Victoria Ground development must celebrate club's history
'HAS Abbey Clancy turned up at your constituency surgery yet?' was one friend's sarcastic inquiry on hearing the news that Abbey's beau Peter Crouch had signed for Stoke City. Sadly, not yet.
Peter Crouch's arrival in the Potteries is another boost for Tony Pulis's team. And tens of thousands of Potters' fans are looking forward to watching the England striker in action in the red and white stripes.
But while Stoke supporters are heading to the Britannia Stadium hoping this season will bring silverware, just as much focus is needed on the club's former home at the Victoria Ground.
My office stands opposite the derelict ground along Lonsdale Street and, whilst I do enjoy its wild plants, butterflies and nature park feel, it's high-time we had some development on the site.
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With its high visibility location alongside the A500, the old Victoria Ground's abandoned state is a wretched advertisement for the city. The football ended in 1997 so there should be no excuse for delay.
But this needs to be a housing project which is sensitive to its history and celebrates the ground's great footballing heritage.
Thankfully, there are now numerous examples of how to develop former football grounds appropriately. The changing economics of the beautiful game has meant major shifts in the place of football stadia in Britain's leading cities.
The introduction of all-seater stadiums in the mid-1990s (following the Hillsborough disaster), the arrival of Sky Sports money and the Premier League, and the globalisation of British football meant that club after club left their inner-urban grounds for shiny, new edge-of-city stadiums with good access to road and rail links.
Football teams needed more space, free of local residential complaints and with extra capacity for money-spending spectators.
All of which left the question of what to do with the old pitches – often located in highly desirable locations. So what Britain's cities have witnessed over the last decade is swathe after swathe of ex-football ground regeneration schemes, which Stoke-on-Trent can look to for inspiration.
Perhaps the most famous has been the Highbury Square development in north London, once home to Arsenal.
'The Gunners' had already moved once from their original location at the Woolwich Arsenal along the river Thames, so the shift to the spanking new Emirates Stadium was no great hardship.
Part-funding the move was the sale of high-end apartments located around the old turf – three-quarters of which were snapped up even before they were built.
Beyond the obvious location (and London property boom), what made the redevelopment a success was a willingness to celebrate the club's history in the new housing scheme.
The exterior parts of the stadium were preserved, the site of the pitch was converted into a communal garden and the distinctive red and white art deco lettering was used as a selling point.
Closer to home at Highfield Road, Coventry City's ground until 2005, a regeneration project by Wimpey homes has sought to reuse the old football pitch for recreation by the local community.
Terraced townhouses are being built across the old ground, with development money being used to fund local neighbourhood projects.
The Baseball Ground, home to Derby County until 1997, now has 150 homes on site and a statue commemorating the ground's football heritage.
Not all stadia have been turned over to housing. Bolton Wanderers' Burnden Park was demolished in 2005 and replaced by a mixed-used retail park.
A common feature of these developments has been an authentic accommodation of the sites' former occupants. Rather than obliterating the history, they have sought to include it within the regeneration strategy as a selling point.
It only makes sense. Most people want to live somewhere with a bit of history, identity and sense of place.
Which is exactly what is needed for the Victoria Ground. Of course, this won't be another 'Highbury Square' – the old stadium has gone and Stoke-on-Trent property prices are too low. But that is no excuse for a poverty of ambition.
When owners St Modwen's come to redevelop the site, there should be open land where the football pitch once stood (desperately needed for the local primary school), the naming of streets and public art should reflect the history of Sir Stanley Matthews and all, the narrow banks of the Trent should be landscaped for a communal park, and good family townhouses prioritised.
Of course, the economics need to stack up and the developer has to sell their houses. But Stoke should not settle for second best.
There is a great football history here which should be heralded, not hidden.
And maybe, many moons from now, there can be a small crescent named after that Stoke City legend Peter Crouch – oh, and Abbey Clancy.