By the mid-1990s, and with the recommendations of the Taylor Report uppermost in the mind of football’s administrators, many of the great English grounds of the early 20th century were no longer fit for purpose or refurbishment. The inspiration behind many of those grand old structures was a man whose work became synonymous with style and longevity.
The great nation of Scotland has given a lot to football in the past 150 years; great players and even greater managers. The mining town of Glenbuck gave us Bill Shankly, who swore to build Anfield into a “bastion of invincibility”. Glasgow sired Alex Ferguson, who would assemble a squad that would go on to dominate English football for more than a decade. Players like Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish and Denis Law constructed an image of Scotland as a footballing heartland, where men were forged from iron but blessed with grace.
There is, however, a Scot whose contribution to the game in England has left an even more enduring legacy; a man for whom there is no need for metaphor, as he literally built the foundations of the game. Stadium Designer, Architect and Engineer, Mr. Archibald Leitch.
You may or may not be aware but, chances are, if you have visited more than a handful of stadiums in Britain, it is almost a certainty that you will have sat in a stand, walked through an archway or ascended a flight of stairs designed by Leitch.
From humble beginnings as a designer of factories overseas, Leitch was handed his first commission to design a football stadium by his local club, Rangers. Ibrox Park, built in 1899, was one of the biggest purpose built football stadiums in the world, immediately recognisable by its large red brick façade and latticed metalwork, trademarks that would feature throughout Leitch’s future projects.
During a 40-year spell as a stadium designer, Leitch was constantly in demand – from Belfast to London, from Southampton to Dundee. Whether it’s the iconic trusses that span the width of Everton’s Bullens Road stand or the gloriously ornate brick work that welcomed visitors up the stairs to Aston Villa’s now demolished Trinity Road End, Leitch has left a physical mark on the landscape of football more than any other.
From 1899 to his death in 1939 Archie Leitch either partially or completely designed stadiums for Rangers, Sheffield United, Arsenal, Manchester United, Middlesbrough, Fulham, Bradford City, Everton, Liverpool, Millwall, Tottenham Hotspur, Blackburn Rovers, Huddersfield Town, West Ham United, Charlton, Chelsea, Hearts, Kilmarnock, Queen’s Park, Crystal Palace, Hamilton Academical, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Portsmouth, Dundee, Derby County, Southampton and Sunderland. Not to mention the numerous Rugby, Cricket and Gaelic grounds he had a hand in the construction of. In fact, there was a time in the 1930s when, at a football league match, there was a one in three chance that you would be watching from a stand designed by the Glaswegian.
It is a sad oversight that a man who has given such a monumental and lasting contribution to the infrastructure of football in England is not more frequently called to mind; a dereliction of recognition that will only increase as more and more of the great man’s designs are demolished or redesigned. The core of Leitch’s main stand at Anfield has been covered over by Liverpool’s mammoth new project; Tottenham are moving out of White Hart Lane; Highbury has been a housing development for years now and Everton have recently signed a deal to leave Goodison Park after more than 125 years.
Let us take just a moment to remember Archibald Leitch’s contribution to football. The loyalty and sentiment we feel towards our clubs is extended to their crucibles; spiritual homelands given to us by the godfather of stadium design.
THE TRINITY ROAD STAND – VILLA PARK
By the 1920s Archibald Leitch had a portfolio containing some of the largest and most prestigious stadiums the country and was considered the pre-eminent designer of the day, peerless in his field. The days of factory building in Ceylon and South Africa were far behind him, as was the disaster at Ibrox. The Architect’s services were in ceaseless demand and only the premier football clubs with deep pockets could secure his services.
Aston Villa were one of the oldest clubs in England, founder members of the Football League and arguably the dominant force in English football with six First Division titles and just as many FA Cups. It was almost an inevitability that the Birmingham-based club would seek out the services of Leitch when the idea was formulated to upgrade Villa Park.
Leitch was originally recruited in 1911 by Villa’s board and plans were drawn up for the construction of two new banked stands, incorporation of larger parts of the surrounding grounds and the construction of a large capacity stand on the Trinity Road side of the stadium.
Unfortunately for Leitch and Aston Villa, the outbreak of war in 1914 forced construction to come to almost a complete stop. When the development could resume, economic factors and ballooning material costs had meant that the original cost for construction of £27,000 had more than doubled. After fervent negotiation, a fee in the region of £40,000 was agreed upon and construction was able to resume.
When opened in 1924 by then Duke of York (the future King, George VI) the ground, and particularly the Trinity Road stand, was considered to be above all others. The ornate brick work, stained glass windows and Italian mosaic work interior were the product of Leitch’s years of experience and growth of courage and confidence in his work. The draftsman from Glasgow who was given his first job because he came cheap was now creating works of civil engineering beyond comparison.
The Trinity Road stand was described as “The St Pancras of Football”, in reference to the grand train station built in London 50 years earlier.
Such was the lasting reputation for Villa Park’s grandeur, not to mention its impressive capacity, it was chosen as a key venue for the World Cup in 1966 as well as being the ground to host more FA Cup semi-finals than any other.
The Trinity Road stand was the jewel in Archibald Leitch’s crown and the most vivid display of his talents at their peak. Sadly, the stand was demolished in 2000 but with hope the great man’s legacy will not be so easily lost.
THE PARK END – GOODISON PARK
In the space of a decade, Archibald Leitch had been promoted from the pragmatic and unromantic pursuit of designing tea factories to become the world’s foremost authority on football stadium design. Even the tragic collapse of one of his stands at Ibrox Park in Glasgow leading to the death of 25 people was not enough to tarnish his reputation and stop the flow of job offers. South of the border, Everton were the wealthiest club in the world and one of the most successful, with a First Division winners medal and an FA Cup trophy in their cabinet, but the Merseyside club were still not in possession of a stadium to match their lofty ambitions.
It was no surprise then that the Toffees would recruit Leitch to design their new Goodison Road stand in 1907. The result was a stand that dwarfed almost everything that had come before It, leading journalists to refer to it as “The Mauritania stand”, named for the largest ship of the time. The stand was supported by Leitch’s instantly recognisable criss-cross trusses, a motif that would carry over more visibly into the second structure that he would design for Goodison Park, the Bullens Road Stand. Those features are still as prominent today as they were more than a century ago.
After bomb damage during the war had left the Gwladys Street end in need of remodelling it was Leitch who, with grants from the war office, would redesign and renovate the stand. In total, Goodison Park still has two full-sized stands completely designed by Leitch, with a third – the old Park End – heavily influenced by his work. The Henry Hartley designed stand, which could easily be mistaken for one of Leitch’s creations, was torn down in 1994 after years of use by away supporters to be replaced by the single decker successor we see today.
No other ground in the world serves as much of a visual reminder of the Scotsman’s endeavours as Goodison does and sadly, with Everton’s plans to move to Bramley Dock in Liverpool being recently approved, that reminder will not be with us for much longer.
THE PRESIDENT’S STAND/MAIN STAND – ROKER PARK
Sunderland spent the end of the 19th century hopping from stadium to stadium; six different grounds in 20 years played host to the north-east club before they finally settled in Roker Park in 1897. In less than a decade Sunderland had become one of the most successful teams in England and the winning of three successive First Division titles in the early 1890s brought crowds flocking in huge numbers to see the Black Cats play. Deemed as too small and unfit for purpose for hosting Sunderland’s growing fan-base, Archibald Leitch would be the man to drag Roker park into the 20th century.
Named for Sunderland’s beloved club president, Fred Taylor, the President’s Stand as it was originally known, would be designed by Leitch to greatly upgrade the stadium’s capacity and modernity. A stand containing 5,875 seats and room for more than 14,000 standing fans was to be erected after the demolition of the old wooden grandstand. This would take Roker Park’s capacity to a recommended 60,000 although an attendance of 75,118 was recorded at one point.
The stand would be, as with all his other works of the day, built around the typical crossing framework trusses and in a physical homage to the great man a section of that framework is currently on display in the entrance to Sunderland’s current home, the Stadium of Light. Again, Leitch’s pragmatic efficiency in construction techniques and use of materials would inadvertently create an aesthetic that would become his trademark.
In his ambition and scope Leitch was becoming growingly unconcerned with the cost of his designs; the cost of the Main Stand at Roker Park would snowball and almost bankrupt the club upon its completion in 1929. The designer, who was granted his first commission in Glasgow based on an ability to operate within a tight budget, had come to the realisation that his talents were not to be tempered by financial restrictions.
The Scot had already redeveloped the Roker End terracing in 1912 and would be involved in numerous upgrades and consultations in subsequent years. In 1936, after a large-scale renovation of both the pitch and the terraces, including the new Clock Stand, Leitch – in a departure from his usual discipline – would design a wristwatch as a gift for Lady Raine who would be unveiling the new stand.
Sadly, as with most Leitch constructions, Roker Park and the Main Stand are no longer standing. A housing estate with streets called “Midfield Drive” and “Promotion Close” are a very literal nod towards the site’s past glories.
THE NORTH STAND – AYRESOME PARK
Middlesbrough FC only become a fully professional outfit in 1889, winning promotion to the First Division just three years later. The North-East club were by no means the most widely followed or successful club in England but the club directors, buoyed by their recent elevation, were keen to see the team play in a stadium more befitting their new status as one of the country’s elite.
The club’s directors had already made arrangements for the old main stand from Middlesbrough’s previous ground on Linthorpe Road to be disassembled and relocated on the site at Ayresome Park but more of a statement needed to be made; ‘Boro were ambitious and wanted to be considered one of the biggest teams in England and an imposing stadium would be crucial in that aim.
The club contacted Archibald Leitch in 1903 regarding the design and construction of a stand at the North End of the pitch to increase the capacity of the stadium by more than 2,000 and send a message to the rest of the league that Sunderland and Newcastle were not the only major players in the North East.
Leitch’s design was given the approval of the board and construction on a 300ft long, roofed stand began soon after. The stand would, of course, contain a triangular latticework and was in equal measure functional and attractive. During this period, it was quite rare to have an entirely covered terracing, a comfort most likely warmly welcomed on what can be a challenging north-eastern climate.
Ayresome Park – and its Leitch designed North Stand – was an important part of Middlesbrough for the next 92 years until conversations about how the stadium would be adapted to all-seating requirements after the Taylor Report led to the decision that the club would relocate to a new purpose built arena; the Riverside Stadium.
Demolished in 1997, the only remnant of Leitch’s influence on the ground are the entrance gates designed by the great Scot and relocated to the Riverside to bear witness to Middlesbrough’s subsequent successes.
Words by Mark Hargreaves – @markedurgent
Illustrations by Matt Brown of Stadiafile. Follow Stadiafile on Instagram: instagram.com/stadiafile. For commissions contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Online Shop coming late 2017.