A 74-year record is set to fall this weekend when Liverpool host Burnley in the Premier League.
It may be an unlikely occasion for a moment in history but, with a crowd of over 60,000 expected, Anfield is ready to welcome its biggest crowd for a league game.
Not since Chelsea’s visit in December 1949 attracted 58,757 fans has Liverpool’s home known a league attendance like the one due to click through the turnstiles on Saturday.
The phased opening of a redeveloped Anfield Road Stand, built at a cost of £80million ($101m) over the past 18 months, will bring in 3,000 additional fans for Saturday and finally take Liverpool beyond a figure they have spent over 20 years aspiring to surpass.
It has been an arduous journey of failed funding, broken promises and delays, with three different stadium projects proposed during a decade when leaving Anfield was framed as the club’s only viable option.
Fenway Sports Group (FSG) scrapped plans to move in 2012, but the common thread running through three consecutive ownership groups has been the need to create a bigger home.
Anfield always had the romance but not the capacity to keep pace with rivals. Only now, with two rebuilt stands and new records waiting to be set, has a long road finally taken Liverpool to where they want to be.
It was in the summer of 2000, on the back of Liverpool finishing fourth in the Premier League and missing out on Champions League qualification, that chairman and majority shareholder David Moores first crystallised plans to leave Anfield.
Liverpool’s historic home, at that stage, was limited to a capacity of just under 46,000, marginally more than Villa Park and Stamford Bridge but smaller than St James’ Park and the Stadium of Light.
Liverpool’s board felt the sharp dangers of being left behind. Manchester United’s turnover for the 1999-00 season had soared to £117million at a time when Old Trafford’s capacity had been expanded to 68,000, while Liverpool’s annual revenue was not even half that figure at just £46.4million.
Deloitte, the accounting firm, ranked Liverpool 19th in its annual rankings of Europe’s richest football clubs in 2000, behind Leeds United and Glasgow Rangers.
The landscape of English football was both changing and encouraging change. Arsenal were submitting plans for the Emirates Stadium and a year later Everton were confirming their plans to relocate to the city’s King’s Dock. Leeds were another balloting fans over a move.
Liverpool arrived at the same point as Arsenal, Everton and Leeds when feasibility studies suggested a newly built stadium would bring greater benefits than renovating Anfield. Long-term plans were eventually made public in June 2000 after news had been leaked. Anfield was to be abandoned, with Liverpool relocating 300 yards away to the south-eastern corner of Stanley Park, next to Arkles Road.
“Any such move would also give Liverpool and its supporters the advantage of a brand new purpose-built stadium instead of the piecemeal expansion of the current ground,” the club stated.
Gerard Houllier, Liverpool’s manager at the time, backed the proposed move. “I think we must accept that there are too many of our supporters unhappy that they are not able to come into the ground and see the team at the current stadium,” he said.
The cost was forecast to be £130million, with Liverpool initially eyeing a stadium to hold as many as 75,000 fans. The ambition was to boast the biggest club stadium in the country, with the project also promising to regenerate the wider surroundings, too.
Not that all were convinced. A council debate brought widespread opposition to the Stanley Park proposals. “Four group members have even indicated that they will quit if the stadium goes ahead,” said Anfield ward councillor Joe Kenny, believing a city-owned park was unsuitable for such a development. There were also question marks over transport networks servicing such an increased number of match-going fans.
That had Liverpool assessing other possible locations, including one in Speke, close to the city’s airport, and another in the docks area. Assessments were carried out on seven different brownfield sites but none, it was deemed, were more suitable than Stanley Park.
A protracted process eventually drew enough support from local residents and, by May 2002, images had been released of a scaled-back 55,000-seater stadium dubbed the Parry Bowl after the club’s incumbent chief executive, Rick Parry.
The cost, too, would be significantly less, at £80million. It was claimed a fixed-priced contract with building company Carillion, who later collapsed in 2018, would help Liverpool fund the entire project. The name of Anfield, opened in 1884, would be retained, along with the Shankly and Paisley Gates and the Hillsborough memorial.
“I don’t know anyone who really wanted to leave Anfield, but there was also this feeling that we needed to move to a modern stadium to be competing with the likes of Manchester United,” says lifelong fan Peter Hooton, now a member of the Spirit of Shankly supporters group.
“There was no real groundswell of campaigning to stay at Anfield because the so-called experts were saying it couldn’t possibly be developed. That made it an air of inevitability we’d have to move.
“I can remember taking my dad, who’s still a season ticket holder in his 90s, to the Vernon Sangster sports centre to see the plans for the Parry Bowl. It was an exhibition of how it would look and to me, it looked like the Reebok Stadium (the home of Bolton Wanderers, built in 1997).
“My dad said to one of the assistants, ‘Which end would be the Kop?’ and they didn’t know. It just summed it all up. It wasn’t well thought out.”
The misguided hope was that Liverpool could relocate by 2005-06, yet even with outline planning permission being granted after a five-hour council debate in July 2004, it proved to be a torturously slow process.
The Campaign for Protection of Rural England and the Anfield Regeneration Action Committee both stood as obstacles and all the while there were unconvincing pushes for Liverpool to join Everton in a ground share that appealed to neither set of supporters.
The North West Development Agency promised £30million of funding if the two Merseyside rivals could come together in a new home and, in the months that preceded Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League victory in Istanbul, UK Sports Minister Richard Caborn hosted a meeting to discuss the prospect of ground sharing. Neither club was for turning, though, even if there was a suggestion it could become a host venue in England’s doomed 2018 World Cup bid.
Liverpool persisted and were given a 999-year, £300,000-a-year lease for the land on Stanley Park by 2006, but by that stage, costs had spiralled to £215million. Funding was required for the rendering of £12million worth of steel before any project could begin.
“The finances for the stadium were tight,” says Parry. “It’s not the borrowing of money that is difficult, it’s the repaying. Sure, we could’ve borrowed. We had the same consortium of banks that backed Arsenal (in building the Emirates) lined up. We could have done it in-house without selling the club, but David had decided to sell.”
Moores was not banking on being around to fund a new home for Liverpool.
The quote that has come to typify the Stanley Park saga belonged to George Gillett. Conscious of the stasis he was inheriting as owner alongside fellow U.S. businessman Tom Hicks on completion of their takeover in February 2007, he opted for misplaced bravado at his unveiling press conference.
“The shovel needs to be in the ground in the next 60 days,” Gillett said.
Staying at Anfield was not even a consideration. Gillett called moving a “necessity” rather than a choice. “The stadium was a critical element in our decision to come here,” he said.
Hicks and Gillett made it all sound so simple during their opening months as Liverpool’s owners and by that summer, they were ready to show the world the ambitious designs drawn up by the renowned U.S. architects HKS, the creative minds behind the SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.
Newly imagined plans included a new 18,000-capacity, single-tier Kop, with the option to increase the capacity of the 60,000 stadium up to 70,000. Planning permission again went in with a view to Liverpool moving ahead of the 2010-11 season. The sleek new design was nicknamed locally as ‘The Spaceship’.
“It’s spectacular and I can’t wait for everybody to see it,” said Hicks. “I think our fans will love it. It’s very creative architecture, very contemporary but also unique to Liverpool. It is all centred around the Kop. It will be the symphony stage that plays to the symphony hall.”
Hicks claimed HKS had attended the Champions League game at home to Barcelona in March 2007 and were struck by the atmosphere generated by the Kop. They predicted a vast home end would be “the heartbeat of the new stadium”.
Designing it was the easy bit. Funding the build proved far more difficult, just as it had for Moores.
Hicks and Gillett had heaped debt upon Liverpool when completing their takeover and, as relations between the pair soured soon after, they were unable to find the £300million needed to begin their new stadium plans.
Preparatory works were started in June 2008 by contractors Laing O’Rourke, who are currently behind Everton’s new home, a year after the Vernon Sangster leisure centre had been flattened, but by August the project had ground to an all-too-familiar halt.
“Like many other major development projects in the UK and overseas, we are affected by global market conditions and, as such, work on the project will be delayed in the short term,” said a club statement. Hicks had previously claimed the global credit crunch would have no impact.
“They had their grandiose plans to build something which would be jaw-dropping and people were getting very enthusiastic to begin with,” said Hooton.
“That didn’t last long. They claimed the delays were down to the financial crisis of 2008 and they might have a point but, once Spirit of Shankly was formed in that year, we began protesting against their ownership.
“They told us a spade would be in the ground within 60 days and we got together as a group, some were builders, and we re-enacted putting a spade in the ground in Stanley Park. We wanted to humiliate them. Our preference then became to stay at Anfield.”
Two years of tumult included another scaled-back stadium design after the initial project had been forecast to run £50million over budget, but the grim threat of financial implosion eventually led to Hicks and Gillett being ousted from the club they were crippling.
A £300m takeover in 2010 led by New England Sports Venture, later rebadged as FSG, soon made it increasingly clear Anfield would remain Liverpool’s home. John Henry called it a “myth” that a new stadium was necessary, questioning the financial benefits of funding an entire build for the benefit of 15,000 additional seats. He claimed that would not “magically transform (the club’s) fortunes”.
FSG took time with their assessments, but by May 2012, it was announced all plans to move stadium would be scrapped. Extensions to both the Main Stand and the Anfield Road Stand would take capacity from 45,276 to north of 60,000. FSG placed a focus upon history, just as they had when opting against leaving Fenway Park, home of their other sporting interest, the Boston Red Sox.
Yet still Liverpool had to count the cost of failed projects. The club’s accounts revealed that £35million was written off on the new stadium plans of Hicks and Gillett. “A big chunk relates to the HKS project, which is now defunct,” said former managing director Ian Ayre, who accepted the misplaced ambitions had set Liverpool back “several years”.
Reviving Anfield has not been straightforward. A new main stand, opened in 2016, involved compulsory purchase orders, approved by Liverpool City Council, forcing local residents to leave their homes to make way for Anfield’s transformation. Some moved against their will before houses were demolished, making way for a new structure that added 8,500 seats to capacity.
The Covid-19 pandemic delayed the redevelopment of the Anfield Road Stand until 2021 before the collapse of Buckingham Group, the chosen contractors, saw a deadline to open this season missed.
The expansion of Anfield remains insufficient to satisfy the huge demand for tickets, but an additional 16,000 fans will bring the financial benefits that three different ownership groups always chased.
Matchday revenues were £62million for the 2015-16 season, the last with the old main stand, and had climbed to almost £87million by 2021-22. It has been forecast that the increased capacity from an expanded Anfield Road Stand could be worth as much as £1m per game when fully open, taking Liverpool’s gate receipts beyond £100m a season.
It is the revenue stream Liverpool have spent two decades trying to widen and, at last, Anfield will this weekend get a record league crowd that many predicted would never come.
(Top photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)