I have been reading a fascinating book recently, entitled Played in Manchester by Simon Inglis. It is published by English Heritage, and is in effect a history of sport and leisure in the city and surrounding areas. I suppose you don’t have to be a Mancunian to enjoy this book, although it probably helps; however, this is just the first book in the Played in Britain series; further publications on Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham are in the pipeline, along with other books covering such subjects as the football stadia designer Archibald Leitch and the best of British lidos. Played in Manchester relies heavily on Francis Frith type photographs to tell its story, and personally I could look at old pictures of the Victorian and Edwardian era all day long, lost imagining others’ lives.
The book reveals countless surprises. I had no idea that the first ice rink (or Glacarium) outside London was built in Rusholme in 1877, cashing in on the craze for “rincomania”. It was John Gamgee’s refrigeration process that allowed skating on real ice during the summer months; a huge improvement on the concoction of crystallised alum, hog’s lard, soda salt and melted sulphur that had been used as one of the earlier substitutes for ice.
I always wondered why Lacrosse was so popular in my local area, when it is virtually ignored elsewhere in the country. It seems to be down to a quirk of fate. Some former members of the Stockport Rugby Club, disbanded in 1876 due to a player’s death, were on a train stuck at signals in Longsight when they saw an exhibition match between the Montreal Club and the Caughnawaga Indians. Fascinated, they decided to try the game out, and Stockport Lacrosse Club was born; it is still the world’s oldest surviving lacrosse club.
The book reveals many lost sporting grounds I didn’t know existed; there is the convoluted history of the Castle Irwell race course, now just wasteland; the White City botanical gardens and amusement park in Stretford, where only a the white entrance arches survive, standing isolated and alone on Chester Road like some sort of folly; the Fallowfield Stadium, accessed via a narrow path off Whitworth Lane, which hosted the 1893 FA Cup final when 45,000 converged on a stadium built for 15,000 (a University Halls of Residence now stands on the site, but there is no memorial plaque).
There are also the tales of the places I do remember such as Victoria Baths, winner of the first BBC Restoration programme. It is a truly beautiful building, with stained glass, mosaics, the words “well loved” emblazoned on its clock tower; yet when I went there as a child I just remember it as being old, cold and dirty. Some things are wasted on the young. Especially evocative is the chapter devoted to Belle Vue, which from memory was like Blackpool Pleasure Beach transported to East Manchester. I know that sounds tacky, but bear in mind there is no such word in a 10 year old’s vocabulary, and I remember it as a wonderful place with its big dipper and lake, its zoo and miniature railway. On my last visit, to the annual circus, I was one of about 3000 cubs who pestered Joe Corrigan for his autograph, poor bloke. Apart from the greyhound stadium, the whole of Belle Vue has now been levelled.
But as Mark E Smith once said, “Vimto and Spangles were always crap / Regardless of the look back bores” and there is more to Played in Manchester than nostalgia. There is a chapter devoted to SportCity, the area redeveloped for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and Inglis details many of the more recent changes and developments in the region’s sporting grounds. I was particularly struck by the information regarding the redevelopment of Old Trafford football ground that began in 1995; the architects chosen were Atherden Fuller Leng, the same firm who, as Atherden Nutter, had developed OT during the 1960’s. I was impressed that a large public company such as Manchester United had stuck loyally with the same architects over four decades. It seemed a testimony to the firm’s work. Later in the book the author returns to the matter of the work done by Atherden and partners; I continued to read about their designs for stadia throughout the North West and London, including Liverpool’s Anfield ground.
It was reading this piece of information that made me reconsider my opinion of Atherden. Is the word epiphany? Whatever, as soon as I discovered that they had been involved with both the Old Trafford and Anfield redesigns I immediately saw the similarities.
Anfield first. I have only been there once, to watch a 6-0 trouncing at the hands of Liverpool; it was the game where the chant “Alan Ball’s a football genius” made its first appearance. I was sat with a Liverpool supporting friend of mine in the new Centenary stand, and the cartilage in my knees still bears a groove formed by the back of the next seat down. To say the bloke in front of me was close really doesn’t do justice to the whole proximity thing. They really did squeeze us in; next time I will bring a shoehorn. We were sat on the far left side of the stand, right by the Kop; my mate was sat to my right, but the seat to my left was empty which was a good job, as they’d had to slice off one corner of that seat to squeeze it in next to the concrete wall dividing our stand from the Kop. There was even the frame next to that seat presumably with the intention of fitting another spectator in, but they had been unable to make use of it.
Old Trafford is little better. The past few times I have been, borrowing another mate’s season ticket in the K stand, I have had a similarly uncomfortable experience. United fans get a lot of stick from their club for standing up throughout the game, but I don’t blame them; it is the only way to get through the 90 minutes pain free.
Now I am not a particularly big bloke – 5’10, that’s all – so I really pity some people who regularly attend either of these grounds. In contrast City’s ground is great; it may not be perfect – the so-called extra wide concourses are nothing of the kind – but at least you can watch the game in relative comfort. The Kippax where I used to sit at Maine Road was also fine. Hats off to Arup Sport then, designers of the City of Manchester Stadium, showing how it can be done.
Who is to blame? It may be that Atherden have set out their stall as a firm who are happy to undercut their competitors by cramming as many seats as possible into the available area. Perhaps though it is down the football clubs themselves, giving a commission to architects, and telling them not to worry about such quaint notions as deep vein thrombosis and blood circulation. It would be interesting to listen in to the discussions between architect and client when designing a new stadium, to see where the comfort of the paying customers comes into the equation. Unfortunately, I would imagine it will often come pretty low down the pecking order. Football fans blind loyalty leaves us open to exploitation most of the time, I fear.
But with so many new stadia being built at the moment, I will keep my eyes open to see who is getting the contracts, and what the subsequent reaction is from the fans. If your club is getting a new ground, it may be worth asking a few questions, particularly if Atherden Fuller Leng get the job. We may no longer fit 45,000 people into stadia built for 15,000, but perhaps it’s not for the want of trying.