London's Lost Grounds
Blink and you'll miss it. Since the turn of the 20th century, some of London's most iconic grounds have been dismantled and resigned to the history books. From the Twin Towers of Wembley to The Shelf at White Hart Lane, the slopes of Underhill to Highbury's famous ‘Clock End,’ we've lost some truly iconic places.
The changing nature of the game means clubs are having to uproot and expand to compete in a fiercely competitive space. Hospitality and corporate boxes are now a necessity and clubs now need their grounds to produce income everyday of the week rather than solely relying on match days. Even little old fifth division Barnet FC now cater for weddings at their new ground, and there have even been occasions of fans and wedding guests crossing paths on a Saturday afternoon, very bizarre.
The football landscape is changing so fast that we've barely had time to reflect on what's been left behind. It's time to take a step back and appreciate what we had.
Photo credit: IG @Staantribune
1966. Gazza's worldie against Scotland. The White Horse final. 39 steps. They think it's all over, it absolutely is now.
The original Wembley (known as the Empire Stadium originally) will go down as one of the most well-known and iconic grounds in world football history. Having opened its doors for the first time in 1923 as part of the British Empire Exhibition, it was originally meant to be demolished after the exhibition only for Sir Arthur Elvin to buy it out. It went on to host numerous high profile events such as the 1966 World Cup, 1996 Euros, 1948 Olympics, FA Cup finals and even became the temporary home of Arsenal in the 1990s (Highbury wasn't up to UEFA standards to host Champions League games).
The twin towers aside, another unique feature of the ground was its speedway track, which was rather different to the box sized grounds that graced English clubs up and down the land. This meant visibility for fans wasn't ideal, especially for fans in the lower rows behind the goal.
The ground will be forever synonymous with the national team, having hosted so many memorable moments through the twentieth century. The original Wembley finally closed its doors in 2000 to make way for the ultra modern reincarnation under the same name.
An interesting fact about the ground was that during its redevelopment, the original foundations of Watkin's Tower were discovered. Had the project been completed in the 1890's, it would have been the tallest structure in the world at the time (and would have been the London equivalent of the Eiffel Tower but taller).
Highbury (or Arsenal Stadium as it was officially called) was home to Arsenal for 103 years, witnessing countless league trophies and star-studded sides like that of the 1998 double-winners and the unbeatable side of 2003. It hosted matches at the 1948 Olympics and even Muhammad Ali swung punches at the ground. It was a boxed-in stadium, sandwiched between rows of terraced housing in the leafy suburbs of North London.
It hosted the famous clock end where the more rowdy fans parked up, with the art deco East and West stands on either side. The North Bank had its following too, with the atmosphere making up for its lack of aesthetics. It’s presence even bestowed the club name to the nearest tube station.
The ground was seriously revamped towards the end of the century, as the Taylor Report of 1992 meant grounds needed to become all-seater. Gone was the Clock End, replaced with a smaller all-seater stand and rows of corporate boxes above.
The North Bank was also completely replaced, and during the 1993 season fans were treated to a cartoon hoarding covering up the construction behind. There was also some controversy due to the lack of black faces drawn on (very quickly rectified).
Despite these modifications, the ground was clearly too small for the clubs ambitions and in 2006 they finally said goodbye for their new 60,000 seater stadium across the railway lines in Islington.
White Hart Lane 1999-2017
Photo Credit: IG @craigman85
As you come out of Seven Sisters Underground and take the long, exposed walk down the High Road, you'll (eventually) encounter the lion's den that was White Hart Lane. Much like their North London rivals, Spurs' stadium was compact and dense, situated in the heart of the local area.
First opened in 1899, over 2,500 competitive fixtures were hosted here. It had hosted numerous international fixtures for England and at its peak, it could pack in 80,000 souls.
Over time the ground saw numerous changes, as the demand of the game meant stand by stand the club upgraded its facilities. Archibald Leitch was the architect for many of its earlier changes, including the famous West Stand. By the ‘80s new seating and executive boxes we're installed in the rejuvenated East Stand, replacing the much loved Shelf area where 20,000 vocal supporters were housed.
The capacity diminished over time, dropping to just over 36,000 by the time the club saw out its final game against Man Utd back in 2017. During their last season they demolished part of the stand to make way for the new one being built around it. There was a visible gap in the stands, showcasing the old and impending new era of the lilywhites.
After a short stint at Wembley, Spurs returned to North London after completing a £ 1 billion stadium project. Housed in almost the exact spot as White Hart Lane, the new ground is cutting edge, hosting 62, 000 fans with the South Stand being the largest single tier in the UK.
Fans of the time would point out that the ground was intimidating, with the crowds right over the action. It was never going to win prizes for the most aesthetically pleasing stadium but it was much loved by the Spurs faithful.
Boleyn Ground 1904-2016
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Probably the most controversial switch in the capital as West Ham's move from the beloved Boleyn to the London Stadium has been nothing short of a nightmare. The Boleyn Ground summed up The Hammers perfect. It was a gritty, intimidating, scrappy ground in the heart of working class East London.
Opened in 1904 and hosted games all the way up to 2016, finishing off its long tenure with West Ham beating Man United in front of a packed house.
It's name derives from a rather bizarre story that's embedded in local folklore. Initially the Hammers rented Green Street House and grounds in East Ham from the Roman Catholic Church. Green Street House was known locally as Boleyn Castle because of an association with Anne Boleyn (Queen of England and wife number two to Henry VIII), who had either stayed at or owned the house.
Another tale (this one confirmed) was that the ground was a victim of World War 2 bombings when a V-1 flying bomb fell on the ground. The claret and blue side had to temporarily play elsewhere whilst repairs took place after the war ended.
Like Highbury and White Hart Lane, the Boleyn Ground went through extensive redevelopment in the 1990's off the back of The Taylor Report of 1992. Every stand was completely replaced bar the East Stand, which saw new seating installed to meet the new regulations.
One of London's more quirkier grounds, Underhill was the perfect example of a lower-league football. Literally on a slope (that was even more prominent before 1991), Underhill hosted football for over a century before finally closing its doors in 2013. It's since been replaced by a new secondary school. It was an ironic ending considering the locals actively blocked all progress to redevelop the ground citing noise and traffic congestion.
The sloping ground was the first game to be televised by the BBC back in 1946. Just twenty minutes of the game against Wealdstone were televised and over 30 minutes in the second before it got too dark for TV.
In its heyday, over 11,000 fans could cram into this leafy part of North London. Over time the ground went through various modifications including a new Main Stand, a peculiar looking raised roof on the East Stand and various temporary seating behind the southern goal.
An interesting fact about the stadium was that at one point it had seven stands, a record at the time. The ground had a special charm about it that's impossible to replicate in the new state-of-the-art Hive stadium complex six miles west in Harrow.
Griffin Park 1904-2019
Tucked in-between rows of crammed terraced housing under the flight path to Heathrow in West London lies the former home of London's other bees, Brentford FC. The only thing giving it away as you approached the site was the outrageously tall old school flight lights.
Famous domestically for having a pub on each corner of the ground, the club squeezed every ounce out of it before moving one mile east to their new modern Premiership-ready 17,500 capacity stadium in the summer of 2020.
Griffin Park got its name from the nearby pub 'The Griffin' which was owned by the local Fuller's brewery which originally owned the land that the ground was built on (Fuller's logo also features a Griffin).
The ground saw several modifications over the years, with the capacity increasing from 20,000 to 38,000 at its highest, before eventually settling on 12,300 as regulations imposed seating in standing areas. The ground never had a uniform feel, with a variety of different style stands ranging from the thin two-tiered 'Wendy House' (which replaced the Brook Road 'Kop') to the opened air Ealing Road Terrace which finally saw the addition of a roof as late as 2007.
With a rise up the football pyramid and The Premiership in their sights, numerous upgrades were made to the ground in 2014 including the resurfacing of access areas, upgraded CCTV, heated dugout seats and new signage.
The ground still retained its vintage feel, with fans views around the ground obstructed by imposing pillars and worn out seating. It felt inevitable that Griffin Park was living on borrowed time in a new era that demanded plush hospitality and high end facilities for fans, the media and sponsors.
In summary history and quirkiness have been sacrificed for modernity and commercialism but in the process something special and unique to each club has been lost
You won't find a pub on each corner at Brentford's new sparkling ground nor a slope at Barnet's new home 6 miles west in Harrow.. London's football clubs have adjusted well to the demands of the modern game, much to the envy of club owners around the UK and beyond.
Written by Richard Tester
Arsenal's stadium transition article
BBC - Watkin's Tower Story