A Guide to Classic English Football Grounds
A huge appeal for football fans and groundhoppers are the trips to the more obscure parts of the country, and to the grounds that have long made up the English game. In a previous post I’ve looked at the biggest football stadiums in Europe, but there’s so much interesting history about some of the oldest football grounds in England.
Modern stadiums pop up more and more, as clubs cash in on increased corporate hospitality and refreshment facilities under the guise of improving the stands for supporters. But with this comes the loss of soul and a real connection to both history and memories, as many clubs have discovered in moves to new grounds.
Old Trafford, the UK’s largest club stadium, has stood for over 100 years, built in 1910. Despite this longevity there’s a vast number of English grounds which have been around even longer, which begs the question:
Which is the oldest football ground in England?
Bramall Lane, Sheffield United – opened in 1855, hosted it’s first football match in 1862.
Sheffield is steeped in football history, laying claim to the world’s oldest active club, Sheffield FC. It was they who first played at Bramall lane against neighbours Hallam FC in December 1862. Now it’s home to Sheffield United, who have played there ever since they were formed in 1889. The 32,000 capacity stadium has clearly evolved since then, not least the need for all-seater post-Taylor report in 1994, with the record attendance coming almost 90 years ago; 68,287 at an FA Cup tie in 1936.
Of the current Premier League clubs, a further three make the list of the top 10 oldest grounds in the UK; Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge (1877), Burnley’s Turf Moor (1883) and Liverpool’s Anfield (1884). Meanwhile Wrexham AFC’s Racecourse Ground lays claim to being the oldest ground in the UK, built in 1807, however it didn’t host a football match until 1864. Of other active football league clubs, Mansfield Town’s Field Mill (1861), Newport County AFC’s Rodney Parade (1877) and Preston North End’s Deepdale (1878) also feature, the latter also the home of the National Football Museum until it was moved to Manchester in 2012.
|Racecourse Ground||Wrexham A.F.C||1807 (first football game in 1864)|
|Bramall Lane||Sheffield United||1855 (first football game in 1862)|
|Field Mill||Mansfield Town||1861|
|Tannadice Park||Dundee United||1870|
|Stamford Bridge||Chelsea FC||1877|
|Rodney Parade||Newport County AFC||1877|
|Deepdale||Preston North End||1878|
|Ewood Park||Blackburn Rovers||1882|
|Turf Moor||Burnley FC||1883|
These grounds have all undertaken regular development work. Anfield recently expanded it’s main stand to take the capacity to over 53,000, whilst Chelsea have for years been exploring how to expand to 60,000 in the tightly packed surroundings of West London. For clubs this means maximising gate receipts and matchday revenue, with Manchester United generating over £4 million per game – around 20% of their annual income across the season. Outside of simply increasing ticket prices (a bad PR move by any club in the current climate) adding extra corporate facilities or building a new ground, which can host events outside of football, is a big motivation for top clubs.
Modern Football Stadiums
If football were about comfort and confectionery then these new grounds would be rightly revered, but extra leg room and an abundance of half time snacks don’t sit right with traditionalists. Being tightly packed into an away end like Turf Moor with wooden seats, or Goodison Park with it’s restricted view (pictured above) is part of the buzz of a match day for many, whilst there’s a real thrill in actually managing to squeeze through a heaving concourse to get a half time pint.
Of course for older supporters, memories of teams from years gone by live within these original grounds. I visited Partizan Belgrade in 2019, the very same ground in which the famous Busby Babes lined up for their final game in 1958; a team I’ve heard and learnt so much about, which made the trip a pilgrimage in many ways, something that wouldn’t have the same appeal at all if it were a visit to a new “identikit” stadium.
Since the turn of the century, 10 Premier League clubs have opened a new stadium, including Manchester City, Arsenal, West Ham and most recently Tottenham. With this, many iconic grounds have been lost; Maine Road, Highbury, Upton Park & White Hart lane just from those names here. New stadiums often come with naming rights sold to the highest bidder, making the “Etihad” or “Emirates” stadiums a touch less identifiable.
Many grounds evolved or were largely rebuilt in 1994 when all-seater became mandatory, with the traditional standing terraces, such as Old Trafford’s Stretford End paddock, removed. Almost 30 years on from the report, which was a result of the devastating disaster at Hillsborough in 1989, football supporter groups are continuing to lobby for the return of safe standing. It’s a sensitive campaign but one that has gathered momentum as trials and evidence support the safety of introducing this style of terracing. Grounds like the new Tottenham Hotspurs stadium have been built with rail seats in some stands, allowing for the option of locked down seating or safe standing, meanwhile the two Manchester clubs are the latest to commit to building rail seating into existing stands at their grounds.
England’s National Stadium
When it comes to English football grounds, none is more famed than the national stadium, Wembley. It ranks as the second biggest stadium in Europe (behind Barcelona’s Camp Nou) and at 90,000 capacity it’s someway ahead of Old Trafford too. The original stadium with it’s twin towers stood for 80 years, built in 1923 but demolished in 2003. A record capacity of 126,047 at the 1923 FA Cup Final (Bolton vs West Ham – the White Horse final) has never been matched again.
The new Wembley is everything covered above about modern football stadiums; whilst built on the exact same site it loses so much of the original stadium’s history, and it’s one built for maximising revenue. The Wembley concourse is huge with countless options for food and drink, unbearably even serving tubs of popcorn rather than simply beer, bovril and pies, meanwhile the whole middle tier of the stadium (approx. 15,000 seats, 17% of the capacity) is executive seating “Club Wembley”.
A day out for a cup final here is still magical and something every fan wants to experience with their club, however the FA even have managed to tarnish this with the cup semi final games from the 2007/08 season also now hosted here. One of the greatest bits of the historic FA Cup was the neutral venue semi final, often regionalised, with the likes of Villa Park, Hillsborough, Maine Road & Old Trafford all frequently used. Trips to these grounds added an extra appeal for fans before the big day out for the final, but like so many decisions in English football it was another which favoured revenue over tradition. Fans still oppose this and there’s a hope that this decision may be reversed in the future, until then it means extra trips down to the capital whilst the heritage English grounds miss out on adding further history.