Derek McInnes is as divisive now as when he was appointed five years ago. …
The bulldozers have been poised and ready for 20 years. When they finally get the green light to head down Merkland Road and pull apart Pittodrie, there will be tears. Like an old cruise singer whose heyday was long ago, plying herself with make-up in an attempt to look presentable to a crowd now raised on better models elsewhere, the Pittodrie experience has been a desperate sight in recent years.
Out of morbid curiosity, I will watch. And one day I will walk round the streets again, no doubt by then filled with modern flats where people will cook microwave meals and watch Gogglebox on the same spot where John Hewitt slid in the winner against Bayern Munich and sent Pittodrie berserk in 1983, where Willie Miller scored against Celtic then ran up the touchline with veins pulsing as the league title was all but sealed in ‘85, or where Hans Gillhaus knocked in a last-minute winner against Rangers in ‘91.
However, Pittodrie as I knew it, the one anyone over 30 grew up on, we said goodbye to that one many years ago. For me, I said my farewells away back in 1992. Scotland Under-21s were hosting Germany in the quarter-finals of the European Championships. Despite not being the full national side, the game captured the imagination of the north-east and 22,500 packed into Pittodrie.
Local boys Michael Watt, Stephen Wright and Eoin Jess were in dark blue that night alongside the likes of Paul Lambert, Phil O’Donnell and Duncan Ferguson. From the Germany team, Mehmet Scholl would go on to play in the Euro 96 final four years later, while a young Stefan Klos was in goals.
A 1-1 draw in the first leg in Bochum set the tie up nicely for what was, and remains, the greatest 90 minutes I have had the pleasure to witness. It was also the night many Dons fans got a chance to experience the famous old Beach End for what they thought would be the final time.
The legendary home end of the Dons support had long since been handed over to the away fans, leaving us all looking longingly at it being wasted; its size engulfing the handful of supporters who dared make the long trip north to take another drubbing. Even more depressing was seeing the Old Firm fill it and bounce and sway like we used to. But now we had taken back ownership for the night, and with the impending demolition in order to make way for the new Richard Donald Stand, it deserved a memorable send off.
Markus Kranz and Scholl gave Germany a 2-0 lead, and Ray McKinnon’s goal before half-time did little to suggest Scotland were going to turn it around. Heiko Herrlich’s strike with half an hour to play set Scotland the daunting task of needing to score three times to make the semi-finals. But Pittodrie came alive, and by God did it roar them home that night.
Gerry Creaney started the comeback with 20 minutes to go. With 12 minutes left Lambert made it 3-3 to set up a frantic finale. The send-off was beautiful. Three minutes to go and Alex Rae found a winner, and the old place went wild. The Germans were defeated and Scotland were into the semi-finals.
The calls for Pittodrie to host the semi-final with Sweden were loud, and duly granted, and again a capacity crowd packed the stadium. Once more I took up position in the Beach End, my last time on the old wooden benches actually being my second last. But this time it would turn into a damp squib, a 0-0 draw. Scotland lost the second leg 1-0 and we were denied the chance to face Italy in the final.
A year later and hopes were high for Aberdeen. Willie Miller’s side were playing entertaining football, reaching both cup finals and finishing second in the league, losing out all three times to one of the Old Firm in the midst of their nine-in-a-row procession. Remarkably similar to what Derek McInnes’ side have just endured.
This was happening amidst the backdrop of the new 6,000 capacity two-tiered stand being built behind the goals. It promised better spectator comfort and an increased financial boost for the club, and the £4.5 million price tag has long since been paid off from corporate revenue.
Pittodrie was never the same again though. Now it was an awkward-looking stadium, a big tall stand out of place with the rest. The away fans were given a section of the south stand along the side of the pitch, and in the case of Rangers and Celtic that meant taking up the majority of the stand, stretching out over the half-way line, right on top of the action, and influencing the assistant referee down that side.
The voices in the home support, the ones who would have the place jumping on famous nights, were now hidden away in the upper deck of the RDS or standing in the freezing cold on the open and unforgiving corner at section Y.
The stadium as we knew it had gone. Every big game against the Old Firm was played to a backdrop of the away fans singing their battle hymns. The mediocrity on the pitch did not help matters either.
Attempts to improve the atmosphere in recent seasons have failed. A singing section has been tried in the RDS, in various sections of the South Stand, and last season in the corner of the Merkland where a small group of fans sang ultra-style chants and waved flags, while a big tarpaulin banner kept them separated from the rest of the stand as if they were some ogre that the club put up with but for whom they held little enthusiasm.
Everything – the atmosphere, the match-day experience, Mark Reynolds’s inability to win headers – will all be solved in the new stadium, we’re told. The paint was barely dry on the new stand when the Dons started talking of a stadium move, and since then it has been a long drawn-out saga. The wait to find a new ground may finally end in October if the club can convince Aberdeen City Council that Kingsford, sitting on the edge of the city boundary around ten kilometres from their current home, is the right place to call home.
It is not the first attempt to find land in the city. First the Dons were set for Bellfield, just a couple of miles east of where their current proposals lie. A 30,000 capacity stadium was mooted to be part of Scotland’s joint Euro 2008 bid with Ireland. When Austria and Switzerland gained the hosting rights, out went Aberdeen’s plans.
Then it looked like Loirston in the south of the city would be the destination. Plans were submitted and passed by the council with building work due to start in 2012. But opposition from Dons fans was fierce. By road the stadium is in a difficult place to drive to and from quickly, even in light traffic, never mind up to 20,000 fans adding to the problem.
A supporters’ survey showed 81.2% of respondents were against Loirston. More than 60% said they would attend fewer matches. The majority wanted the new stadium at Kings Links, near to the current home, but the board deemed the site too expensive and too small to accommodate the stadium and much-needed training facilities.
Loirston always seemed doomed. The fans didn’t want it, the locals didn’t want it, and then the club hit problems. They could not agree ownership of the land, the plans for a joint community facility with Highland League side Cove Rangers were rejected, then the entire landscape changed with houses and schools being proposed next to the stadium site, reducing the footprint and forming a need for more access roads.
With a new bypass just hundreds of yards from the proposed site being built, and talk of Cove train station re-opening, Loirston actually looks a lot more appealing now. However, with the club determined to build a dual site with training facilities linked to the new stadium, they have had to look elsewhere.
Early last year Aberdeen came up with plan C. They had found land at Kingsford, a deal had been agreed with the landowners, and it had plenty of room for a joint facility. Like Loirston, also sitting just a few hundred yards from the new Aberdeen bypass, by car it trumps Pittodrie.
Furthermore, despite being an out-of-town location far from the pubs and the bustling life of the city centre, it appears most fans are supportive. You wonder how many have just been beaten into submission by the long wait for a new home and are at the point where they want something, anything, built.
The club has worked hard to sell the idea to fans who are still sceptical. A 20,000 capacity stadium inspired by Bristol City’s Ashton Gate, Groningen’s Euroborg and the Viking Stadion in Norway, just a few of the grounds the club visited for inspiration. It will house safe standing, TV screens, a museum, memorial garden, a supporters’ bar and a fan zone.
While envious glances have been made towards Hearts and Hibs who have rebuilt their old grounds in order to remain in the Edinburgh heartlands of Gorgie and Leith, out-of-town stadiums are not abnormal. Indeed, on the continent, many make a great success of it.
Few would describe Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena as soulless. But a trip there last year on a non-match day showed just how far from civilisation it is. A train takes you out, then there is nothing. With the fan zone closed it is a long walk over a bridge and up a long, winding, empty path, looking out onto the motorway in one direction, and in the other at an eye catching sewage plant.
Juventus too have rebuilt their stadium and opted not to move closer to Turin. They have transformed the unpopular Stadio delle Alpi into an atmospheric ground. It is impressive enough to have inspired others, such as Roma who are looking at moving from their huge Olympic stadium to a smaller purpose-built home which is more suitable to their needs.
More on Aberdeen’s level, there are many clubs in Europe who have made the successful transition from inner-city stadium to a modern out of town arena. The 23,600 capacity Groupama Arena is three kilometres from Budapest city centre, a 40-minute walk, but the city’s metro, tram and bus services all make the ground easily accessible.
Gent’s Ghelamco Arena lies five kilometres from the city centre. Shuttle buses, similar to those which Aberdeen plan, ferry fans to the ground. As a bonus, trams also run to within a 15-minute walk of the stadium.
In Switzerland, St Gallen’s Kybunpark is perhaps as closely related to Kingsford as any. Situated next to a retail park and sitting on the edge of a motorway, it is over five kilometres from the city centre. With little to do next to the stadium, fans are encouraged to eat and drink in the city centre, then catch either the light rail or buses which will have you at the game within 20 minutes.
Local campaigners against Kingsford have been at pains to point out the lack of public transport options and parking. The closest train station is Dyce, a two-hour walk away. Trams have not run in the city since 1927. It is easy to get to by car, but unsurprisingly many locals in the neighbouring towns of Westhill and Kingswells have little appetite to become glorified car parks on match days.
The club has attempted to find a solution, promising shuttle buses from all areas of Aberdeen. With just 1,300 parking spaces on site, they have had to go cap in hand to local businesses to ask to use their facilities.
The plans were described as “a dog’s dinner” at an Aberdeenshire Council meeting. Mike Rumbles MSP labelled the transport strategy “wholly inadequate”. But Aberdeen chief executive George Yule has hit back, saying: “There are cities up and down this country who move between 50,000 and 70,000 people every week. It is a sad indictment of Europe’s oil capital if we can not move 13,000 people every second week.”
Where the stadium is planned has some sentimental value to me. I grew up in Westhill. Never did I consider my football club would move to within walking distance of where I once lived. My first game was 1987, a win over Greenock Morton. My two uncles and grandad took me along, hoping to brainwash me into following the Dons the same way they had been. Bad luck had it that I’d missed the Alex Ferguson era, but the Dons were still very easy on the eye.
Just weeks after my Pittodrie debut Charlie Nicholas made his in red and very quickly established himself as my favourite player. The trinity of Jim Leighton, Willie Miller and Alex McLeish ensured I didn’t witness many defeats. I was soon hooked, and so the bi-weekly trip to Pittodrie became a regular pilgrimage: be dropped off at my granny’s in Mastrick to wait for my Uncle Colin who always, without fail, turned up late. Then the short drive to park next to Aberdeen university, and a walk through the cobbled streets of Old Aberdeen, past the spectacular surroundings of Kings College Chapel, along King Street until the big floodlights of Pittodrie could be seen.
For many, the visit to Pittodrie has been the same for years. A walk along the same streets, a drink or four in the same pub, and either a walk over Broad Hill with the stadium emerging at the bottom, or the sight of the granite facade of the Merkland Stand turnstiles, as unique a football entrance as there is.
Now fans are being asked to jump on shuttle buses and be dropped off on the outskirts of the city, with the promise
it’ll be worth it and that the trip back will not be too painful, even on a cold December midweek match while queuing for a bus to take you halfway home.
If Pittodrie could be redeveloped, that would be the favourable outcome. But the eyes of the club have been on a stadium move for so long it is too difficult and expensive now. And the stadium cannot stay as it is for much longer with the place decaying and funds being wasted every year on renovations.
The ground is landlocked. Modern building regulations mean that to keep the same capacity the club need to buy more land behind the stadium. Two stands sit within yards of flats. The main stand is next to a council-owned main road.
Even if the club could acquire the land, buy each individual flat then demolish it, they then still have to find money to actually build the stadium. With Kingsford’s price tag at £40m for the stadium alone, where do Aberdeen find the money to build that without the sale of Pittodrie to help give them a head start, added to the extra cost of knocking everything down in the first place? It also leaves them still seeking land elsewhere for training facilities, which manager McInnes sees as the priority.
It would be nice to have the millions of Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, who are embarking on similar projects. They also have the luxury of Wembley Stadium to host games while they build their new grounds. The biggest stadium nearby for Aberdeen would be the 3,000 capacity Balmoral Stadium housing Cove Rangers. A more realistic jaunt 65 miles along the A90 to use the grounds of either of the Dundee clubs would likely devastate the club financially, if the stadium redevelopment had not already done that.
And so the club needs to move. Many fans have suggested a link-up with the new Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre which would mean an opportunity to share parking facilities, while a viable public transport policy is already in place with Dyce train station within walking distance and the facility is still comfortably in the city. However, the club say it has explored the possibility of building there and found there is not adequate space.
The old AECC site at Bridge of Don is another suggestion, but housing plans have already been submitted while the same problem of the need for shuttle buses remains.
You feel the club is hamstringing itself by its insistence on having the training facilities next to the stadium. It would be cheaper to buy just one plot of land and easier to look after, but it has restricted the possible locations. The club itself admits that should Kingsford be rejected, it has nowhere to go, and it may need to make the unthinkable decision of leaving Aberdeen altogether, leaving Scotland’s third-largest city without a senior football club.
And so the club and support wait with bated breath for the all-important decision that was due on 21 June, but agonisingly has been pushed back to October. One hopes that the club’s lack of a back-up plan is simply a ploy to convince the council into saying yes. The likelihood is any rejection of its plans will force the Dons board into accepting that the stadium and training facilities will have to be separate.
If Kingsford fails the most likely reason will be because of the traffic and travel plans not being suitable. If that transpires, it could still host the training ground, with Loirston – which has been earmarked by the council as an acceptable location for a stadium – being revisited, with a new train station maybe being enough to calm the nerves of agitated supporters.
That argument is one the club do not wish to have. In a campaign where the Dons will try and close the gap on Celtic, stave off the growing threat of Rangers, Hearts and Hibs, and continue to search for silverware, the biggest day of the season will be a day in October that McInnes and his team can do nothing about.
This piece originally featured in Nutmeg, Issue 5, which you can order a reprint of here.
You can also buy Issue 6 of Nutmeg here.
Photography by Stephen Dobson. Buy images/prints here.