Four years of wrangling over the location of the home of Scottish football came to an end without the need for removal vans – but they were on standby until the moment it was decided that Hampden Park would retain the status it has enjoyed since 1903.
The bid by Scottish Rugby to lure the rival sport to Murrayfield was so alluring that arguments within the Scottish Football Association board became ‘heated’, according to Ian Maxwell, the chief executive.
The issue, though, was settled by a private gift of £2.5 million from local businessman and philanthropist, Lord Haughey, who went to school and college close to Hampden Park, and whose intervention bridged the gap between the SFA’s offer to buy the stadium and the £5 million valuation put on it by Queen’s Park, the amateur club whose home it has been for 115 years. The SFA will also take over a £19 million liability to the National Lottery Fund, which was used to underwrite the most recent redevelopment of Hampden.
Hampden was the biggest arena in the world when it opened and the attendance of 149,415 for the 1937 meeting of Scotland and England remains the European record for an international football match. Its redevelopment in 1998 and reduction of capacity to 52,000 accommodated a design intended for use as an athletics arena, but the inclusion of a running track separated the spectators behind both goals from the action.
Taken along with the considerable decline in attendances because of Scotland’s ongoing failure to qualify for the finals of a major tournament since 1998, the atmosphere inside the stadium has often fallen well short of the era when the ‘Hampden Roar’ was legendary.
Indeed, a vitriolic condemnation of the SFA’s decision to stay put was delivered by the Celtic captain, Scott Brown, who said: “Hampden is possibly one of the worst stadiums I have played in for atmosphere. For Scotland, I think we should be playing at Celtic Park, Ibrox, then the smaller games – where you only get 17,000 – should be at Hibs and Hearts.”
Maxwell, though, said of suggestions to use the Old Firm’s grounds: “It came down to the model that we did. When that was analysed, it was felt that moving around the country and not having a base was not the feedback we got from supporters. We did a financial model and that didn’t add up.”
The CEO also stated that sentiment about Hampden’s prominent place in the history of football was not a factor in the ultimate decision. “It’s my job to move Scottish football on. I can’t be sitting here thinking, ‘Ah well, the people who came here as five-year-olds will no longer get to come here.'.
“It has to be – what is best for the membership? What is best for the association? Not only now, but in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time. I was asked, ‘Is this a good day for Scottish football?’
‘It’s a monumental day for Scottish football. We now own a national stadium which is a world-renowned asset. We talk about Scottish football and the number of people who remember being at Hampden Park for Real Madrid against Eintracht Frankfurt or more recently for Zidane’s goal in 2002.
“Even at European level there are things which make Hampden synonymous with Scottish football and to be chief executive is an incredible opportunity to make a real difference.”
An irony that will be felt keenly at the SRU is that its success in developing Murrayfield as a major sports venue will be studied by the SFA as they work to maximise the return from their investment in Hampden.
A priority will be construction of safe standing areas behind the goals but other redevelopments will be evaluated for presentation to possible partners, including individuals, sponsors and ruling bodies such as the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council.
“It’s not just a football stadium and we can’t do this on six games a season,” Maxwell said. “It’s got to be more than that. If we can align with Scottish government priorities, in terms of health and fitness, there are a number of areas that football clubs have done really well in and we need to make the case to government to back us.”
Another possibility is a joint bid with England, Wales and Northern Ireland for the UK to host the 2030 World Cup finals, informal discussions about which have begun.
Fanciful admirers of Hampden like to refer to her as the Old Lady of Mount Florida. In truth, the stadium has been Scottish football’s Miss Havisham for too long but, given a successful national team and a visionary marketing strategy, there is a decent prospect of a new set of glad rags for the dowager on the hill.