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Why Everton need to avoid the sad mistakes made by West Ham in pursuit of new stadium

On 23rd December Everton Football Club will formally submit its planning application for a new 52,000 stadium to be built on the Bramley-Moore Dock area of Liverpool’s famous waterfront.

It’s another step in the direction of club owner Farhad Moshiri’s ambitious plans to raise Everton onto the same pedestal as the Premier League top six.

Nothing smacks more of the raw ambition of a football club than a shiny new stadium in a gentrified part of the city. The last two decades have seen the old, Archibald Leitch era stadia ripped out, replaced by the modern, all-singing all-dancing arenas. They are venues that offer corporate hosting opportunities, gastronomic delights and impressive hotels often tagged on for good measure.

It is impossible to argue against the fiscal sense of what these bigger, brighter grounds bring in terms of increased revenue which should, in theory, contribute to success on the field. Already Moshiri, at a fan consultation earlier this year, revealed that the naming rights alone for his proposed new stadium would yield £100 million. Not too shabby, eh?

However, Everton offer up a very interesting opportunity to see whether they can make their prospective move pay off in more ways than just a tidy return on a spreadsheet column.

Like their city neighbours, Evertonians are fiercely proud of their football club and over the years their North Liverpool home at Goodison Park has become part of the club’s identity. The affectionately dubbed Grand Old Lady has hosted top flight football for 117 years and has staged top sides with excellent players strutting their stuff at the famous ground from Alan Ball to Wayne Rooney.

Plans to leave their old home have been met by overall positivity from fan groups, no doubt keen to capitalize on their team’s constant presence in the richest football league in the world. However, the club’s directors only need to cast their gaze down south to London, where a similar project at a similarly ambitious club has not exactly gone off without a hitch.

West Ham United‘s move to the London Stadium in 2016 was marred with controversy from day one. Disputes over taxpayer money funding the conversion and subsequent upkeep of the former Olympic showpiece venue soured the national view of the Hammers’ bargain move. Things haven’t really kicked on from there.

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Fan unrest at the stadium led to some pretty negative press circulating around the club’s maiden campaign in their new ground. The supporters have not exactly embraced their new digs either. Complaints about perceived attempts to sanitize the atmosphere, by banning standing, and a failure to designate certain sections of the ground for the home support, were compounded by the club’s ruthless attitude towards smaller businesses that thrived at the old Boleyn Ground.

Fans lamented the decision to ban the old street food vendors in favour of trendier hipster eateries being installed outside the ground. Where you could once purchase pie and mash to layer your stomach for a few ales before the match, you could now get a vegan takeaway instead. Supporters groups also complained at being herded away from the main shopping areas toward the stadium on match days in a largely soulless procession to the new stadium.

Whomever was at the heart of these decisions may have seen them as just mere nods toward progression and modernity and, in some instances, they’d be right. Yet in essence these small measures have amputated the soul of the fan experience and life-bond with the club they ardently follow.

The old Stratford food vans, proper pubs and dodgy merchandise stalls were ingrained in 112 years of history at Upton Park and the East End. These experiences become part of the fabric of the club, just as much as the bronze tribute to Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore and Martin Peters. For them to be callously discarded without much say from the fans has unsurprisingly led to consternation and unrest. Put simply: the new ground does not yet feel like their spiritual home and may not for some time to come.

Oddly as well, there has not been a huge surge in match day revenue to compensate for this negativity. The club’s 2018 financial results indicated a 14.3% drop in the revenue stream compared with the year before. The corporate opportunities and swollen attendances should eventually pay dividends, of course, provided results are strong enough for the Hammers remain in the top flight and attract big signings. Yet, you have to ask yourself the question; what price has been paid for this transition.

It is here that Everton can get this right. The emotional vacuum and gentrified match day environment will, likely, be inevitable. But the club appears to at least have the fans in mind.

The largest public consultation in the city’s history took place as Moshiri and stadium development director Colin Chong look to pay homage to the Everton fans and their myriad of queries and concerns. Just over 43,000 fans and residents responded to the consultation and tellingly, 96% gave approval to the stadium design and it’s location.

Boxes ticked no doubt. But the club must continue to tread with this caution. There has been little mention of the steps taken by Moshiri and club directors to help ease the financial strain felt by local business when Everton do eventually leave behind their home and the community that has supported it for years. Empty platitudes from Karen Brady and David Gold in 2016 have not been forgotten by the majority of West Ham supporters, and you can bet your bottom dollar that local fans and business owners at Everton would not take such a snubbing lying down either.

Goodison Park is revered throughout the land by ex-pros, coaches and pundits alike for it’s genuine atmosphere and effortless charm. Sadly this will not win you trophies nor will it fatten your wallet, but the Toffees would do well not to trade it all off.

The London Stadium, thus far in it’s turbulent infancy, is not feared by visitors as the Boleyn Ground once was for it’s tide-turning, intimidating atmosphere in football matches. In plotting their new stadium, Everton’s money men would do well to consider this as serious a factor as much as the black and red on their balance sheet and not opt to sell the club’s soul, history and fan unity down the banks of the River Mersey.

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