Robbie Neilson played at both Hampden Park and Murrayfield and fully supports the Scottish Football Association’s decision to remain in Glasgow.
However, he insisted redeveloping the national stadium is critical to Scotland’s hopes of reaching major tournaments.
The former Hearts player and coach believes the country would unanimously welcome stands being brought closer to the Hampden pitch. The SFA yesterday rejected a move to BT Murrayfield and revealed their intent to “transform” Hampden after agreeing to buy it from Queen’s Park for £5m – half of which is provided by Lord Willie Haughey. Specific detail was not given and won’t be until funding for such a project is generated.
Traditionalists are content knowing the national team will stay at their spiritual home. Neilson is one of them. He donned the Scotland shirt in 2006 and enjoyed arguably his finest moment at Hampden that year with Hearts – executing a goal-saving tackle on Gretna’s David Graham during the Scottish Cup final. He also played European ties with the Edinburgh club at Murrayfield.
If refurbishing Hampden creates a better atmosphere, Neilson knows it would help the Scotland players. A more intimidating home would make life difficult for visiting nations and hopefully help end a 20-year wait to qualify for a major championship.
“It’s definitely a good decision to stay,” Neilson told the Evening News. “I think Hampden needs a lot of work done to try and improve the atmosphere but it’s the home of football in Scotland. It has been for over 100 years. The museum and everything is in there and you’ve got all the facilities round about it. For me, I think it’s the right decision.
“I can understand why the SFA looked at Murrayfield from a cost point of view, but from a football perspective it’s good to stay. Now it’s a case of how can we develop the stadium to try and improve it, make it a bit more fan-friendly. I think everyone would like to see the fans brought closer, especially behind the goals. The distance between the pitch and the stand is vast at both ends. Whether they can put a temporary stand in for lesser games to generate an atmosphere, I don’t know.
“I was at the two Scotland games against Belgium and Albania. There were 20,000 people at the Belgium game and 17,000 against Albania. The atmosphere doesn’t help at all in terms of pushing us to get through to a major tournament. If we get the stadium rocking with real atmosphere and intensity about the place, it helps the players on the pitch and gives us a chance to qualify.”
There must have been an air of despondency about the Scotland coach Alex McLeish seeing only 17,455 people turn out for Scotland’s opening Nations League tie. That notion wasn’t lost on Neilson, who is unemployed since leaving MK Dons in January.
“In previous campaigns when we were doing well, Hampden was selling out,” he pointed out. “I understand it’s hard to fill a stadium when the team isn’t winning as many games and not qualifying for tournaments. Both things go hand-in-hand: If the team is doing well, more people will turn up. When the stadium is more full, that then helps the team as well.
“Can we do something in the meantime until we get back to a level where people are coming to every game and the ground is selling out? If you can sell Hampden out, then it’s a great atmosphere. The problem right now is it’s less than half full for these qualifiers. It might be like that for the foreseeable future until you can really push the team on, get winning and get to a major championships. That then builds momentum and brings the fanbase back.”
Upgrading costs would clearly be a major factor. In 2009, the German club VFB Stuttgart rebuilt both ends of their Mercedes-Benz Arena to convert it from a bowl shape into a square. It cost €63.5million and took two years. The SFA do not have that kind of cash to invest at the moment. They considered moving to Murrayfield as a cheaper option than buying Hampden from Queen’s Park.
“Murrayfield is a fantastic stadium, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a rugby stadium,” said Neilson. “The distance between the main stand and the pitch there is too big to try and create an atmosphere. If you get a full house, like they do for the big Six Nations games, it’s great. Any lesser games than that and the atmosphere isn’t as good.
“From a football perspective, it’s not the place to be. You want fans as close to the pitch as possible to create that intensity. We still have that problem at Hampden so hopefully now there will be something done to try and improve it.”
The SFA chief executive Ian Maxwell certainly seems open to the idea. “Taking ownership of the Hampden Park site will create the potential to transform the home of Scottish football for the benefit of Scottish football fans. We look forward to working with all interested parties to achieve an exciting and fan-friendly vision for Hampden Park,” he said.
Listening to fans’ wishes is paramount at time when many feel disconnected from the SFA and the national team. “Hampden Park has been the spiritual home of Scottish football for over 100 years and has been central to our sport’s identity in this country,” continued Maxwell. “Our mission is to inspire a nation to love the game and having a home that we can call our own is an important part of that.
“It will enable us to drive investment into the game and give us the best chance to improve football in Scotland.
“While we are now committed to Hampden Park we also recognise that it needs to change. We have heard the fans’ views throughout the process and agree with them that we need to improve access, transport links and the overall experience. We are committed to doing that.
“We have heard many voice their support for the stadium. We need collective action, driven by the Scottish FA, to ensure it remains the beating heart of Scottish football.”
How loud that beat is will depend on the size of the crowd. Which may well depend on a new-look Hampden to meet modern demands.