After the last home game of the season against Newcastle, hundreds of Villa supporters will lose their seats in the Lower North Stand. The back seven rows of the 16-row stand will be removed in preseason to make way for a wheelchair viewing concourse, that will link to the Trinity Road stand. In short, almost half the stand will be replaced to cater for 50 wheelchair places.
The much-needed wheelchair spaces will come to some relief to wheelchair bound supporters, but is it a coincidence that the club have chosen this particular area of Villa Park to host it?
Ultimately, the best thing that can happen to the North Stand is to swing a wrecking ball through it. It’s typical of ugly Brutalist design that began to plague Birmingham’s landscape in the 1970’s, undermining the city’s rich Victorian architectural heritage.
Rebuilding the stand was part of Randy Lerner’s ‘bright future’, which would have negated the need for this article. Had the club continued the momentum of the first three seasons of Lerner’s ownership, Villa Park by now should have had a brand new stand that would have joined the Trinity and Doug Ellis (Witton Lane) together, affording a 50,000 capacity, including plenty of wheelchair areas, extending around to the Doug Ellis stand.
Unfortunately, Lerner’s plans for a ‘bright future’ imploded.
Lower North Fraternity
Not many people cared for the Lower North when it was the old away end; we were simply waiting for the day its out-dated structure was knocked down and replaced with something shiny. But since it’s switch to housing home supporters during Martin O’Neill’s reign, it’s grown a culture of its own.
The main attraction initially of the Lower North was that it boasted the cheapest seats in Villa Park. As a result, many fans who could no longer afford the Holte End migrated there, as did younger Villa fans.
With it being close to the away fans, the left-hand side became a hub of proper atmosphere and fraternity, that is increasingly rarer to find in other parts of the stadium.
The first time MOMS tried the Lower North it was during the Gerard Houllier season when Manchester United came to town. The 2-2 draw was epic and the atmosphere for a normal league game was one of the best I’ve experienced. United’s infamous ‘Men in Black’ supporters were out in full force in the away end and that added to a vibrant atmosphere. It was a real throwback to the days of the old and the terraces, before Villa Park’s atmosphere increasingly became stale.
Since, MOMS will always take in the odd game in the Lower North during the season, as a change from Holte End normality, because it’s as close to that old school football atmosphere you can get. Anybody who was there for the Blues cup game this season will lay testament to that.
Even in adversity, the Lower North has provided a brilliant atmosphere all this season and if the club had actually thought ahead to work more proactively with fans, then maybe we’d be able to have particular sections of it for fans who want to make more noise, flags, displays and back the team throughout the 90-minutes.
MOMS and other Villa groups had plans next season for flags and displays in that area for the promotion push, which alas won’t be able to happen now.
Unless there is a hardcore Villa wheelchair ultra group that we don’t know about, that are allowed megaphones in and fire pyro out of drainpipes mounted on their chairs, it is very naive to think the expected 20 to 50 wheelchair fans per game will create the same noise as the hundreds of Lower North fans they are replacing.
It’s simple maths. The atmosphere will drop.
Next season, it’s been reported the North Stand executive boxes will be largely empty, so why not convert a few of them on the Trinity Road side to provide the needed wheelchair spaces? Wheelchair users would then be able to enjoy both a better view and be able to add to and experience a better atmosphere on their trips to Villa Park.
Money talks though and the thought of replacing exec boxes (even unused) wouldn’t have even entered the thought process when there were cheap seats to cannibalise instead.
When you look at the issues of wheelchair access, one issue that frustrates wheelchair users on away days is not sitting amongst their own team’s supporters. Since there’s an away quota that the club have to facilitate, why not actually factor in wheelchair viewing in the Doug Ellis stand to fulfil this key criteria?
Also, it’s future-proofing as well. The cost of introducing wheelchairs places in the Doug Ellis stand would have been a longer-term investment. Any new owner that comes to Villa with big plans would eventually include the redevelopment of the North Stand. For any owner to make a legitimate success out of Villa, that would be part of the end game to sustain financial growth. Thus the redevelopment work on the Lower North this preseason would be only short-term and be seen as wasted money in hindsight later on.
There’s other motives at play though. No doubt the gentrification of the Lower North area was seen as a benefit to the club of converting it for wheelchair use. As well as replacing cheap seats, it would cut out the up until now tolerated standing in the Lower North.
Despite the excellent wheelchair facilities and staff in the Trinity Road stand, if there is one criticism from wheelchair users it’s when supporters stand in front of them in the lower Trinity stand (during ‘moments of excitement’ – remember them at Villa Park?). You don’t have to think long and hard to come to the conclusion that the steward diktat for the remaining front rows in the Lower North next season is that they will become no standing.
Decreasing the numbers in the Lower North by almost half will make this order easier to facilitate with less supporters there to control.
‘Oh, but it’s against regulations to stand’, cry those who struggle to enjoy the essence of what used to be at the heart of the joy of watching football. Yes, but isn’t it time the out-dated regulations of the Taylor Report were addressed?
The English FA and authorities constantly misses tricks in the governing the game and are luddites in comparison to the German football authorities, both on and off the pitch. You’ll struggle to get a better atmosphere than in German stadiums, which safe standing is a massive contributing factor to.
Football supporters have stood at games for longer than they have sat. If it wasn’t for police incompetence and fences at Hillsborough, standing wouldn’t have become the taboo it is in this country. At the time when the government was desperate to enforce an I.D. scheme on football supporters in the 1980’s, they used Hillsborough as an excuse to introduce the next best thing, all-seater stadium. Where the season card and customer reference numbers has essentially getting their desired I.D. scheme through the back door.
I digress, but as well as helping those who can only sit, isn’t it time to also look at ways of facilitating those who want to stand? Somebody has to be a pioneer on that front in this country and maybe it is time for Villa to pick up the Safe Standing campaign baton once again?
The Lower North wheelchair concourse could cynically be viewed as a Trojan horse to further gentrification at Villa Park. A move that perhaps will benefit less people than it intended, including those who its development was for.
Every fan wants to enjoy the best atmosphere possible at Villa Park and with better long-term and progressive thinking in the future, this will eventually happen.
UPDATE: The development has been put on ice until next summer, due to the takeover delay.
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