My recent - and ongoing - efforts to initate meaningful moves to give our city the football stadium the team, its wonderful fans and, indeed, the city itself deserve have been met with, if not actual hostility, then certainly a distinct lack of enthusiasm from the powers-that-be.
The central players in the drama, and the organisation which holds the key to solving our problems, Ilex, have not been encouraging and continue to talk about ‘high end’ jobs. All very well, indeed excellent, if there was a cat-in-hell’s chance of these jobs materialising. But despite a never-ending list of ‘strategies’ and ‘area plans’ since 2004 (the latest one ‘ONE’, is currently with the planners and sounds very grand, but is reminiscent of the Bee Gees’ line, ‘it’s only words, and words are all we have’), Fort George remains a desert.
Even the mooted ‘science park’ is replicating another one on the Buncrana Road which, I’m informed, has only around 15% occupancy!
You don’t need to be a genius to realise that it’s time to start thinking outside the box. And a spanking new stadium for the city is my own particular starting point.
So let’s get back to basic thinking.
Q. Does this city need a new football stadium?
A. I haven’t met anyone, including those who may not be supportive of the Fort George option, who doesn’t think so.
Q. Can this need be satisfied by refurbishing the crumbling ruin that is Brandywell?
A. A resounding ‘No’!
So let’s get this bit out of the way before moving on to the alternatives in the forthcoming weeks.
Eddie Mahon, pictured right
Brandywell just won’t do anymore
Having experienced the magnificence of the Aviva Stadium a couple of weeks back, it’s probably a blessing that we didn’t immediately have to return to our humble - or should that be humiliating - abode.
To say that it’s ‘Third World’ is to insult our Third World friends, some of whose countries, like Ivory Coast, Kenya and Chad, host some marvellous stadia.
In recent years, even a team from Cyprus were so horrified by the Brandywell ‘facilities’ that they actually changed in their hotel!
So we can take it as being generally accepted that everyone in the city, and beyond, are at one on the need for a state-of-the-art facility of which the club and the city in general can be justifiably proud.
In the coming weeks I shall be tracing the history of the Brandywell itself and of the many efforts over the years to move away from it in recognition of the fact that, even back then, it could no longer meet the needs of the city’s football club. I shall be listing the possible alternatives and examining the pros and cons of each one. Prior to that, though, I think it is essential to identify and list the reasons why Brandywell is not - and can never be! - the solution to the problem.
If we accept that we want a complete cure rather than a temporary Band-aid, then all aspects of any alternative must be addressed. So here goes.
1. Situated at the southern extreme of the city, Brandywell is as far away as possible from the main traffic arteries into the city. Fans coming from County Derry (Eglinton, Limavady), Inishowen (Moville, Buncrana, Malin Carndonagh), elsewhere in county Donegal (Letterkenny, Ballybofey) and some of the main residential areas of the city (Carnhill, Shantallow and the 3,000 houses to be built out the Buncrana Road) all arrive at the opposite extremity of the city to Brandywell.
2. The infrastructure surrounding the stadium is no longer enough to support the volume of fans, and their cars, at major games. Brandywell Avenue is usually gridlocked half an hour before the game and the residents of Lone Moor Road are forced to put out chairs in front of their homes to protect their parking spaces. And, now that Celtic Park has got floodlighting, the expected escalation of the numbers of date clashes will only exacerbate the situation.
Roads Service are, even now, fielding constant complaints from local residents.
Infrastructure and hospitality
3. In order to welcome both home and visiting fans alike, there are certain basic facilities which should be in close proximity to the ground - facilities like cafes, restaurants, hotels, bars (for post-match drinks), fast foot outlets etc. These are either non-existent or in very short supply at Brandywell.
The ground itself
4. Brandywell is too small for UEFA Category 3 (where Rovers were last year and where we’d have been if we’d beaten PSG!) games. Even more pertinent, it cannot be enlarged due to the existence of the greyhound track surrounding the pitch. Surely an absolutely essential requirement!
5. It has a diagonal slope of 8 feet which would take millions to correct. Apart from being the subject of much humour (hardly a matter of great pride), this is toally unacceptable for any team playing at our level. In senior football on these islands, I have only ever been aware of one other team with the same problem - Yeovil Town. When I rang their secretary recently to ask how they’d solved the problem, he replied; “We didn’t. We moved to Huish Park in 1990!”
6. The ground is rented from Derry City Council and, because of historic Honourable The Irish Society restrictions, can only be rented for ONE YEAR AT A TIME, which surely must disqualify it from any government grants due to lack of security of tenure!
7. Because of the proximity to the dog track and the fact that both the ball boys and the kids play in the under-age half-time games, there exists the rish of Toxicaris from dog faeces, which can cause blindness. Not a happy situation.
8. The actual existence of the dog track, the only ground in Europe (apart from Distillery) to have one, completely destroys the required ‘football’ atmosphere. Even in Ireland grounds which formerly had tracks surrounding them - like Harold’s Cross, Markets Field and Kilcohan Park - are no longer used. Neither should Brandywell be.
Next week there will be further points made on ‘Security and Emergency’ (£90k for policing Linfield game!), the need to increase our fan base, the need to develop income streams, and the difficulty of finding a ‘home from home’ during any work on Brandywell. But for now I’ll leave you on this one.
14. We have to consider the image of the city that Brandywell creates. Successive embarrassments in entertaining visiting European teams are getting harder to take. And whichever European side visits our ‘City of Culture’ next season will surely be scratching their heads in disbelief!
The 3,000 Derry fans who travelled to Paris and Gretna in 2006 and the 8,000 who were at the Aviva and who, in the process, brought such pride and honour to our city, surely deserve better. As do the players and staff of the club.
So let’s get up off our knees and give it to them. NOW!