English counterparts urge Hearts fans to embrace possibility of council stadium partnership

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Hull CITY and Bolton Wanderers were held up to Hearts fans as examples of clubs who have benefited from collaborating with a local authority on developing a new stadium, and supporters of the two English outfits have implored Jambos to embrace the prospect of flitting from Tynecastle.

A report commissioned by Hearts and Edinburgh city council suggests a new stadium development could follow a similar council-club partnership as demonstrated to positive effect in the north of England.

With their club intending to further investigate the possibility of leaving its home of 125 years, Hearts fans will weigh up the many factors associated with relocation, such as the potential for increased revenue and commercial opportunities, improved accessibility, effect on attendances and atmosphere as well as the all-important on-field product.

Lancashire-born Howard Page has been through that thought process before. The 48-year-old sales manager, who has lived in Scotland for the past 11 years, was a regular when his beloved Bolton Wanderers made the transition from Burnden Park in the centre of town to his own home village of Horwich five miles away.

Regardless of the proximity of the new Reebok Stadium to his home, Page recognised the overwhelming positives on offer to his club.

“Given my experience, I would say Hearts fans should embrace the whole thing. Moving has brought the club on and improved the experience for fans. It improves technology and safety. The new stadium helped the club grow.

“Burnden Park was an old stadium and, with Bolton being in the old Second Division and not a wealthy club, it would have been difficult to invest in the stadium. The Reebok was newer, safer and more accessible being outside the town centre.”

Wanderers called Burnden their home for 102 years until moving in 1997. Page admits players to have graced the white jersey since then, such as French World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff and Nigerian star Jay-Jay Okocha, would be unlikely to have been enticed to the rather more modest surroundings of Burnden Park.

“If I was a player, I would find it more attractive to go to a modern stadium. We’ve had Nat Lofthouses, Sam Allardyces, and Peter Reids, but we never had any stars.”

In the slipstream of the new state-of-the-art stadium, many major retailers flooded Horwich, and Page became concerned when a flimsy guideline to protect existing local businesses quickly became forgotten in the clamour to develop the area.

“I used to live in Horwich, less than a mile from the stadium, so for me the move was fantastic. But there were a lot of downsides. For example, with the retail centre there were guidelines for new businesses not to be competing with local shops. People seemed to forget about that after a while, and 20 per cent of businesses in Horwich have closed down.”

Some may argue, however, that with the introduction of any major commercial enterprise to an area comes an alteration to the landscape of the local business industry. After being handed an opportunity to expand their stadium by the increased physical space surrounding their home, Bolton Wanderers have been able to maximise revenue in a number of areas – but, admits Page, the out-of-town location means the ground lacks opportunities for fans to socialise nearby.

“They built a new merchandise shop which has increased in size as the club has grown,” he said. “One of the extensions they built was a hotel, which is a good quality venue. On the outside of the ground, they have also built a separate stadium for athletics and tennis.

“There’s not a huge number of places for fans to go within a ten-minute walk – the majority of pubs are in Horwich town centre, which is a 15-20-minute walk from the ground.”

Five years after Bolton’s move and in a move long overdue for football fans in Hull, the Humberside club left Boothferry Park for the KC Stadium. The Tigers’ new home was voted Best Ground at the 2006 Football League Awards, dispelling the myth that an optimum atmosphere cannot be created within a new, modern football stadium. The transfer has been a resounding success on the pitch, too, with Hull City rising from the fourth tier of English football to the Premier League (and now back down to the Championship) since opening their new ground in December 2002.

Richard Beachell, a Tigers supporter for nearly 40 years and currently director of Hull City Official Supporters Club, draws parallels with the situation Hearts currently face. He says fans were easily convinced of the merits of moving after the club released impressive images of how the new stadium would look. “With Boothferry Park, it was getting to the point where something serious had to be done – there was rust everywhere,” recalled Beachell. “It needed redeveloping or a move to the new ground. I preferred the club to move because, when it was first suggested and you saw all the plans, it looked amazing. They were talking about rebuilding the main stand at Boothferry or building a whole new stadium – everything was going to be modern and fantastic and shared with the rugby, a real community stadium.

“If you weigh everything up, what we had before to what we had now is a very big plus. When you move to a new stadium, the support went up straight away, so there is more money to invest in the club, and advertising and sponsorship is more easy to come by. The club’s presence in the city has grown with the new stadium, we’ve been in the Premiership, and people who used to walk round with Manchester United shirts are now wearing Hull City shirts.”

Far from expressing concern about his club acting as mere tenants of a council-owned arena, Beachell says the fact a local authority built and maintains the KC Stadium removes both huge pressure from Hull City and any lingering concern by fans about club owners.

“The fans fell out with the owner who had the old stadium. The new one is owned by the council and that’s preferable because if the current owner was to lose interest with the club and took all his money away, we’d be saddled with the cost of paying for the ground.”

Beachell, 49, a Tigers season ticket holder for 20 years, admits that its city centre location means access out of the stadium is difficult, adding that he would have preferred an edge-of-town site such as that occupied by Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium, which allows a quick post-match exit by car. He also warned that despite the accolades that have come its way, the stadium – a 25,000-seat bowl that also serves local rugby league team Hull FC– does not quite match Hull’s atmospheric old ground for terrace thrills.

“When we all used to go into the Kempton End at Boothferry Park to sing, it was brilliant. The new ground has certainly lost a bit of atmosphere, and we tend to get a better atmosphere at away games. We’ve talked about singing sections, and I would like that to happen.”