[Cllr Cook's appalling misrepresentation of developments in the Ashton Vale Town Green Saga, and the failure so far of the professional media to report it, won't be covered here. Other blogs (try Anthony Butcher, the Ashton Gate Blogger and Bristol Indymedia for instance, or even, I'm told, on the OTIB boards) have been filling the void left by journalists and city lawyers very well without my help. Here, I'll stick to this more reflective piece about stadiamania. There may well be more.... ]
My own upbringing in the exhilaration, and more often the frustration, of supporting a football club started at Grainger Road (greyhound) stadium, then at Roots Hall, successive homes of Southend United. During that time, I must have seen both Rovers and City on their travels. A lasting memory is the strains of 'Goodnight Irene' from the stands, and I came across this lovely
Pathe report of the 1952 United - Rovers cup match
I was there. Probably!
Away games were a rare excursion and although we made it to Bath and to Torquay for the cup, we never reached Bristol.
Later, Middlesbrough became my home side, and for a long while Ayresome Park was a Saturday afternoon destination of choice. But once the game had priced itself out of reach, the only time I saw the inside of the north-east's spanking new stadia, was as a guest of Her Majesty when her civil servants hired the venues for conferences. But after forty years, the Boro habit got pretty ingrained, and it's always their result I check first.
So far as I know, Sainsbury's played no part at all in Boro's move to the Riverside Stadium; that was down an ambitious club owner and the public money poured into the regeneration of the largely derelict Ironmasters District, along with a the promise – still unfulfilled – that it would trigger squillions of new private inward investment. The artwork – and the stadium – look nice, though!
Meanwhile, back in both Southend and Bristol, it's Sainsburys commercial ambitions that are being relentlessly pursued on the back of fans' passion and owners expanding egos.
Whilst the Sainsbury's interest in the City and Rovers relocation, freeing them up to build megastores on the old club sites, are familiar enough, it's interesting to see how a similar strategy is being followed over in Southend.
Roots Hall is within a comfortable walk of the town centre, but well detached from its amenities. A park, some pubs, and a suburban station are close, and plenty of buses go by too. The site is is in multiple ownership, and Sainsburys want the lot to accommodate a 7,000sq.m (net) megastore with parking below and offices above (at Ashton Gate they're going for 9,300sq.m). There are 270 homes too. The minor independent owners, are ready to sell if the price is right.
The club itself is owned by a property developer, Ron Martin, through his company Martin Dawn. But the ground itself, bought largely by those fifties fans, no longer belongs to the club; it had to be sold back in 1999 to clear debts, with very little of the capital left to use for the club itself. The new ground owner, Roots Hall Ltd., is simply another corporate embodiment of Ron Martin. So Roots Hall Ltd leases the ground back to Southend United (owner, Ron Martin, as Martin Dawn) for £400,000 a year – creating such a drain on its accounts that it couldn't possibly survive without further support. OK, it's actually much more complicated than that.
They reckon Roots Hall would make a great supermarket + filling station. To get hold of it, they've provided United's life support machine for years, paying off the tax bills in last minute court deals and allowing the team and the club to survive – just. Regularly. On credit, of course.
And down on Fossetts Farm – that idyllic sounding edge-of town greenfield location where SUFC believe their destiny lies, it's Sainsburys who've offered to pay for construction of three of the four stands. I say four, though the fourth one seems to have been dropped because of the financial pressures. Just like the Ashton Vale project, the big deal isn't the stadium itself but the linked greenfield developments; a retail park, including a giant B&Q, a big hotel, and the usual outlets. There was to be a casino, too; but the sea front operators managed to stop that one. There'll be more money spinning at the Roots Hall supermarket and the value of the 'released' Sainsbury store floorspace in the town centre.
So it's not really about sport – even the professional game has only a tiny part in the big project.
The council in Southend has always backed the scheme, but without going to such expensive lengths as Bristol Council has backed City's Ashton Vale bid. In Essex, no-one's successfully gone cap-in-hand to the Civic Centre to ask for special planning concessions; normal standards apply. If meetings have been fixed and councillors' have been threatened, the evidence in Southend is very hard to find. No public land has been sold to the applicants below its true value. The council has, however, agreed to bring a Compulsory Purchase Order to secure any land at Roots Hall that can't be secured by negotiation. That's about it.
Progress in Southend is painfully slow, and wholly reliant on the continuing goodwill of the supermarket; who are now so deep in the club's affairs that it's hard to see them walking away. But, new ground or not, the long-suffering Southend fans do have some reason to be cheerful. On the pitch, they've come back from the dead and are riding high.
It doesn't look as much fun as in 1952. But that doesn't matter to Sainsburys.