In part one, we looked at 10 successful stadium moves in the new-build era. Now it’s time to dig deeper into 10 relocations that did not go so smoothly. Not all of these moves were all-out disasters, but each team hit difficulties along the way. Some lost their sense of identity, others suffered financially. For others, the issue was not the new stadium but what happened on the pitch.
Stadium of Light, Sunderland
Opened: 1997 | Capacity: 49,000
Close your eyes and picture this Soccer Saturday update. Chris Kamara is at the back of a half-empty stadium. The home side are 3-0 down with half an hour played, and fans are heading for the exit. What ground is Kammy at? Plenty of you will have pictured the Stadium of Light, where Sunderland lost 47 league games across a gradual five-year slide into the third tier. But it wasn’t always this way.
Sunderland’s first league game at their new home was a second-division win over Manchester City. The following season, they roared to promotion and chased European football under Peter Reid. The former Rokermen changed their nickname to the Black Cats but kept their identity in a ground built on the old Monkwearmouth Colliery, and named in reference to a miner’s lamp.
In 2000, with the team established as a top-half Premier League outfit, the ground’s capacity was increased to 49,000, hosting England games and pop concerts on a regular basis. The team could not keep up, however, and as the red seats faded in the sun, it became inextricably linked with the team’s fall from grace.
Pride Park, Derby County
Opened: 1997 | Capacity: 33,597
Also opened in 1997, Derby’s purpose-built ground was based on the template from Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium. It was the first new football stadium to be opened by the Queen, although construction was still ongoing on the big day – leading Prince Philip to ask the builders if they had been paid. The first competitive game at the ground, against Wimbledon, was abandoned after an electrical failure.
Things certainly improved from there, with Derby finishing in the Premier League’s top half in their first two seasons away from the Baseball Ground. England played Mexico in front of a sell-out crowd there in 2001, but when Derby were relegated the following year, Pride Park became an expensive asset. Amid spiralling debts, Derby sold the ground to a Panama-based conglomerate, renting it back for £1m a year.
Derby reclaimed their home in 2006, in time for the club’s Premier League return – but their top-flight campaign was an unmitigated disaster, and the Rams have been mired in the second tier ever since despite substantial investment. In January 2020, the story took another twist when the EFL charged the club with breaching financial rules after the stadium was sold to the club’s owner, Mel Morris.
Kassam Stadium, Oxford United
Opened: 2001 | Capacity: 12,500
Oxford United’s ramshackle Manor Ground always jarred with the city’s dreaming spires but it was the setting for the club’s mid-80s golden era, culminating in 1986 Milk Cup success. Ten years on, the U’s began the search for a new all-seater ground in order to maintain their second-tier status. It sent the club into a tailspin that took two decades to overcome.
Plans for a new ground were first announced in 1995, but the site sat untouched for five years before a new owner, Firoz Kassam, resumed building work. With only three sides completed, the ground opened in 2001 with Oxford in the fourth division. After losing 13 of their first 17 games, they called in the Bishop of Oxford to perform an exorcism.
Divine intervention was not forthcoming and 20 years after winning a major trophy, Oxford dropped out of the league. Since their return in 2010 they have slowly rebuilt, missing out on promotion to the Championship with defeat in last season’s play-off final. The Kassam Stadium is still missing its fourth stand; an overflow car park sits behind one of the goals.
Reynolds Arena, Darlington
Opened: 2003 | Capacity: 25,000
Darlington FC spent the vast majority of their Football League life in the fourth tier, playing at the 8,000-capacity Feethams ground. The club were renovating their modest home when local businessman George Reynolds swooped and turned Darlo into his personal vanity project. Reynolds poured cash into a new all-seater arena which he named after himself, talking it up as the team’s ticket to the Premier League.
The infamous owner tried to bring Paul Gascoigne to the club and came close to signing Faustino Asprilla in 2002. Darlo’s first game at the stadium, against Hartlepool, attracted 11,600 fans, but crowds soon dwindled to around 10% of capacity. Reynolds’ reign came to an abrupt end in 2004 when he was sent to prison for tax evasion, leaving the club tied to a huge stadium they could not afford.
Terminally burdened by the cost of Reynolds’ folly, Darlington folded and reformed in 2012. They now play at the 3,000-capacity Blackwell Meadows, while the Arena hosts Darlington Mowden Park, a rugby union team with triple-digit crowds. The stadium’s record attendance is 17,000 – for an Elton John concert in 2008.
Ricoh Arena, Coventry City
Opened: 2005 | Capacity: 32,609
The relative disappointments of Derby and Sunderland pale into insignificance next to one of the great stadium nightmares of our time. In their golden age, Coventry City were top-flight mainstays, winning the FA Cup and converting Highfield Road into England’s first all-seater stadium. As a new century approached, they decided a new stadium could expand their horizons.
Coventry’s plans were ambitious: a 45,000-seater, multi-purpose venue touted as a potential new national stadium. By the time it opened in 2005, Coventry were in the second division and the plans had been drastically redrawn. A naming rights deal with Jaguar fell through and financial difficulties meant the club had to lease their new home as part of a tangled ownership arrangement.
Much worse was to follow after the team dropped into League One in 2012. Sisu, the club’s hated hedge fund owners, steered the club into administration amid a petty dispute with the stadium operators that left Coventry locked out. After a spell playing home games 70 miles away in Northampton, they returned in 2014 but slipped into the fourth division, a sorry shell of the club they once were.
Under Mark Robins, Coventry have climbed back to the Championship but are currently tenants at Birmingham City, with the Ricoh now owned by rugby union side Wasps. The Sky Blues are now focusing on building a new ground; it is unlikely they will ever play at the Ricoh Arena again.
Emirates Stadium, Arsenal
Opened: 2006 | Capacity: 60,260
First things first: there is no denying the Emirates Stadium, a glass and steel crucible rising out of a railway junction, is a beautiful venue. But moving to such refined new surroundings came at a hefty cost on and off the field for Arsenal. As former manager Arsène Wenger put it: “We built a new stadium but we left our soul at Highbury.”
After the local council rejected plans to redevelop their beloved old ground, the club scoured north London for a suitable patch of land to build on. That proved to be the easy part. While Wenger’s Invincibles were busy conquering all in 2003-04, the cost of relocation was slowly rising. Cash injections from sponsors helped keep the project on track, but the team inevitably felt the pinch.
By the time the stadium opened in 2006, Arsenal had slipped into financial purgatory, with wages trimmed and transfer budgets reined in. The Emirates was supposed to take Arsenal to the next level; instead, it led them into an era of underachievement. Frustration rather than fervour has echoed from the stands, culminating in the ugly Granit Xhaka incident a year ago. It remains to be seen if Mikel Arteta can finally make the Emirates a happy home.
Stadium MK, Milton Keynes Dons
Opened: 2007 | Capacity: 30,500
Earlier this month, AFC Wimbledon played their first game at their new Plough Lane stadium – completing a cycle that began with the Taylor Report and the original Wimbledon FC’s relocation to Selhurst Park. Unable to return home, Wimbledon instead fell prey to one of English football’s most shameful episodes, uprooted 80 miles and rebranded as Milton Keynes Dons.
In 2000, Pete Winkelman’s Intra MK Group began seeking out a Football League side for an unprecedented, US-style relocation to the Buckinghamshire new town. After a three-man FA panel controversially approved the move, shellshocked Wimbledon fans formed a phoenix club. Winkelman struck deals with Asda and Ikea to fund a brand new stadium for a team that simply did not belong in it.
Stadium MK opened in 2007, but average crowds have hovered around 10,000 – just a third of capacity. The stadium’s highest attendance was recorded at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, when Fiji played Uruguay. In the meantime, AFC Wimbledon climbed the non-league pyramid, joining MK Dons in League One. They are universally recognised as the original Wimbledon team, and Winkelman’s franchise experiment has proved to be a failure.
Cardiff City Stadium
Opened: 2009 | Capacity: 33,280
On the face of it, there is much to admire about Cardiff City’s new home. Built across the road from the run-down Ninian Park, it helped catapult the club back into the top flight after 50 years away. The ground’s capacity was boosted in 2013 by owner Vincent Tan, but the top half of the redeveloped Ninian Stand hints at a darker time.
The banks of red seats are one of the last visual reminders of Tan’s infamous attempt to change Cardiff’s colours. It lasted just two full seasons, including one tumultuous Premier League campaign which saw Tan booing his own team from his executive box. The owner saw sense in 2015 but attendances dwindled when the club returned to the Championship, and the top of the Ninian Stand was closed altogether.
Neil Warnock led the Bluebirds back to the top flight and got fans back through the gates, but there have been other bumps in the road. Local rugby side Cardiff Blues opted out of their groundshare agreement in 2012, while the stadium naming rights remain unsold. The ground now regularly hosts a red-shirted team, with Wales playing most home games at the venue.
London Stadium, West Ham United
Opened: 2016 | Capacity: 60,000
In February 2011, the Olympic Park Legacy Company made a decision with seismic ramifications. Eighteen months before the 2012 Games began, it was decided that West Ham, rather than Tottenham, would benefit from an Olympic Stadium tenancy, secured in a cut-price deal. Almost a decade on, it is clear who really won that day.
West Ham’s struggles at the rebranded London Stadium have raised the bar for difficult relocations. The club’s decision to work around the running track, rather than rebuild the stadium as Spurs had planned, has not paid off. Sight lines still focus on the track, or at least the giant claret carpet that covers it up, with managers traipsing several yards across it from dugout to touchline.
Sections of retractable seating, connected to the main stands by awkward gangways, do nothing to help an atmosphere that switches between forlorn and febrile. The stadium has seen fighting between rival fans and protest pitch invasions, enabled by inadequate matchday security. The idea of relegation and playing Championship football in this vast white elephant is unthinkable.
The stadium saw so many joyful moments in 2012 and has gone on to host elite athletics, both rugby codes and Major League Baseball. There has been precious little for West Ham fans to cheer, however – leaving their beloved Upton Park behind has been a painful experience.
Dockland Stadium, Portsmouth
Planned capacity: 36,000
From an Everton-Liverpool groundshare to Chelsea moving into Battersea Power Station, some relocation ideas are simply doomed to fail. Back in 2007, amid a successful spell fuelled by reckless overspending, Portsmouth unveiled plans to leave Fratton Park for a floating gold stadium next to the city’s naval base.
Herzog & De Meuron, the architects behind the Bird’s Nest and Allianz Arena, were commissioned for the staggeringly ambitious project, which was expected to cost £600m. The translucent blob was intended to sit on an artificial island in Portsmouth Harbour, but the water around it was owned by four different parties.
It proved academic as the club hit financial meltdown in 2009. At one point, Pompey were forced to consider sharing with non-league Havant & Waterlooville. Now stable in League One, the club are working on a sensible expansion of Fratton Park, with the Dockland Stadium existing only as a warning not to fly too close to the sun.