There’s no point in having unobstructed sightlines if there’s no one permitted to enjoy the view. This is the current undesired scenario at Netherdale, site of the country’s only category A-list grandstand – complete with its once novel architectural flourish of no pillars.
Archibald Leitch’s grand red-bricked main stand at Rangers’ Ibrox stadium, for example, has only B-list status. It means recent news that the structure in Galashiels is presently under threat constitutes a matter of national importance. Gala Fairydean Rovers’ next fixture in the GeoSonic Lowland League is hosting high flyers East Kilbride. They would naturally prefer the full benefit that comes with having home advantage.
But over the last few weeks when they have played at Netherdale their striking, Brutalist-era main stand, designed by renowned architect Peter Womersley, has lain empty and will lie empty for the foreseeable future. Its current status is closed, pending essential restoration work.
Those unobstructed views that were a novel concept at the time of its opening in 1964 – only Dundee United’s newly built cantilever main stand was pillar-less in Scotland at the time –have been rendered a redundant concept, temporarily it’s hoped. The nightmare scenario is that the stand does not re-open.
Its future, and that of perhaps Gala Fairydean Rovers’ greatest claim to fame, is in the hands of those preparing to operate the drills used to determine just how extensive water damage to the concrete has proved over the years.
The stand’s cantilevered canopy, imagined by Womersley as appearing to float above the spectators seated below, is its defining feature. While aesthetically pleasing, to some at least, this feature wasn’t necessarily conceived with the Borders rain in mind – there has been substantial seepage of water into the concrete, parts of which have now started to break away. “It’s reached a critical stage,” concedes Graeme McIver, the club’s secretary. There is, he adds, “a percentage chance” the stand could be closed for good for safety reasons. The A-listing status grants the structure a degree of protection. It’s a criminal offence to demolish or even materially alter such buildings without listed building consent.
It’s fortunate, then, that the floodlight pylon bolted to the roof of the stand dates to before 2006, when the stand joined the Bill Struth main stand at Ibrox in being awarded B-listed status. It was elevated to a level above Leitch’s creation in 2013. A-listed status is conferred upon buildings considered to be of “national or international importance”. B-listed buildings such as at Ibrox, meanwhile, are deemed to be “of regional or more than local importance”. They account for more than 50 per cent of listed buildings. Only 7 per cent, like the Gala Fairydean Rovers main stand, are in the A-list bracket. It’s therefore worth the effort – and cost – involved in restoring it to its former glory.
“At present only the seating area is closed,” reports McIver. “You can imagine with the intrusive drilling, if they say there’s a concern that the canopy might be in danger of collapse, then it would have to be closed completely I would imagine.”
Even mothballing the structure would rob the club, the town and Scotland of a cherished, and, importantly, still functioning modernist building of enormous interest. Busloads of architectural students regularly draw up outside, one from as far away as Kaiserslautern University. As much as it is celebrated, it is important to remember this stand also forms the headquarters of a working football ground – inside its walls are dressing rooms, a referee’s room, boardroom and, crucially, a bar, known as the “club rooms”, which is an important source of income.
“It’s typical in that the decision to close it took place in November so it has been closed November, December, January and probably February – the very worst of winter months,” says McIver. “Like a lot of non-league teams most of our support is an older generation and they have been unable to get under cover so the gates are down, the bar takings are down, all that kind of stuff.”
Manager Dean Shanks, pictured right, recognises the architectural merit of the structure but is desperate for the stand to re-open for more pressing reasons: help in his mid-table side’s efforts to secure league points. Already lent a slightly eerie dimension by its Soviet-era appearance, the stand becomes more haunting still when lying empty at the side of the pitch.
It might prove inspiring for artists such as Ally Wallace – the Glaswegian has recently embarked on a project in which he will combine water colour paintings of the stand with recorded testimonies and a video installation – but it is less so for the players, who prefer to see it occupied by cheering supporters. “It’s a better atmosphere with the fans in the stand as opposed to standing around the periphery,” notes 32-year-old Shanks, citing a Scottish Cup tie late last year against East Stirlingshire, when a lively crowd of around 200, most seated in the stand, roared the hosts to a 2-0 win.
Prior to its A-listing, McIver estimates more locals than not would have been in favour of taking the wrecking ball to the structure; it was loved by some, loathed by many others. “I think people in the town now have a pride in it that was perhaps not there,” he says. But this official status brings its own problems – it is not possible to simply recruit local joiners and builders to carry out repairs.
A specialist firm, approved by Historic Environment Scotland, will get to work before the end of the month. Gala Fairydean Rovers have secured funding in the form of grants to the tune of around £250,000.
“The problem is until we get the intrusive drilling done it is difficult to say how much it is going to cost,” says McIver. “It may be that the money we have raised so far will cover it – or it may be we will need between £400,000 and half a million.”
Should more be required, they will turn to fundraising. It’s how the money to build the stand was raised in the first place. Once a wealthy mill town, a football-lottery raised huge sums, with a weekly prize on offer of £100 – then half a year’s salary for the average worker.
“There’s a phrase in the Borders: ‘it’s aye bin’. As in it’s always been,” says McIver. “It’s a very small c conservative place, and I find it amazing that Gala Fairydean and Rovers in 1964 built this space-age construction.” The two clubs were very much separate entities then – they merged amid some rancour six years ago. The stand was the only football commission received by Womersley – or the only one accepted by him at least. An Englishman, he died in 1993 having settled in the Borders. Were it not for his singular vision, the future of a stand, with an original capacity of only 750, might be of no great importance to those outwith a town more associated with rugby. But his unique style and determination to create something that would serve as a talking point for years to come means Gala Fairydean Rovers, as well as a football club with as many as 17 teams across different age-groups, are also, in effect, the curators of a masterpiece.