The phrase ‘soulless concrete bowl’ has become yet another footballing cliché. Applied to almost every ground built since the Taylor Report enforced a revolution in English stadia, it speaks of the fundamental disconnect between the game and the fans. But what does it really mean?
A trip to Blackpool provides a few clues. Although it’s a redeveloped ‘traditional’ ground, there’s little sign of old terraces that thrilled to the exploits of Matthews and Mortensen back in the sepia-tinted flat cap era of football. Instead, the 16,000-seater arena resembles a scaled-down version of the white elephant that sank Darlington. If it was full, it could be a tight, lively little ground, the kind of place nobody really relishes visiting when the wind whips off the Irish Sea. Instead, though, it’s been something of a wasteland since the club’s brief flirtation with the Premier League.
The issue isn’t simply reduced circumstances on the pitch. Relegation to League 1 hurts, but feels less improbable than the Tangerines’ return to the top flight, briefly, in 2010. Instead, the schism between fans and the club’s owners, the Oyston family, has emptied the ground – and offers a glimpse of what football might be like if the current bubble bursts and the game’s seemingly endless popularity comes to an end. A concerted effort to isolate the club’s owners saw attendances dwindle. Potential advertisers, fearful of a backlash in the seaside town, are shy of putting up their displays. Perimeter advertising, that staple of modern football, is almost completely absent: contractual obligations to club and league sponsors aside, the only logos on display come from an ice cream company. The electronic scoreboard never flickers into life, the tannoy (at least in the seldom-used East Stand) is almost inaudible. The sense of ‘can’t be bothered’ is overwhelming.
In one corner, NHS logos are more prominent; appropriate for a stadium where the all-important relationship between fans and club is in intensive care. ‘Altogether now’ is the health initiative that aims to link medics and the Blackpool community but togetherness was hard to find on the Fylde coast.
The remaining fans inside the ground – it’s a matter of debate whether they are loyal to their team, no matter what, or colluding in the demise of the club – attempt to generate such atmosphere as they can; the visit of 8,000 travelling Sunderland supporters helped rouse the place from a New Year hangover but the overall feeling is one of steady decay. Attendances have plummeted to the point where local councillors have started calling for some kind of resolution to prevent the bars and cafes around the ground from losing much-needed business. The club responds to a bumper crowd by allocating every possible ticket to the visiting Mackems, but still opens just two turnstiles to let them into the East Stand. The queue continues well into the first half.
For most Blackpool fans, those familiar match-day rituals had to change. At first glance, it’s pretty similar. Protesters still don their colours, meet up with their friends at a pub near the ground and make the fortnightly pilgrimage to Bloomfield Road. However, 3 o’clock, kick-off time, is now the end of the day rather than the start of the action. The ‘not a penny more’ protests mean sparse home crowds left inside while supporters slip away after spending their time handing out leaflets and selling ‘Oyston Out’ scarves.
At last, though, there is some hope. A High Court ruling on Feb. 13 placed the club into receivership. The move is intended to enforce the payment of £25 million still owed to Valeri Belokon, a former director who successfully sued the Oystons over money that was ‘asset-stripped’ from the club’s lucrative season in the Premier League. Many now hope it will lead to a takeover and an end to the current stand-off between the fans and their club. Perhaps there might soon be some soul returning to the concrete bowl of Bloomfield Road.
Bloomfield Road, Blackpool, England
League 1, Jan. 1 2019
Blackpool 0 Sunderland 1 (Maja)