A plan two years in the making could see a regeneration of Liverpool’s Stanley Park area with a ‘fan zone’, museums, pubs and restaurants top of the agenda in what has been described as one of the most deprived areas of the UK.
Announced in a hail of publicity and with the backing of Walton MP Steve Rotherham, the man who won plenty of fans pursuing the Hillsborough debate through parliament last year, the Football Quarter is a genuine attempt to improve the area by fans of both Everton and Liverpool. Sadly, there are huge obstacles before it can be completed.
The Football Quarteris a joint venture between Keep Everton In Our City (KEIOC), the often-controversial fan group who put up opposition to Everton’s proposed move to Kirkby, and Sons of Shankly, a group formed to pressure Liverpool’s then owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett to sell up.
They’ve now teamed up under the banner ‘All Together Now’ (a nod, perhaps, to Everton’s FA Cup final song of 1995) to outline ambitious plans for a complete overhaul of the area around Stanley Park, the land behind the two stadiums.
In an impressive brochure, the fans behind the Football Quarter propose a fan park in Stanley Park, an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of fan parks seen in International tournaments across the world.
This could be used for open air events, football in the community and even university facilities if the opportunity arose.
Throw in club shops, hotels, cafes and museums and All Together Now argues it can create jobs, provide a tourist destination all year round and regenerate the immediate area.
It also includes renewed transport links with the stadia by reopening the Bootle to Edge Hill train line and creating a park-and-ride for supporters on a match day. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to take the Soccer Bus from Sandhills, this will be the part of the plan that begins to make sense.
Steve Rotherham is right behind the idea. He said: “The people of North Liverpool and South Sefton deserve the unprecedented opportunities The Football Quarter could potentially offer and it is now time that this untapped potential is realised.”
Unfortunately, the plans leave out one important aspect – the stadiums themselves.
Everton are mired in debt, forced to sell assets such as the Bellefield training ground just to break even and with an unfinished hospitality building standing in the Park End car park. At the moment the part-demolished wall is an elephant more noticeable than mascot Changy, who can regularly be seen cavorting in the car park before games.
Meanwhile, Liverpool’s ‘spade in the ground’ has still to appear on the Stanley Park site they desire. With planning permission running out in 2011, Liverpool’s new owners seem undecided over whether to resubmit or look at redeveloping Anfield.
As things stand, Everton will not be redeveloping Goodison Park and the plans breeze over suggestions of building two new stands on top of what is currently Gwladys Street School with little thought to funding.
With Everton almost certainly set to move away from Goodison if funding is found for a stadium, why would they support a Football Quarter that would solely be the domain of their city rivals if they were to leave?
Similarly, Liverpool have huge numbers of visitors to their club shop and museum and enjoy a higher profile than Everton with tourists. Would they be happy to share when their club is the main draw? Would Everton be happy to take a back seat to Liverpool in the Football Quarter?
Then there is the issue of Stanley Park itself. A football ‘walk of fame’ between the two grounds is an excellent idea. But throw in a listed park and the idea becomes much more difficult in reality.
So where next for the Football Quarter? Envious glances towards Manchester and the Soccer City that Manchester City are developing at Eastlands are bound to leave a bitter taste for Merseyside football fans.
Liverpool’s Football Quarter plans are extensive, ambitious and ultimately flawed. It relies on private backing to make the project happen and assumes the clubs have the desire and, more importantly, the funds to redevelop their own stadia.
However, it does have the backing of two prominent councillors in the form of Steve Rotherham and Joe Benton of Bootle – and if it’s one thing Everton and Liverpool know in their recent searches for new homes, it’s that a friendly council can make all the difference.
Whatever the problems, it is still an idea to get behind. Even a fraction of what the glossy brochure promises would be an improvement over the sad, crowded pubs on a match day and complete inability of two prominent Premiership clubs to create a genuinely nice place to visit to watch football.
There is a feeling across the Premiership and lower leagues that football is facing big financial challenges in future. Shared stadium ideas have had a rough reception from the tribalistic football fans of Merseyside, but a shared area with each club maintaining its identity could be a solution to benefit everyone.
The Football Quarter dresses it up in promises of glitzy (and budget) hotels, continental-style fan arenas and club shops and museums displaying Merseyside’s glorious football history, but a much more realistic target would be improved match-day transport links and a fitting home for club shops and museums – now it’s time to find the funding.
Main image by comedy_nose; Goodison and Anfield images by Ben Sutherland; all images licensed via Creative Commons