Arsenal, Spurs, Man Utd and Newcastle: How new stadiums shape a club’s future and soul

Michael Walker

It is approaching 6.30pm on a Saturday, a full 90 minutes after the final whistle has blown. At most grounds, the seats and concourses will have been cleaned and swept and long been empty. Only a few stewards would remain to lock up.

Upstairs at the Goal Line Bar at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, however, hundreds of fans are still drinking, socialising and, crucially, still spending. It is a social scene, a commercial scene; it is the difference between the silence of an empty football ground and the noise of a thriving stadium-based business. It is an example of the fabled “dwell time”.

This, in part, is why Tottenham Hotspur earn so much money on matchdays — £4.8m ($5.9m) on average — and part of why Tottenham’s revenue streams have turned into rivers.

It is also why other clubs in an era of increased financial regulation and restrictions are looking at Spurs and considering relocating or redeveloping, Manchester United and Newcastle United among them.

Tottenham’s Goal Line Bar, which has helped to significantly increase matchday revenue (Ian Kington/AFP via Getty Images)

At a time when the historic appeal of English football combines with the global popularity of the Premier League, when clubs are sports and non-sports businesses and commercialism chimes with heritage and architecture to form a must-see destination, the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is the model. It is known for its scale, modernity and clear sightlines that have changed how many see football stadiums. It is, to use a phrase, ground-breaking.

But where to go, how to grow and what can be lost? These are complicated questions when stadia rise or fall and they inevitably lead to others regarding logistics and cost, downsides and benefits and whether a fanbase of yesterday and today wants — or is wanted — in a supposedly immaculate new tomorrow. Local vs global is a live tension.

The Athletic has taken a tour of four Premier League clubs who have moved or who are thinking of moving — Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United and Newcastle United — to explore the advantages and disadvantages.

At Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, a hawk is brought in twice a month to scare the pigeons and a pair of Thierry Henry’s socks are in a time capsule beneath the ground. At Tottenham, there is the longest bar in Europe — see above — huge NFL-specific spaces and you learn captain Son Heung-min sits in Harry Kane’s former middle seat in the semi-circle of the dressing room with James Maddison and Cristian Romero on either side.

At Old Trafford, Manchester United sell, proudly, the cheapest pint in the Premier League at £3.40. The old players’ tunnel behind where the managers stand is the last piece of the original construction from 1910, metre-thick walls that even Second World War bombs could not destroy. At St James’ Park, the vista looking north east from the top of the main Milburn Stand is magnificent and, on the walls downstairs, there is evidence Newcastle United have made a radical departure before — from 1892-94 they played in red and white.

Walking away down the hill from St James’, Adam, 24, a Newcastle fan who travelled up from Merseyside to do the tour, says: “I really, really love St James’ Park, but if progress means we have to expand in a new stadium because of revenue, then… but I hope not.

“Overall, there is a pragmatic approach from fans, I think. A new stadium would be exciting, but there’d be hesitancy as well.”

Were Newcastle to have a shiny structure rising on the banks of the River Tyne, as with Everton on the Mersey, would that not generate anticipation?

“Goodison Park has been crumbling for a while,” he replies, “and Everton have needed to move. At the same time, Goodison kept them up last season and there’s no guarantee you get that if you move to a new ground.

“There is the risk of losing your atmosphere. At West Ham’s new stadium, you feel that passionate fanbase gets lost, the same with the Emirates.”

Karen Morris, a Manchester United fan doing the Newcastle tour, says: “I started going in the 1980s with my Dad, we had season tickets in the K Stand. I think we should go now. We need a more up-to-date stadium. It’s outdated.”

Would a move further out of Manchester be acceptable?

“I want to stay on the same land, one hundred per cent.”

The geography of the Tottenham Hotspur stadium is one of its many aspects. Much is made of the contrast between a £1billion stadium and the old council estates it brushes up alongside and Spurs’ former home, White Hart Lane, built 120 years ago, felt more of a fit in that respect. But Martin Cloake of the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust is delighted the new stadium is where it is.

White Hart Lane and the site of the new ground during the development in 2012 (Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)

The completed Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in 2022 (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

“It’s important to us that the stadium is in the same place,” Cloake says. “Remember, the club wanted us to move to east London.

“One of the places most visited in the new stadium is the old centre circle from White Hart Lane. That sense of ‘it’s Tottenham, our place’, is important.”

At Arsenal, they were so concerned about the move from a beloved institution, Highbury, that the club began a process of ‘Arsenalisation’ at the new stadium, which is constructed a goal kick away in terms of distance but an unknown distance away in terms of that intangible metric, soul.

In the Arsenal museum, a plaque states: “Much of the mystique and glamour of Arsenal’s international reputation came from the legendary Arsenal Stadium, Highbury. A monument to popular culture, it received the title ‘Stadium’ at a time when most clubs had ‘Grounds’.”

Arsenal moved from Highbury in 2006, seven years after the decision to leave was made. One of the main reasons was the club felt it had outgrown Highbury. In seasons 1998-99 and 1999-00, Arsenal staged their Champions League games at Wembley to accommodate both rising ticket demand to see Arsene Wenger’s attractive, winning team and to fulfil UEFA’s corporate criteria.

The latter was also relevant to Arsenal’s finances — selling 60,000 tickets, including thousands of expensive corporate seats, meant a far bigger payday than staying at Highbury, where the capacity for UEFA matches was just over 35,000. Demand far outstripped supply and the economic and ticketing logic of Arsenal moving was clear.

Yet Highbury was ‘home’. In the 17 seasons before Arsenal left, they won four league titles and finished second five times. Highbury’s role in this is unquantifiable, but it certainly was a vivid piece of The Arsenal.

In the 17 seasons since (not including 2023-24), Arsenal have not won a single title. They have finished second twice. A brutal reading of those league standings would say the move from Highbury has not been justified.

But the numbers able to watch Arsenal has soared and, economically, it has been transformative. Arsenal’s turnover in 2005-06, the club’s last financial year at Highbury, was £137m. In 2006-07, the first season at ‘the Emirates’, it was £200m and a season later £223m. Six weeks ago, Arsenal released their figures for the year ending May 2023 with “football revenue for the year” at £464m. Last July, Arsenal could afford to pay West Ham £100m for Declan Rice.

As it approaches its 20th anniversary in 2026, Arsenal’s new stadium will be of as much intelligence to those at the top at Old Trafford and St James’ Park as Tottenham’s. There are function and design lessons, as well as the financials.

As Nigel Phillips from the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust (AST) explains: “Arsenal moved in 2006 but got planning permission in 1999 to a design from the mid-1990s. This makes the Emirates almost a 30-year-old design and is so dated when compared to what Spurs have built.

“Another issue with the Arsenal stadium move is that of the £450m project costs, £260m was borrowed on a long-term basis via project bonds, but the other £190m came from Arsenal commercial revenues. Basically, it was spending money from future revenues and this meant that when those actual seasons rolled by, there was no commercial cash to spend as it had been spent on the stadium build.

“This is what messed with Wenger and the competitiveness of the club for a long period of time.”

Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium top and, below, their former ground, Highbury, where the stands are now apartments and the pitch a garden (Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Arsenal still qualified season after season for the Champions League — and secured that income — but in 2010-11, for example, just five years after moving, Wenger was bemoaning his spending power: “We can’t buy players for £50m, that is a fact.”

As the squad’s competitiveness plateaued, so did fans’ feelings about the team in its new surroundings. And, as Phillips says, “Fans’ relationship with the new ground is totally tied up with on-field performances.”

It is something Cloake mentions regarding Spurs. A new stadium needs big seasons or big moments to cement ardour and Cloake refers to the stadium’s opening game against Crystal Palace, in April 2019, when Son scored the first goal at the new home. Defeating Man City 1-0 there a week later (Son again) in the Champions League was another euphoric occasion.

“We played Everton before the Champions League final and there was this massive party going on,” Cloake recalls. “People were just so happy. A lot more were getting to the stadium much earlier and meeting their mates there. They were spending their time and their money in the stadium.

“The sightlines are really good, you can see what’s going on, it feels like a proper football stadium. The scale of it is fantastic as well and we haven’t left Tottenham.

“But, fairly quickly, we went into the (Jose) Mourinho and (Antonio) Conte era, when the football was some of the worst we’d seen. A narrative developed that the stadium was just a money-making machine, the atmosphere was rubbish and not as good as the old ground.”

Mikel Arteta has been commenting for some time on the improved atmosphere at Arsenal, which again is related to the team doing better.

“I just had a person that I haven’t seen for a while,” Arteta said last season, “and it’s the first time he’s been at the stadium for two years. He says it’s the best he’s seen ever since he was at Highbury.”

Highbury was labelled a ‘library’, we should not forget, though the rhyme was a factor.

The two north London grounds are major employers locally. Tottenham, who stage concerts, NFL games and have a go-kart track underneath the pitch, will host matches at Euro 2028. It all needs workers.

But Cloake also notes the recent rise in ticket prices. There was a backs-turned demonstration from some fans at the Luton game. Chairman Daniel Levy is earning £6.5million per annum.

Ticket prices and availability are already an issue for Newcastle United season-ticket holders. Only five years ago, 23,000 attended St James’ for a League Cup tie against Leicester City, but that was after years of being worn down by Mike Ashley’s arid regime.

Today, post-Saudi Arabia takeover, the question is how and where the club could accommodate crowds of 60,000-plus. Hemmed in architecturally at St James’ Park, Newcastle might need to move to grow.

Compared to 2019, it feels the club are preaching to the convertible, yet last week Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust concluded a survey in which 73 per cent of respondents said their preference was to remain at St. James’ “with renovations”. Only 19 per cent said they wanted to move.

Newcastle’s stadium redevelopment is restricted by the houses behind its East Stand (Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)

The Trust’s Paul Karter was unsurprised: “We’re a one-club city and I think the tradition and love of having a city-centre stadium is huge in the eyes of Newcastle United fans. There’s heritage there.

“But it’s difficult. It’s a small city, there’s not a huge amount of space.”

Heritage sells, that is obvious from the outside interest in English football. Newcastle United want to be global, but the club does not have the enormous benefit of being in London. Half an hour in Spurs’ club shop reveals an endless number of Korean fans whose spend-per-head is significant. There is a small Australian range, too, at the club managed by Ange Postecoglou, where the famous Tottenham cockerel motif is replaced by a kangaroo.

Newcastle are joining Tottenham on an end-of-season trip to Australia to keep ‘exporting the brand’, but northern English provincial infrastructure is another hurdle – there are, for example, no direct flights from Newcastle airport to the United States.

Infrastructure and cost affect Sir Jim Ratcliffe as he enters Old Trafford. Manchester United’s first aim is to establish funding for a redevelopment or a new development, then design and submit a planning application. It could be 2028, 2029 or 2030 before a spade is in the ground.

In the 20 years since Arsenal began demolishing existing premises on the Ashburton Grove site, there has been an escalation in the prices of core materials. According to figures from the Building Costs Information Service (BCIS), one cubic metre of ready-mix concrete in 2004 cost on average £63. By 2014, it was £98, while today it is £136, a 40 per cent increase in 10 years.

One tonne of high-tensile steel bars has risen from £333 in 2004 to £638 in 2014 to £1,200 in 2024 — an increase of 88 per cent in the past 10 years. One tonne of structural steel has gone from £720 in 2004 to £1,075 in 2014 to £1,706 in 2024 — up 130 per cent in 20 years.

A new Old Trafford is likely to be over £1billion, maybe double, and debt is a loaded word at the club. Given Real Madrid said recently they will not pay off the vast restructure of the Bernabeu stadium until 2053, United’s repayments could go on until the 2060s.

Chris Rumfitt, of the club’s Supporters’ Trust, says at least Ratcliffe’s presence “means there’s a bit more trust — if it had been the Glazers proposing this, we would not trust them to do it right”.

The trust has a voice on the task force set up to address the next step. It had its first meeting last week. The trust has independently conducted its own surveys, asking supporters about priorities rather than the move-or-stay question.

“We thought the best place to start was with, ‘What do we want from the stadium?’” Rumfitt says. “Once you work that out, it maybe leads to the conclusion of the million-dollar question.

“The answer is that opinions are really mixed. There’s a great desire to understand the options and the consequences during the process. We have 55,000 season-ticket holders and, if at any point during work, capacity dropped below that number, then it’s obviously an issue.

“Then, if we did build a new stadium, what would it look like and where would it be? What do we mean by ‘next door’? Would we be looking to be on the same land in the way the Spurs stadium is adjacent to White Hart Lane? Given the amount of available land around Old Trafford, it’s doable.

Old Trafford, which is likely to cost more than £1bn to rebuild (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

“Football fans are conservative animals and, yes, everybody fears what could be lost. That’s the argument against a new stadium. The biggest fear is the creation of a generic, soulless, identikit bowl.

“That said, the new stadiums have got a lot better. I think Arsenal are a bit of a victim of the fact they went first. A lot of lessons have been learnt since about designing for atmosphere. Tottenham has it, I haven’t been to the Atletico Madrid stadium but I’m told it is similar, designed to prioritise atmosphere.”

An example of what does not work, Rumfitt argues, is West Ham at the Olympic Stadium, though the owners can point to the beneficial economics of the deal and the fact they have won a trophy since taking residence in 2016.

“West Ham is fundamentally not a football stadium,” he says, “and if you’re in the back section of the away end, you might as well watch it on the telly. It’s appalling.

“Upton Park and the horrible but brilliant atmosphere was one of the few places that remained genuinely intimidating. West Ham lost so much when they left.”

The Theatre of Dreams is quite a title to behold in this context. There is pressure. As Phillips of AST says: “Moving to a new ground is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get things right.”

Once you have walked through the last of the 2,000 doors at the Emirates, or past the ‘H’ fine dining area at Tottenham, or emerged from the red lighting of Old Trafford’s home dressing room, you end up high in the Milburn Stand at St James’, scanning a pitch that has been played on since 1880. It has never moved or been rotated.

It is surprisingly moving to think of Newcastle’s early greats such as Andy Aitken or Colin Veitch playing here. What was their view?

What do footballers see now? What are their priorities in a stadium? Does anyone ask?

Andros Townsend was running down the wing for Luton that day at Tottenham. Previously, he had run down it for Spurs at White Hart Lane, for Newcastle at St James’ and for Everton at Goodison, among others. Townsend, 32, noted the size of the Tottenham Hotspur stadium and of the pitch — five metres longer and one metre wider than White Hart Lane.

He says players are so focused on matchdays that, practical matters aside, little invades their peripheral vision – though “the size of the away dressing room matters to players” and he laughs when mentioning the quality of the shower gel.

“It was probably a lot more light, more colourful, more things going on,” he says of the new stadium compared to White Hart Lane, “but ultimately in your mind you’re thinking about so many things to do with the game, you’re not really focused on the broader picture, if that makes sense.”

Some managers have said they have never seen a crowd score a goal, but can fans and grounds impact a result?

“Oh, yeah, of course,” Townsend says. “The older stadiums tend to be right on top of the pitch and tend to generate a better atmosphere. I remember White Hart Lane did that, Selhurst Park, now at Luton. Whether that’s a psychological thing or a fact, I don’t know.

“Selhurst Park, especially on a night game, the atmosphere was incredible. Kenilworth Road is one as well.

“As an opposing player, probably Anfield. This season we were 1-0 up going in at half-time. We concede early in the second half, it’s 1-1 and all of a sudden the crowd just came alive and their players fed off that. It was suddenly tough for us to play out and we ended up losing 4-1.

“St James’ Park for similar reasons. I went there for Everton a few years ago and they were at it. The atmosphere was so intense we could not play out. Their players were on us because they were pumped up by the crowd. Fans’ intensity can transmit itself to the players, without a doubt.”

Luton have their own new stadium plans, but it would be an emotional wrench to leave Kenilworth Road. It sounds unrealistically romantic: can a football stadium have soul?

“One hundred per cent, one hundred per cent,” Townsend replies. “Goodison Park — Everton need to leave Goodison Park because they have had so many financial issues — but Goodison Park, it has so much history, so much memory.

“It’s obviously tough to leave, but in this day and age, it has to be done. Newcastle, again it’s the revenue. Will Newcastle have to sell players because of FFP? Moving to a bigger stadium, you get to sign more players. Do you look at it from a business point of view or a romantic point of view?

“My question to you is: if Spurs were still at White Hart Lane, would they be one of the ‘Big Six’? Would they be in the top four? Probably not.

“Yes, everyone would have loved to have stayed at White Hart Lane, but when you see the money now, there’s one club never brought up in FFP or profit and sustainability terms — Spurs. Yes, they’ve lost a lot, but they’re a big club because they’re producing big revenues and are able to spend big.”

As a modern player who has experienced old grounds, what would his advice be to those designing a new stadium?

“You have to try to keep the element of fans being close. Look at West Ham and the running track around the pitch, that probably takes away from the atmosphere.

“If you can create new and hostile, that’s win-win.”

Arsenal, at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday, and City, who visit in a fortnight, may experience both.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design by Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic)

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