Chesterfield find their field of dreams
Chesterfield chairman Barrie Hubbard realised 27 years ago that his club needed to move to a new ground.
It has taken a lot longer than he initially anticipated but, after several unsuccessful attempts to secure a new site, the Spireites finally left rickety old Saltergate in the summer after 139 years and moved into their brand new 10,379-capacity b2net Stadium.
At first glance, the move appears to have transformed the Derbyshire club, who currently top the League Two table with the best home record in the Football League. Only Crewe have left the new arena with a share of the spoils following a remarkable 5-5 draw.
But the impact extends far beyond what happens on the pitch. Just as Liverpool are desperate to increase revenue by leaving Anfield for a bigger stadium, so the Spireites are hoping to reap the rewards of their relocation to a modern facility.
The b2net Stadium has brought significant benefits to Chesterfield. Photo: Getty Images
"If you never visited Saltergate, then you missed out on a treat but we had to leave because we were losing money every year," said Hubbard, who is in his second spell as chairman at the club. He was not involved with the club during the infamous period when Darren Brown took the club to the brink of extinction.
In the end, as is the way in the modern game, it all boils down to money. At Saltergate, the club only generated income on the 40 or so days a year when they hosted games. Now they have year-round revenue streams.
"We do not have any corporate boxes as such but what we have done is build a conference and banqueting centre and fastened a ground on to it," said Hubbard.
More than 5,000 people are booked in to attend Christmas parties at the stadium during December, while the club also has a licence to hold weddings.
Chesterfield are not unique in moving to a new purpose-built ground. Of the teams in League One and League Two, Southampton, Colchester, MK Dons, Oxford, Burton and Shrewsbury have all done it in the last 10 years.
Colchester left Layer Road for the Weston Homes Community Stadium in 2008. They had 40 hospitality places at the old ground but now have 650 and serve an average of between 250 and 300 meals at each home game. They also have a range of rooms, boasting a capacity from 10 to 400, that have hosted comedy nights, bowls and sportsmans dinners, while the club will stage an amateur boxing event in January.
"The move has broadened our horizons," U's media manager matt Hudson told me. "Layer Road was not a place where we would be able to grow."
Colchester, whose ground cost £14.2m to build, have four charity partners that are able to hire stadium facilities at cost. Organisations such as the National Blood Service use it.
Work will soon start, too, on kitting out the east stand as a community-orientated facility. There will be a gym, restaurant, police station, classrooms and children's play area. There is a clear sense of pride in Hubbard's voice as he tells me all this.
"It has given the entire town a lift," he said. "It has given everyone a new lease of life."
It is a view shared by veteran striker Jack Lester, who has been at Chesterfield since 2007 and is desperate to mark his time at the club with a promotion.
"The people of Chesterfield are really proud of the new ground," said Lester, who scored the winner in the opening league fixture at the new ground. "We are quite a small club but the new ground can help us move on to the next stage."
The makers of The Damned United were looking for a ground as antiquated as the old Baseball Ground in Derby to film scenes from the film, which focused on Brian Clough's ill-fated 44-day reign as manager of Leeds United in 1974. They found it at Saltergate, which served as the Baseball Ground, Elland Road and, remarkably, the old Wembley at various points during the film.
Saltergate was a tight and compact stadium, often boasting a good atmosphere on match day, particularly midweek. Lester joked that it looked as though the last renovation at the old ground had taken place shortly after its construction in 1871.
Players often trained at Saltergate on Friday and would rush to the showers afterwards in the knowledge the hot water would soon run out. The squad would then make their way home to eat lunch. Now the players eat lunch together.
Lester says it means they spend more time as a group talking about forthcoming games and believes it has contributed to their good form. It is a small detail but important.
I asked Chesterfield fans on 606 what they thought about the move to the new ground. CSCFC summed up the difference when he said: "Saltergate - pick the dead spiders off the loo roll. B2net - clean, warm and comfortable."
Saltergate was in use from 1871 but the time had come for the club to move on. Photo: Getty Images.
At Saltergate, you were out on the street within seconds of leaving the ground. At the new ground, the concourse boasts bar and food kiosks, as well as flatscreen televisions.
Bransoj said: "It has changed my match-day experience completely. I used to leave the pub five minutes before the game and wander in as we kicked off. Now I'm there 45 minutes before, using the concourse facilities and putting the money back in the club."
But perhaps the most ringing endorsement for the new stadium comes in the form of increased attendances. The club have an identical home record to last season following their opening eight home fixtures, with seven wins and one draw. Yet the average crowd in 2010 is 6,244, in contrast with 3,593 a year ago.
Hubbard thought an acid test of the new ground's pulling power would be the recent midweek match against Accrington. Last season, the match, which the home team won 1-0, was played on a Saturday and watched by 3,104. This year, 6,034 passed through the turnstiles on a wet and miserable Tuesday to watch the Spireites thump their opponents 5-2. When I first spoke to Hubbard, he was busy helping out with the sale of tickets.
I get the impression Hubbard is a man with his feet firmly on the ground. Towards the end of our conversation, he sounded a note of caution. The cost of the ground has been financed privately, involving what Hubbard described as some "friendly loans" that have not yet been fully repaid. On the field, it will be many months remain before an excellent start to the season becomes real achievement.
Hubbard would not be drawn on the difference in match-day revenue since the move, at least not in terms of actual figures, but he did concede that it had at least doubled. He was also at pains to point out that outgoings had also increased by more than 100%.
But almost three decades after the chairman initially thought it was time to move, he might just have overseen Chesterfield's very own field of dreams.