In just under three weeks’ time, Alex McLeish will return to the stadium once more as manager of Scotland for a friendly with Costa Rica. Hampden Park continues to play its part. And yet, for how much longer?
Paul Fletcher is a veteran of more than 300 games for Burnley and a former chief executive of the Turf Moor club as well as Huddersfield Town. So he doesn’t just know about stadiums, with Aberdeen among the latest clubs to seek his expertise. Fletcher has practically lived in them since he was a teenager.
He has played in stadiums and watched football in them. He struck what has been described as “the goal of the decade” in one – an overhead kick at Elland Road for Burnley in a 4-1 win against champions-to-be Leeds United in 1974. Fletcher claims to have played in “most of the UK’s stadiums” in a 16-year career.
It is why he is worth listening to on the subject of the future of Hampden Park. He fears his views might be considered controversial. He needn’t worry.
When he calls for Hampden to be demolished and rebuilt he is voicing the favoured option of many Scotland fans. It is also likely to be the preference of most inside the SFA. But, as ever, it comes down to money.
Fletcher thinks he has the answer for this. “Commerciality,” he says. He believes a stadium can pay for itself providing enough thought goes into supplementary facilities. He writes off Hampden in its present state as simply not fit for purpose.
“You have to make bold decisions and just get on with it,” he says. “And one bold decision for me is rebuild Hampden and build a great football stadium. That’s a bold decision someone has to make otherwise you will trundle along for the next 50 years and it will keep getting patched up.”
Fletcher’s qualifications are undeniably sound. He describes himself as a “stadiologist” on his calling card – apparently merited because he has been involved in the development of more than one stadium.
The 67-year-old masterminded Huddersfield Town’s move from their old ground at Leeds Road to what was then the Alfred McAlpine Stadium amid initial resistance. It was then that he learned one of his greatest lessons as a stadiologist; don’t be fooled into thinking fans always know best.
“Do it on the behalf of fans and not with the fans,” he advises. “Let me tell you why I say that: the trouble with football fans is if you line six of them up anywhere in the world they will all see a different game and have different ideas.”
He claims to know what supporters want, or need, in any case. He isn’t dismissive of nostalgia. He can’t abide new grounds built miles outside the city, as Aberdeen are currently planning. Fletcher would always opt to build on the same site if possible.
“You retain that nostalgia if you don’t relocate,” he says. “It’s the same Wembley – even though it has been moved about 60 metres – where they won the World Cup in ’66. It’s the same Wembley, the nostalgia is still there. You do lose that if you move five or six miles out of town.”
Fletcher was commercial director of the Wembley project. There were initial plans to include an athletics track but football fans found an unlikely ally in Ken Bates, who once favoured installing electric fences at Chelsea to keep them in check. When it came to Wembley, Bates was adamant: no athletics track. Fletcher agreed wholeheartedly. He understands football fans want to be as near to the action as possible – sometimes a little too close. He recalls being jabbed in the back while taking throw-ins at places such as Upton Park, West Ham United’s old ground.
He provided input to vice-chair Karren Brady ahead of West Ham’s unpopular flit to the Olympic Stadium.
“I have had this argument with the people at West Ham,” he says. “They have a brand-new, nearly billion- pound stadium. But everybody is sat 50 metres back from the pitch. People hate it.
“What Hampden is, if we’re to be very cruel, is an athletics track that converts into a football ground. What football fans want is a football ground.
“You already have a couple in Glasgow, there are two big ones there. I think they need a national stadium that is designed for football fans.”
According to Fletcher, there are two main factors to consider. They seem so basic it is hard to believe clubs fail to heed them. The first is making sure the pitch is positioned facing north-south to ensure maximum sunlight. The second is positioning the away end where the away supporters will be arriving. “They didn’t bother to do that at West Ham,” he says. Hence stories of fans fighting each other dominating coverage of their first few games following the move to Stratford.
Fletcher is an advocate of what he calls the “Hamburger” stadium. This is a tiered structure where the pitch is on a second or third level and commercial units are housed underneath, with, perhaps, a university on the floor above the pitch. UCFB Wembley, a college of Bucks New University, has its campus at Wembley Stadium.
“It is possible now to build a new stadium that can pay for itself,” he says. “What we have got to stop doing is putting the pitch on ground level.
“The bottom part of the bun is the retail, then you have the car park under the pitch and the meat is either the football or rugby that is played in the middle. The top half of the bun is for education. It is relatively straightforward to put a university in there. Not only a teaching university, but student bedrooms. We teach students (at Wembley) whilst they’re overlooking the pitch.”
For those who consider football grounds as sacrosanct this might seem unappealing. But Hampden has in the past dispensed with its square posts, deep banks of terraces and old, overhanging press box.
According to Fletcher, the famous ground’s latest reinvention should be its most extreme one yet. In order to prevail, it must first succumb to the wrecking ball.
◆ Paul Fletcher was speaking at The Spartans Community Football Academy to promote the launch of his new novel, Saturday Bloody Saturday, written with Alastair Campbell, which is published by Orion Books and is out now.