Liverpool insight

Liverpool's drive for expansion

June 28, 2013
By Mike Whalley

The story of the Premier League is one of growing commercialism off the field; and a complete shift in the balance of power on it from Merseyside to Manchester, via the odd stop-off in London. Generally overlooked in the story of that power shift is the advantage of having a stadium surrounded by car parks.

Premier League
GettyImagesAnfield currently has the sixth-highest capacity among Premier League grounds

And yet, as Manchester United have supplanted Liverpool over the last 20-or-so years, perhaps that advantage should not be ignored. It is one that can be expressed, very simply, in numbers. In 1992, when the Premier League was formed, Old Trafford had a capacity of 34,031, temporarily reduced as the Stretford End was redeveloped. Anfield held 44,931. Today, United's home holds 75,769 fans, Liverpool's can hold only 45,552.

Over the last two decades, United have had the space to expand their ground on to the surrounding car parks, significantly increasing capacity, revenue and their ability to compete in an ever-more commercialised sport. Liverpool, hemmed in by tight streets and rows of housing, have been held back. For years, they have been looking for a way to break out and cash in.

After a generation of planning manoeuvres, property disputes and false starts, the story of Liverpool's attempts to free themselves of the physical and financial constraints of their Anfield home looks to be entering its final stages. It is one that has repeatedly brought them into conflict with their local community.

Liverpool have been looking to create a home big enough to house their ambitions since the days of their domination at home and in Europe. In the 1980s, the club planned to buy and demolish the houses on neighbouring Kemlyn Road in order to build an extended stand. But development was held up for a decade by two sisters, Joan and Nora Mason, who refused to leave the one remaining occupied house on the street.

It took until November 1990 for a settlement to be agreed, and for the house to be vacated, so that building work could finally begin. The Centenary Stand opened in 1992. While new stands have been built at The Kop and Anfield Road Ends since, there has been no further serious expansion. That is not for the want of trying. But those efforts have done serious damage to the club's reputation in the community.

What happened in the years after the Centenary Stand's construction was outlined in a detailed and damning article, published in May by Guardian journalist David Conn. It portrayed a club strategy so focused on stadium expansion as to leave the local community seriously, perhaps fatally, undermined.

In the mid-1990s, Conn wrote, Liverpool began buying up houses in the streets near the ground and leaving them empty, leading to dereliction and decline. Crucially, they did so without telling the residents what was going on. Whatever the motives for this, locals were left with the belief that the club were buying up houses by stealth to keep prices low, and to effectively acquire the land needed for expansion on the cheap. A more generous, and perhaps accurate, reading would be to suggest that the dereliction of the area was caused by Anfield boardroom indecision. It is difficult to judge, because the club declined to comment when Conn put his allegations to them.

Plans to expand the Main Stand and Anfield Road End first became public in 1999, three years after the club began buying houses in the streets around the ground. Those plans were scrapped early in the new millennium as residents complained that they had not been consulted about the demolition proposals. Instead, an ambitious vision arose for a new stadium in neighbouring Stanley Park. Finding the money to build the stadium, though, was an issue. Majority shareholder David Moores and chief executive Rick Parry sought investment, and the club was sold to Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett in 2007.

On the subject of a Stanley Park stadium, they promised there would be "a spade in the ground within 60 days" of their takeover, but the cost of borrowing to buy the club caught up with them, and they were forced to sell to current owners Fenway Sports Group in 2010. At that point, staying at Anfield became a whole lot more likely.

John W Henry has enjoyed the Anfield experience
GettyImagesLiverpool owner John W Henry has enjoyed the Anfield experience

The clues that FSG would prefer renovation to relocation could be gleaned from history; as owners of the Boston Red Sox baseball team, they had chosen to redevelop Fenway Park rather than build a new stadium. On being shown round Anfield for the first time, principal owner John W Henry reportedly declared: "Why build a new stadium? This is like Fenway Park."

In June 2012, Henry said it was a "myth" that Liverpool needed a new stadium to transform their finances. Sure enough, on October 15, 2012 - two years to the day after the FSG takeover was confirmed - Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre announced that the Stanley Park move was officially dead. The club would be expanding Anfield after all.

In making that announcement, Ayre was open about the reasons for expansion. "It is all about driving greater revenue to allow us to compete," he said at the time. Certainly, competing is no easy task for Liverpool as things stand.

Make no mistake, Anfield is an atmospheric stadium; its faithful capable of making the hair on the back of the neck stand up when in full voice on the big European nights. What it is not is an obvious financial goldmine.

When Manchester United needed to expand, they had the space to do so. Manchester City, who were fortunate enough to inherit a stadium built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, also have the space to build outwards. When Arsenal needed to expand, they were helped by the fact that Highbury sat on valuable land in a fashionable area of North London, helping to generate a chunk of the funds for the Emirates Stadium. Liverpool have no such advantages. For that reason, Ayre was clear last October that the need to keep up with the Champions League chasers meant ticket prices would not come down, even in a stadium likely to hold 60,000 when extended.

Lately, though, Liverpool have been keen to emphasis the community regeneration elements of Anfield's expansion over the financial advantages. This week, the club - in partnership with Liverpool City Council and the housing agency Your Housing - announced a £260 million regeneration plan for the area around the stadium, and promised that residents would be consulted. Ayre told those residents on Monday night that the club were sorry for allowing the terraced houses it owned for falling into decay, adding that he took "no pride in having to be responsible for the lack of progress made over many years".

Progress is being made now. Liverpool City Council is in the process of buying the remaining houses that Liverpool want knocked down to extend Anfield. Of 30 privately-owned homes needed to undertake a wholesale demolition and clear the way for expansion, the council have bought all but eight. Ayre suggested to the Liverpool Echo at the beginning of June that a planning application for expansion of Anfield could be submitted before the start of next season.

Redevelopment, then, will go ahead. Unsurprisingly, though, there is still caution from local homeowners over the regeneration side of the deal. And even Ayre has admitted that obstacles lie ahead on that front. "Just like any business, any investment we make has to be economically viable and sustainable in the long term," he said.

It will be difficult. The regeneration project includes a hotel and food hub near the ground, in a run-down district of Liverpool with limited transport links to the city centre. Anfield may be Liverpool's home, but ensuring the stadium and surrounding area reach their full potential will require the kind of drive conspicuously absent from the club's redevelopment plans in the Premier League era. And even then, that may not be enough. Sometimes, it seems, location really is everything.