and most enduring rivalries.
But who knows? Perhaps Everton will break with tradition and build a stadium that is fit for a club of its history. Perhaps the sounds of “Johnny Todd” and “It’s A Grand Old Team To Play For” will ring out over a new dawn for a club that honours its traditions whilst looking forward to a brave new world. Considering the pressing need to save money and the propensity of modern football architects towards plate glass, steel beams, and very little else, though, we’re not optimistic. When Goodison Park falls, a further piece of the history and culture of English football will fall with it, and it will be a sad loss. Perhaps we should enjoy it while we still can.
Photo credit: user Biloblue on Wiki Commons
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