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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Grounds for divorce: soulless stadiums are killing sport


The debate about modern sports grounds and the type of fan they attract has been energised by Alan Quinlan’s fine column in the Irish Times. Here is our contribution to the topic – printed before the Six Nations began, lest we be accused of jumping on the bandwagon! 

RUGBY from before the professional era looks quaint now.

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Still, a lot of people preferred the old Five Nations. Some liked the way the game, even at the top level, catered for every body shape — now even the scrum half is a tank. Some liked the way the players were more rounded characters — they had regular jobs and regular concerns and no time to sculpt the triceps of an Adonis between training sessions. Some liked the fact that there was a good chance you’d end up drinking with the teams at some point of a rugby weekend.

I’m not really sure if I preferred old rugby. I think the game is better today — in fact I know it is. The video evidence is stark.

I did used to look forward more to the start of the Five Nations though. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and after a considerable period of head-scratching (well, about 15 seconds, could just be nits) I’ve got the answer. I preferred the old stadiums.

I loved Lansdowne Road, the Dart running under the West Stand, the Wanderers clubhouse, open terracing on either end, ivy climbing the pillars, a real sense of permanence — like the ramshackle ground had grown from the earth.

I remember getting the train up from Cork for games, schoolboy tickets for the South Terrace (that cost next to nothing) in our pockets. We weren’t drawn to the games because we were guaranteed a great performance by our team (this was the early ’90s — apart from the 17-3 victory over England in 1993, the result usually went against us). The draw was the atmosphere.

As Con Houlihan said in lament of the old Canal End in Croker, terraces are the yeast that make the bread rise.

The new version of Lansdowne Road, named after an Irish-employee-shedding insurance firm, has all the heart and soul of a branch of Pret. It’s sleek, it shines, it seats everybody in comfort, affords them a decent view of the action. But f**k me it’s boring. Going there is like turning up at your favourite local, where a hundred thousand yarns have been spun and even the walls radiate charm, to find it replaced by a Costa.

I realise Costa exists on every High Street because people want Costa. People appreciate the charm of old buildings too though, that’s one of the reasons councils list them, preventing demolition.

Old stadiums rarely get listed. Well, two stands at the old Highbury were, but that still didn’t stop the ground becoming an apartment complex.

I believe that sports stadiums are places of huge cultural significance. The idea of tearing down the Albert Hall or the Gate Theatre and replacing them with bigger structures with lots of glass and comfier seats would be dismissed as craziness. Only somebody with several generations of philistine inbreeding would suggest that, right?

Yet old sporting cathedrals, standing for more than 100 years, don’t get lovingly refurbished. They are flattened and replaced with identikit new models.

Is there really a lot of difference between the Millennium Stadium, Twickenham or the Stade de France now? I would argue not: it’s the same regimented tiers of plastic seats, big screens and DJs intent on killing whatever atmosphere is bubbling with cliched music and hyperbole.

I go to these places for work but rarely attend games there for pleasure anymore. Whenever I do (the last time was probably the Heineken Cup final in Twickenham) I always ask myself: “Why did I bother?”

Yeah, the view is decent and it’s comfortable. But it’s not as comfortable as home, with the armchair, central heating, commentary and instant replays and lack of traffic jams or jointed train carriages.

I don’t mind a bit of inconvenience, but the trade-off has to be the atmosphere, the feeling of occasion, the uncontrived sense of excitement, people genuinely thrilled to be there — as opposed to being told they are by a breathless stadium announcer hell-bent on reducing the game to a dodgy student disco from years ago … Cue Rocking All Over The World or Fatboy Slim. Right here! Right now! Right here! Right now! 

Rugby, sport in general, is worth so much more than pyrotechnics and a fully-functioning sound system. All that carry on is akin to sticking a flashing sign on the Cliffs of Moher that reads: ‘This is really beautiful’.

The games’ appeal is organic, rooted in well over a century’s worth of great deeds and daring do and passion. For me, sterile chrome stadiums and Tony Fenton behind the mic are far removed from what it is really all about.

I still love the sports, but prefer now to watch the big games on the TV. My 14-year-old self would never have believed I’d arrive at this stage. But not even my 14-year-old self would have been impressed by endless bucket seats and the wrong kind of Status Quo.



Ronan Early

Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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