New Arsenal Stadium

Arsenal‘s controversial new home, the 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, will make other London clubs start to question their potential

  • London football enters a new era this weekend with the opening of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium for Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial between the Gunners and Ajax. The futuristic new 60,000-capacity arena, tucked in between Holloway Road and Highbury, is the biggest new stadium to open in London since the original Wembley in the early ’20s and again casts Arsenal in the role of contentious innovators, just as they were when they moved to Highbury at the beginning of the last century and, in the 1930s, turned that ground into the distinguished venue to which Gooners bade farewell in May.

    ‘The Emirates is a lovely ground,’ says stadium expert Simon Inglis, author of the acclaimed ‘Football Grounds of Great Britain’, ‘dramatic on the outside and the inside, fabulous to watch football from. It’s extraordinary how much they have fitted in to the site; they’ve used the land very cleverly.’And the club’s decision to redevelop an urban site shows a very London approach. ‘A lot of eggs have been broken in the process,’ says Inglis, alluding to local opposition to the development and the transport setbacks that have dogged the project (plans for an underground coach park were shelved, while nearby Holloway Road tube station will be exit-only in pre- and post-match periods after Transport for London decided against upgrading it).

    Such glitches are a partly a consequence of building in an inner-city location, as London's clubs have almost always had to. ‘London is a case apart,’ says Inglis. ‘There are comparisons with Arsenal’s original move to Highbury at the start of the last century – there was local opposition then too and complaints about inappropriate use of the land, but that’s generally how stadiums get built in big cities. It’s not uncommon for big money and big business to have a final say. That’s historically how London in general has developed.

    ‘The stadium will transform that part of Islington in a way that no other stadium in London has done to its local area.’

    The expansive nature of the development, and its associated planning agreements and land deals, has effectively made Arsenal one of the biggest housebuilders in the borough. In addition to the 711 homes being built on the old Highbury site, the ‘planning gain’ agreement reached with Islington Council to obtain permission included the provision of 3,000 new homes. The club and council say that 40 per cent of these will be ‘affordable’, though worries have been aired about people being priced out of the area.

    Arsenal are urging supporters not to drive to games and will lay on pre- and post-match big-screen entertainment as an inventive to fans to stick around rather than strain local transport resources.

    The cost of the development came in at £390m, £260m of which has been borrowed, intensifying the pressure on Arsenal to succeed. With capacity more than 20,000 higher than Highbury, and the stadium sold out all season, the Emirates could provide a foundation for Arsenal’s long-term pre-eminence in the capital.

    ‘From a footballing point of view, it’s going to blow things out of the water,’ Inglis predicts. ‘When other big clubs see it they are going to be gobsmacked, and will realise that they’ve been treading water with the kind of developments they’ve come up with. Roman Abramovich will visit it and start thinking of where he can build a new stadium for Chelsea. And it will demonstrate how difficult it will be for the likes of Spurs and West Ham to keep up. It’s an upgrade from a club stadium to a super-stadium. It will be a benchmark.’

    And it should get a suitable inauguration in Saturday’s testimonial for a player emblematic of Arsenal’s transformation, on and off the pitch, in the past decade, Dennis Bergkamp – stylish and effective, combative and occasionally controversial. A fitting fanfare awaits.

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