Old Trafford, Anfield, Roker Park: The Man Who Built British Football

If you’ve watched British football at any
point in the last century, you’ve seen the designs and engineering of a Scot named Archibald
Leitch. At the turn of the 20th century, the sport
was only just becoming a social and cultural phenomenon, and as the appetite for the game
grew, and the working and middle classes had the disposable income for ‘leisure’ activities,
football chiefs became obsessed with the task of cramming as many fans into their grounds
as possible. The man appointed to design the vast majority
of these new grounds was Archibald Leitch. Leitch began his career as a factory engineer,
one of many Scots to construct the railways, factories, sheds, and infrastructure within
the British Empire. The Scots had a disproportionate influence on the machinations of Britain in
the 19th century, turning Glasgow into a hub of industry, but they also dominated the landscape
of football and sport in general in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Simon Inglis writes in his wonderful Leitch
biography Engineering Archie, “All the great teams of the late Victorian Era – Preston
North End’s ‘Invincibles’ of 1888-1889, Sunderland’s ‘Team of All Talents’ in
the 1890s – were built around Scottish talent.” The influence of the Scots on industrial engineering,
sport, and football itself meant that a man like Archibald Leitch was the ideal candidate
to design the seminal football grounds of Britain. But Leitch didn’t have groundbreaking design
ideas, he simply saw the opportunity that engineering football stadiums presented at
a time when no one else did. Leitch saw, and felt, the passion for the game and the growing
number of fans determined to watch matches up close. Inglis told Tifo, “The one thing that makes Archibald Leitch
different, or at least a pioneer, was not that he had any particular special knowledge
that got him into the business. It’s that he saw the opportunities in the world of professional
sport and, because of his love for football, decided to go into it. He had no special knowledge
that would enable him to do that, but then, nobody did at that time.” Born and raised in Glasgow, Leitch was a passionate
Rangers fan, and was commissioned to design Ibrox Park in 1899. Over the next three decades,
Leitch was commissioned south of the border at Bramall Lane, Ayresome Park, Craven Cottage,
Stamford Bridge, Anfield, Ewood Park, Park Avenue, Valley Parade, Goodison Park, White
Hart Lane, Old Trafford, The Den, Leeds Road, Roker Park, Highbury, and about 15 other stadiums. So what did a Leitch designed stadium look
like? He moved the football grounds of the Victorian
era from, as Inglis writes, “cinder and gravel banks, muddied earth, wooden barriers
nailed together and thumped randomly into the ground,” to industrial, codified, and
rigid terraces adorned with ‘crush rails’ to prevent the kind of disasters that befell
those that braved the terraces of British football throughout the 20th century. David Goldblatt, sports journalist and sociologist,
describes the Leitchian stadium in his book The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer
as, “An enclosed stadium that had a covered, seated grandstand on one long side of the
pitch and open terraces on the other three. As the ambition of both clubs and designer
grew, Leitch innovated by producing two-tier grandstands, some with seating above and standing
below… in his later efforts, he created stadiums with cover on all four sides of the
ground and seating and standing on each side as well.” Because of Leitch’s background in factory
engineering, these grounds possessed a certain industrial functionality; the goal was simply
to pack as many paying fans into an area to watch football as was possible. But Leitch
wasn’t reckless. His designs were systematic and precise. These stadiums were perfectly
designed for fans to watch the football. The sightlines were unobstructed, the placement
of crush barriers and aisles meant that fans couldn’t rush more than a few yards from
their designated area. Yet Leitch’s work was not without its flaws.
Tragedy befell supporters at two Leitch-designed stadiums, at Ibrox Park and Hillsborough almost
a century apart. The Ibrox Disaster of 1902, during a match between Scotland and England
occurred as an upper part of the terrace snapped and sent spectators falling “as if through
a trapdoor.” The resulting panic caused more casualties
and deaths and a long protracted legal dispute began to find the culpable party. Ultimately,
25 people died, at least 516 were injured, and 587 would receive compensation. But this
was the Machine Age, disasters like this were quite commonplace. Trains going off the tracks,
factories going up in flames, boilers combusting, ships sinking, this was the cost of industry
and progress. Rangers had to decide who would redesign and
reconstruct Ibrox Park in the wake of this disaster. According to a letter from Leitch
to the club chairman (obtained by Inglis) the Glasgow club was very close to choosing
another engineer, but ultimately decided to retain Leitch. He was determined to right the mistakes made
at Ibrox, and a blueprint of his subsequent designs for Craven Cottage in 1905 reveal
a system of preventing the sort of crush and overcrowding that occurred on the terraces
of Britain throughout the 20th century. Inglis writes that “Following the mistakes at Ibrox,”
Leitch implemented “a system of distributing passages and ‘crush rails’ fixed equidistantly
between sunken aisles, each four feet in width.” This became the standard amongst British terraces
and was used by the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds (of which Inglis is the editor) in
1973, Leitch’s terrace design stood up over half a century later as the pinnacle of stadium
safety. It’s clear that the Ibrox Disaster informed
Leitch’s future designs to make sure there were no repeats, and it was a departure from
those designs that would lead to one of the darkest days in English football. Sports grounds, unlike stadiums, are subject
to constant change. There is no final blueprint when a ground is opened, and subsequent remodeling
and redesigns are standard. At Anfield’s Kop End, originally a Leitch design, redesigns
during the 1920s, in which a roof was added, ended up disastrously and for the next 50
years or so there were 40 casualties and injuries a week in the Kop. As was the case at Hillsborough, with renovations
during the decades after initial construction in 1913 changing the precision of Leitch’s
designs. While the failures at Hillsborough related
more to crowd control and ineffective policing, Inglis told Tifo, “Had Hillsborough been designed to the kind
of specifications that Leitch drew out at say Chelsea and Fulham in 1904 and 1905…
a good 80 years before the disaster, there may not have been such great a loss of life…
It’s a bit like you design a perfect car, and someone comes along in two years and they
change the wheels, or they change a bit of the engine.”
Ironically it was the disaster at Ibrox that allowed Leitch to design a system that would
have saved lives at Hillsborough some 80 years later, but those designs had been eroded away
by then. As the football grounds of Britain change
from the Leitchian grounds that became synonymous with British football to more modern, continental-style
stadiums, Leitch’s designs slowly fade from view. Fulham, Dundee United, Portsmouth, Everton,
and Rangers are the only remaining original Leitch stands or grandstands of the 40 or
so grounds he engineered. The man who crafted the look and feel of British football in its
infancy died without any real fanfare in 1939, but his legacy remains in the memories, legends,
and the carnage of the terraces of British football.

21 thoughts on “Old Trafford, Anfield, Roker Park: The Man Who Built British Football

  1. Any possibility you could make a video discussing Bayern's youth academy that went from playing a large role in winning the 2014 World Cup to going AWOL since then?

  2. Waking up early right as a Tifo video drops, with chill music and Joe's calming voice, while drinking a hot beverage is one of the little pleasures in life.

  3. This is very inspiring, considering I want to become an architect and I really want to design such stadia in Kenya, where sports infrastructure has really been ignored and rejected

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