WORDS BY DAVID BEVAN | @DB_WRITING
Most branches of Frankie and Benny’s, the Italian-American chain restaurant, can be found in out-of-town retail parks. Take a trip to one of these retail parks and you will find the very same suspects; a Pizza Hut, a Bella Italia, a Hollywood Bowl, and all too often a football stadium relocated from the midst of terraced streets at some point since the mid-1990s.
I have a theory that the closer a football stadium is to a Frankie and Benny’s, the worse it is: the very name brings to mind microscopic traces of an atmosphere drifting out over sparsely-populated stands.
The reasons behind the location of chain restaurants in retail parks in the 1990s and early 2000s — transport links, free parking, multiple leisure options, space for expansion — also made sense to many football clubs. So they made the move in their droves, from the suburbs to the outskirts; Northampton Town in 1994, Derby County in 1997, Wigan Athletic in 1999, Oxford United in 2001, Swansea City in 2005.
It does suit some people that so many modern football stadiums are situated in out-of-town retail parks. This is particularly true of families, in the same way that all-seater stadiums make sense. But the more clubs that moved, the more the away day experience was crushed.
I asked on Twitter what people thought made for a good away day experience, other than the result. The answers came back; a bit of history to the place, somewhere with a good pub that looks after its beer, close to the city centre, an interesting walk from the railway station. All the responses swirled in my head to create one perfect vision and nowhere in sight was there a Pizza Hut.
I pictured rows and rows of terraced houses, a single floodlight towering up from the midst of the streets, a pub on the corner with fans gathered outside. And the destination; the wind whipping in and around four distinct stands, each coloured in the browns and greys of Victorian Britain to match the houses clustered around. A place named after an adjoining street or the surrounding area rather than a gambling company or an international airline. A place where nobody has ever asked how they make a better fan experience. Where the food options are reassuringly limited. A place that most people would describe as a ‘shithole’, but which means something. A 1-0 win thanks to a dodgy penalty in the ninety-something-th-minute or a late equaliser against all the odds, and a celebration never to be forgotten.
What makes the away day a cult experience is not only that we’re losing more each year, through stadium moves and the marginalisation of supporters. It’s also that modern football stadiums make sense to so many people. It’s harder to make a rational case for the lure of low, corrugated iron roofs, overly crowded concourses and obstructed views. But with so many newer stadiums seeming indistinguishable from one another, it’s the variety of the older grounds that keeps the football experience fresh.
I am not a traditionalist in many other walks of life. There’s just something about football - and away games in particular - that hauls me back to my first experiences of the game, when I first began to feel part of something bigger, when I began to feel like there were thousands of other people who shared my thoughts and feelings. When I realised I wasn’t the only person utterly obsessed with football.
Those first away day experiences were also, at times, frightening. Football wasn’t as safe as it is now and it’s difficult to argue that children should be exposed to the kind of situations we don’t see these days. Those situations — a brief crowd surge, the running in the streets, the time one old fella accidentally spilled the entire contents of his pipe down the back of my neck after a match — quickened the heartbeat in a way nobody who regularly films their own reactions to goals on their phone can quite imagine.
My favourite football grounds in Britain? Turf Moor, where you can watch a cricket match from the pavilion with pint in hand; Selhurst Park, with the Arthur Wait Stand’s low roof making for perfect acoustics; The Hawthorns, more modern in appearance but indebted to The Vine, a nearby pub offering superb food, for its inclusion.
I’ll hold my hands up and admit the inadmissible: I’ve got a soft spot for Kenilworth Road. I also loved travelling to Hereford United’s Edgar Street home. I prefer the City Ground to Pride Park. I appreciate Carrow Road and Portman Road. I miss Filbert Street and Highbury and White Hart Lane and particularly Upton Park.
West Ham United appear to have trumped all other clubs for moving from the sublime to the ridiculous: the distance from the pitch, the vacuous surroundings, the manufactured atmosphere. It was a move that summed up exactly what we are losing with each stadium relocation, from a place where people live to a place where people go to shop and eat and, in this particular case, hurl a javelin.
What makes a good away day special is that feeling of entering a different community, representing your colours in support of your team. It’s the fleeting experience of a different way of life, of the local food, the beer, the differently coloured brickwork, the accents, the people. You don’t get many of those things in out-of-town retail parks. You don’t see how life really is. And you don’t get real ale in Frankie and Benny’s.