Anfield Road: Ambition & Angst

Anfield Road: Ambition & Angst

When Fenway Sports Group took over Liverpool Football Club in 2010 the team played in front of 45,276 at full capacity. The club were in dire straits at the time, narrowly avoiding administration. The incredible success we take for granted now was inconceivable in those dark days. The future of Anfield was unclear. The new owners very well could have made the decision to build a new stadium in Stanley Park or away from Anfield completely. The hurdles the club had to overcome to build the new Main Stand as well as the obstacles facing the proposed Anfield Road expansion were not foreign concepts in 2010. The stadium’s footprint has been confined on all sides by residential housing since the horse & buggy days.

In the two decades prior to FSG’s arrival on the scene, mention of stadium development was mired in controversy and much of today’s lingering hurt feelings date back to actions taken by the club and inaction by government in the 1990’s and 2000’s. In 1994, Liverpool wanted to update the Anfield Road stand, which was 30 years old at that point. A year of public outcry followed. A redeveloped stand would block out sunlight and overwhelm the neighbourhood on match-days, the same concerns being raised today.

TINNED UP

The club ultimately won approval for the expansion in 1995, began construction and started buying up properties on the surrounding streets in order to make way for future building. Pressure was intense at the time to keep pace with Manchester United who had expanded their ground, dwarfing Anfield’s match-day crowds. In 1996, under the Moores family ownership, Liverpool bought up properties on Lothair Road (behind the Main Stand) using third party agents to control acquisition prices. The lingering regret is that the houses weren’t immediately torn down, nor were they rented out while Liverpool continued this process. Properties on Lothair and later on Anfield Road were “tinned up” and left empty year upon year.

While the city began a post Thatcher civic revival in the mid-90’s, the Anfield area went in the other direction, a trend that was certainly not helped by LFC’s activities. The club should have been better stewards of the area and the local government could have taken action to spur development or force the club’s hand. Further expansion would ultimately be delayed as ownership changed and uncertainty grew as to the best location for LFC. Grand plans for a new stadium in the south were quickly scrapped and Hicks & Gillett’s grandiose Stanley Park proposal was shelved again and again while the Lothair and Anfield Road houses decayed.

AI Tees

HALLOWED GROUND

Enter Fenway Sports Group. After deliberating on the stadium subject for two years, stabilizing the club’s finances and buying up the last remaining property in the shadow of Anfield, the new owners ultimately decided against a move. The choice aimed to respect the history that has taken place on that hallowed ground and from a financial standpoint building in stages was the more pragmatic approach. A similar calculation was made when FSG kept the RedSox at Boston’s Fenway Park.

Anfield provides a through-line to the LFC’s origins that few clubs enjoy. A football stadium has existed on the same spot since 1884 and Liverpool have called Anfield home since 1892. As the seating capacity grows, the stands rise ever taller and the footprint spreads, life around Anfield will change. On 30 plus days a year, tens of thousands will stream into a residential neighbourhood that happens to be home to the world’s greatest football team. That fact hasn’t changed in over a century.

It is the scale of the impact on the community, how locals feel about that and what accommodations can be made by several levels of government that will be part of the dialogue before the first set of scaffolding goes up on Anfield Road.

WAS STAYING THE WRONG MOVE?

The apparent problem with the step-by-step approach to bring Anfield up to the level of Europe’s elite is that it isn’t being tied to some spectacular project to raise the level of the surrounding area. The potential that comes with the world’s best stadium development projects of the recent past is to create whole new vibrant neighbourhoods.

In Rotterdam, Feyenoord City is a massive, 600,000 square mete development rising from the banks of the River Meuse with a new stadium surrounded by 3,700 new housing units, parks and retail spaces set for completion in 2023. Minneapolis’ Big Build project is a 120 block redevelopment project that includes a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings, a revamped basketball arena and a gleaming new neighbourhood in-between. Closer to home, Everton’s Bramley-Moore Dock promises to be a catalyst to transform North Liverpool, not just the future of Liverpool’s local rival.

Where is the ambition from the local and national government when it comes to Liverpool’s redevelopment of Anfield? Why is the motivation for the government to revolutionize the neighbourhood surrounding Anfield any less because FSG are rebuilding the stadium stand by stand? It isn’t all on the government. All of the projects mentioned above required public-private partnerships, but it certainly shouldn’t be laid at the feet of FSG to take on any more than they’re doing already.

Liverpool Football Club have pumped over £1 billion into the region’s GDP over the last two seasons alone. Construction spending on Anfield, the planned hotel project and the Kirkby training facility will top £200 million if and when Anfield Road is completed. On top of the raw economic numbers this is a group that gives back to the community in ways big and small. Virgil van Dijk surprised a local supporter with a trip to tour Melwood and meet the team last week, £60,000 was raised for charity by the James Milner foundation last Thursday night. Two weeks ago the club held a women’s match at Anfield. Accompanying events raised money for girls sports in the area. The club facilitates charities run by local residents.

This is a good club, not some vassal overlords that should be fought at every opportunity.

FIGHT THE POWER

The residents of Anfield deserve the support and respect of the entire fanbase regardless of the approach they take in the coming months. However, if the push-back the club saw in the 1990’s is repeated again it would be a shame and, in this writer’s opinion, a waste of energy. I fear that history will repeat itself; locals will fight the club, new construction will ultimately be approved, politicians will flash be let off the hook and nothing will change in a positive way for the people who live in Anfield’s shadow. If it wasn’t clear in 1895, it certainly was in 1995 that the Anfield would be a permanent fixture in the community. Locals should expect the stadium to continue to expand until it rises to a level that matches the club. The coming decade could see a 75,000 seat Anfield at some point. Liverpool FC should be able to expand their business as demand grows. Every new seat represents more money brought into the city from other parts of the world and that benefits the city. The focus needs to be on making sure expansion benefits LFC’s immediate neighbours who have been neglected in the past.

If the club had listened to locals in 1995, Anfield would either be the smallest ground of the “top-six” clubs or LFC would have relocated by now. Would the Anfield area have been better off if LFC had moved away completely? That’s a tough calculation to make. Today, residents often refer back to the transgressions of the Moores family and Hicks & Gillett as evidence that this new project should be challenged. FSG execs are treading lightly as they roll-out these ambitious new plans, well aware of the potential for push-back from the local community.

Progress shouldn’t have been resisted back then and this current iteration of the club and owners should be cheered on with enthusiasm. It’s not that locals should stand idly by while their lives are disrupted. It’s a matter of where their energy is best spent.

Liverpool Football Club and Fenway Sports Group run sports franchises. They create an entertainment product. If zoning needs to be changed or a transportation hub needs to be built, LFC are the wrong party to petition except in the sense that the club should be used to amplify the voices of local residents. The city, regional and national government know this won’t be the last expansion at Anfield and if they’re going to benefit from Liverpool’s greatness they have a responsibility to facilitate it with the required infrastructure and business development incentives aimed at improving the lives of the local residents.

Concerned citizens should make their voices heard, but not at Anfield. The Cunard Building on Water Street is where you can find the offices of Liverpool City Council. Liverpool Football Club has been a massive part of the community and the economy for more than a century. Surely that has been long enough to work out a plan for either shuttling people to and from the match, or creating an economic development corridor to channel supporters through and benefit the immediate area more than LFC does today. This problem is not unique. Today’s Walton Breck Road isn’t easily distinguished from many of the avenues leading up to sports stadiums around the world where smart, ambitious urban planning has been lacking. Twenty years ago every stadium in the US had a Walton Breck Road surrounding it. Things can change if governments are pressed into action.

Public consultation began at the Kop Bar last Friday to discuss plans for the Anfield Road End. A new stand would bring overall capacity beyond 61,000. Anfield Road will be bisected. A sacrifice will be made by most locals who don’t stand to benefit directly.

More public consultations will follow early in the new year. For once, Reds around the world, locals and the club’s hierarchy should speak with one voice, demanding long overdue action from the government to include plans that help the neighbourhood of Anfield advance along with the stadium. In Boston, Fenway Sports Group can expect massive financial support from all levels of government towards any stadium project they undertake. Liverpool Football Club aren’t asking for that. They are financially self-sufficient for every project they have undertaken. There is a massive gulf in the way these projects are viewed on opposite sides of the Atlantic. However, it is not the club’s responsibility to build roads, bridges and trains.

The city has made and endless list of promises to assist in the Bramley Moore Dock project, something that may never even happen. The residents of Anfield will never have more leverage than this moment to demand, if not equal, at least proportional support for their neighbourhood. Is a rail link feasible? What we do know is that just about anything is possible when all Reds stand together to demand action. This club is unique in that supporters from Ireland to Indonesia want to see the people of Liverpool succeed along with the team. Love for the club is inexorably tied to an admiration for Scousers.

Ticket prices, trademarks and kit designs are all worthy subjects for public discussion, but this is about improving people’s daily lives. The greatest club in the world deserves a worthy stadium and the local community should only benefit from that if the government would provide the bare minimum amount of support. Nobody deserves it more. I would hope we can all agree on that.

Up The Local Reds!