Pre-season offers a chance to see your team play somewhere unlikely. For a Sunderland fan, it’s the best hope of seeing some action in Europe. And, in Arnhem, we discovered that they do things very differently there.
When the roof at the Gelredome, Vitesse’s home since 1998, is open, the ground feels like many others in the Netherlands. Modestly-proportioned, functional squared-off stands. It’s efficient, rather than memorable. If the roof had not been closed, it would have felt almost the same as NAC Breda’s stadium from the other game on Sunderland’s pre-season tour in 2001.
But the roof was closed. And that transformed the whole experience. Suddenly, the whole ambience was difference. It was like watching football in a leisure centre, an ice rink with grass where the ice should be. There’s nothing wrong with that – I’ve watched enough ice hockey to know that chilled venues can still generate hot atmospheres. But maybe it was just the combination of pre-season (and all the half-paced action that implies) and a half full building that left the whole event feeling a bit underpowered.
Why did it feel so different? A stadium that’s open to the elements feels, on some level, like an enclosure huddled beneath a vast sky. An enclosed stadium, perversely, gives the reverse effect. The full distance between the stands feels more apparent, the home end behind the opposite goal felt far more remote. Throw in a half-full crowd for a pre-season friendly and the atmosphere was pedestrian at best.
It’s not that there’s anything much wrong with the Gelredome. On the contrary, it’s a neat technological solution to the problem of keeping a pitch in good condition in a ground where natural light is limited. Aside from the retractable roof, there’s also a retractable pitch that slides out under one stand and into the carpark, giving the grass plenty of air that it wouldn’t always enjoy when hemmed in by the stands – even if the roof is open. Contemporary Dutch architecture and engineering has much to recommend it, as a stroll around Rotterdam will confirm. It just doesn’t necessarily make for good stadiums.
Perhaps with a full house it would have been different. As it was, this trip felt odd. The game, even by pre-season standards, was semi-detached despite a 2-1 win. Jody Craddock became the first player I saw score that season, joining an unofficial list that also features Romanian World Cup star Adrian Ilie and the bloke who played a vicar in EastEnders, among several others. But for a Sunderland fan, it all felt a bit like an evening at Crowtree Leisure Centre.
Gelredome, Arnhem, Netherlands
Friendly, Aug. 8, 2001.
Vitesse Arnhem 1 (Peeters) Sunderland 2 (Craddock, Kilbane)