Tuesday, June 05, 2012

How big should Home Park be?

This is a question that keeps on cropping up. The various arguments are incredibly well-rehearsed and oft-repeated. To my mind it is a fundamental issue. When, or maybe "if" would be more appropriate given all that has happened to the club in recent years, the Grandstand gets replaced it will define the club and either its limitations or ambition for generations to come because the likelihood of further development ever happening is low.

So why am I considering this now? This is hardly a new topic (see debate and over the years we have seen many variants in the plan to modernise the stadium going all the way back to Dan McCauley's vision for a "Tradium", through to the construction by Barr of the horseshoe that "encircles" three sides of the current Home Park, various versions of a new "South Stand" that we were promised were about to be built "imminently" all the way through to the now-abandoned plans to build a 46,000 capacity all-seater stadium for the, now defunct and discredited, bid for Plymouth to be a host city for the 2018 World Cup when it came to England.

None of which addresses the "why now?" question which has once again arisen following an article in the local Sunday Independent newspaper about the redevelopment plans in which new Argyle owner/chairman James Brent was asked  if the new grandstand would be finished in time for the start of the 2014-15 season and Brent replied that "with a fair wind, we would hope it would be completed by then." Which is depressingly reminiscent of the much-derided "imminent" that be-devilled us for so long.

However it is churlish to dismiss Brent's words as pie-in-the-sky thinking or to box them up with the unrealised, and many would suggest, unrealisable plans espoused by the old regimes in all of their various guises over the last 20 years. Brent has proven himself to be a man who undeniably and demostrably gets things done and gets things done exactly how he wants them to be done. If he wants, genuinely wants, that stand to be built and finished by then then I have little doubt that it will be.

So what sort of facility do we require to replace the old grandstand? Obviously it will need to house the infrastructure that a modern football club demands. This extends beyond the seats that the attending bums will perch on and includes all of the incumbent media facilities, changing rooms, offices, club shop, matchday catering for the scarfed-up hoi polloi and corporate hospitality for the Prawn Sandwich Brigade. The model, apparently, is to emulate the revolution that has occurred just up the A38 at the Exeter Chiefs' rugby ground at Sandy Park where the facilities inside the ground have generated over £1m/year in revenue for the Chiefs and that £1m has enabled the Chiefs to, rather annoyingly, become a major player in English rugby union. The plan is to do something similar at Home Park but to do it bigger and better.

So that is the plan as far as I understand it. The new stand will obviously need to be a significant structure just to fit all of that stuff into it but, many would argue, that doing so would be putting the cart before the horse and that we should build a stand according to our capacity requirements which brings me back to the core question: how big should our new stand, and by extension, Home Park be?

This is, at least, mildly encouraging. At least the debate amongst fans has moved on from a blanket rejection of any redevelopment plans at all. The mantra of "football not freehold" which echoed so resoundingly around Argyle's various discussion fora is rarely heard these days. Only the most defiantly Luddite amongst our support would suggest that we don't need to do anything at all any more. In no small part this is because we have seen the debilitating effect of the struggles we have endured for the last few years: firstly the Mayflower Terrace was closed giving half the ground a sadly derelict and neglected look and feel which has cancerously eaten away at matchday atmosphere; secondly we have seen Zoo Corner (Blocks 15 -19) closed to save on policing costs. "Fortress Home Park" where the club could confidently expect to win more often than not, where the home fans often created a genuinely intimidating atmosphere that unsettled visiting teams quite simply no longer exists. It has been emasculated by the closure of nearly half of the ground. "Sandcastle Home Park" is more like it these days and visiting sides disappear back to the Grim North gratefully clutching results I would prefer that they did not have and which, at one time, they would never have expected to achieve.

"Oh it isn't that ~ it's the years of decline" that has caused Home Park's atmosphere to die, and which has led to the formation of Forza Verde (Argyle's nascent "Ultras") to put right. Well... maybe. I see the closure of parts of the ground as the club responding to events and not facing up to them. It's all horribly reactive as opposed to welcomingly proactive. These are the signs of a club drifting aimlessly both unable and unwilling to even try to shape its own destiny. These are the signs of a club battening down the hatches and hoping for the best and not of one grabbing the situation by the throat and imposing its own will.

And of course the impact on the capacity of the ground is profoundly telling. With seats on the Mayflower Terrace capacity was around 20,000 but without them it was cut to around 16,000. Blocks 15-19 being shut loses around another 2500 seats, the segregation area beyond that loses even more and the blocks of seats set aside for away fans is usually under-filled. Last season Home Park operated with an effectively self-imposed limit on capacity.

"No matter," the argument goes, "we didn't need those extra seats anyway. Our average attendance was only XXXXX. And even when we were in the CCC with a 20,000 capacity we only sold out 3 times and only averaged about 16000." Well if that thinking prevails then we might as well just give up now. There is no point in us even trying.

The same logic could have applied back when Dan McCauley started the Barr build. At that time we averaged about 5000 fans per home match. Why build to a capacity of 18600 as he did? Before long it became all to clear as a resurgent Argyle swept up through the divisions and crowds built along the way. "Ah... but attendances never built beyond that 18600, did they!" comes the triumphant coup de grace. This is a response that both saddens and enrages me. It bloody well couldn't, could it? How stupid can people be? Apart from it being physically impossible to get more in there will always be under attendance at games. Some people will always buy tickets and find that they are unable to attend. Not many, maybe, but some. That is just for starters. Often the away team will not sell its entire allocation. And seats need to be kept empty for segregation purposes. You will never get 18600 bums on 18600 seats, it is simply impossible, in Plymouth or anywhere else.

There is a deeper, more pernicious, almost intangible and rarely considered effect of limited capacity and that is that many people just do not bother even trying to go in the first place. To get seats they probably need to get tickets. That means an extra trip up to the ground days in advance. They may not fancy, or have time for or be able to make for any number of reasons, making that extra trip and they may not fancy the cost of committing to attendance. What if it pours with rain? What if little Johnnie gets poorly? What if the in-laws get held up in traffic? And so on. It is these people who will ultimately be the ones who attend and transform Argyle's attendance levels. It is these people we need to attract to the ground. And it is these who will be put off the most easily. And we have been putting them off trying to attend for years and years.

Even if they do decide to go to a game with a half-decent attendance they are likely to go with friends or family. Can 5 or 6 seats be found together anywhere once they arrive? The casual fan will not turn up alone after all. Or will they be dispersed to all parts of the ground? If they end up being sat next to some embarrassing idiot can they move? Will they come again? The dedicated fan does not care about such things but the casual one does and these things, along with cost of ticket and the quality and availability of refreshments, are pivotal to whether or not they come again.

And then there is the basic maths of it. An average figure is easily lowered by the attendance on the short, dark, cold and often wet winter days or the early summer League Cup tie against unattractive opposition when people are still away on holiday. Even having a home game scheduled for the Saturday before Christmas can make a difference. With a low ceiling on capacity those non-attendees can never be adequately recovered. A low maximum capacity means a lower, much lower, average attendance than there might otherwise be. It amounts to being a self-fulfilling prophesy. It is a circular argument that validates itself. It is not irrefutable proof that we do not need the extra capacity. If we had a ground that was built to house that average crowd of 16000 then that mythical average of 16000 would be completely and forever unattainable.

And then there is the Darlington Argument...

"Look at Darlo," they say, "they've been bankrupted by having a stadium that is too big for them." This is pretty much true. What is not true is that the same would necessarily happen to us. Apart from being similarly distant from London I can think of few similarities between Darlo and Argyle as teams or Darlington and Plymouth as towns/cities. There's about 250,000 people living in Plymouth and loads more within travelling distance who could, potentially, be considered our supporters. Darlington has a population of about 100,000 and anybody living nearby who wanted to travel to a game would be likely to go to Newcastle, Sunderland or Middlesbrough. Our potential support level is almost unlimited, Darlington's is very clearly very limited.

That "ground too big for them" label is a damning one. Again it is true. With all the will I can muster I can only see Darlo attracting crowds of around 10,000 at the very best and so their stadium should be sized accordingly. They did not need and could not ever justify a 25,000 stadium. "We've got more fans than you" we mockingly sang at them back in '96 on that sunny day at Wembley. It was just as true then as it is now. On that day they mustered around 9,000 supporters and we about 30,000. If your support won't turn out for a play-off final then when will it? These are the figures that need to be borne in mind when our and their relative potentials are considered. Think back to that QPR Winner Takes All game. The attendance that day was 19,535 ~ lower, not by much but lower nevertheless, than capacity, please note. Just how many tickets could we have sold for that match? I have no doubt that 30,000 tickets could easily have been sold. Maybe even 40,000. Maybe more.

If we wait until we need that extra capacity then it will be too late to build it. At that point we are likely to be riding the crest of our next wave of success; we are likely to be a division or two higher up the league pyramid than we are now; we are likely to have a team of heroes who have inspired and united the support. We are also likely to find ourselves unable to compete financially; unable to afford to recruit players of the standard we need to progress; unable to retain our best players will either be poached by teams with stronger finances (and, natch, bigger stadia) or leave dismayed at our lack of ambition;  momentum will be lost and a position of strength built on club unity and careful financial management will once again with depressing familiarity be squandered. Just as last time we were hamstrung by a stadium capacity of 20,000 so we would be again.

I am convinced that a 20,000 capacity Home Park is too low for us. Genuine balls-out ambition would see us leap up to a 30k stadium. Cautiously optimistic ambition would see something in between. I would like to see us thinking rather more ambitiously than the seemingly proposed 20k because thinking more ambitious than that is essential if we are ever to break through the glass ceiling, imposed only by our own lack of foresight, that has seen our recent successes vanish so completely and our historic successes occur so infrequently.