Cardiff City Stadium
Situated to the north of Cardiff city centre, Sophia Gardens made history recently when the cricket venue was awarded the first test of the 2009 ashes series. Becoming the 100th test venue to be used, it was a controversial choice due to being outside England, but many felt it justified with the ECB supposedly representing both England and Wales, despite their name suggesting otherwise. The ground sits inside a larger recreational area that dates back to the late 19th Century, and it was here that Riverside FC were formed in 1899, changing their name nine years later to Cardiff City FC to commemorate the Welsh town gaining city status in 1905. The club played most of its early games at the gardens, but in 1910 they moved to the west of the city to a new purpose built ground on Sloper Road, naming it Ninian Park after Lord Ninian Crichton-Stuart who had played a major part in establishing the new facility. For 99 years it provided a home to both City and the Welsh national team, but with space limited and the clubs need to redevelop, then the decision to move was taken in 2002, a new stadium planned for just over the road where Leckwith Athletics Stadium stood.
Built in 1989, the athletics stadium had lived a relatively short life, and being the only athletics venue in the city, perhaps it wasn’t unfeasible to imagine the new ground incorporating a dreaded track around the pitch, but thankfully the decision to relocate them was taken instead and after seven years in the planning, the Cardiff City Stadium (yet to be officially named) was opened in the summer of 2009.
The passing of Ninian Park had bought numerous outcries of another traditional venue being lost, but despite preferring the more traditional style of ground myself, then I hadn’t been overly sad to see the club move, never really having liked Ninian all that much in my visits, the away section being amongst the worst, most uninviting in the country and the rest of the ground somewhat disjointed, thanks largely to the odd positioning of the Canton End and open lower tier of the Pop Side/Bob Bank, yet despite this, the prospect of another bowl didn’t exactly fill me with much joy. When a new ground was muted then there had been some talk of moving into the Millennium Stadium, especially if the club made it to the Premier League, but the financial turmoil that followed Sam Hamman’s purchase, and reality that the national stadium would really have been too big meant the decision to build a ground of their own was probably for the best, and so having lost Ninian from the 92 total, then another trip to Wales was required to get back up towards that figure.
Setting off early, then I met up with Duncan from the Football Ground Guide to make the trip over the border, the journey passing by without incident, with the train arriving into Cardiff on time. We’d booked a tour of the Millennium Stadium first, so headed off there, before spending most the morning/early afternoon in the city centre, taking in a number of pubs prior to arriving back in Cardiff Central and catching a train up to the ground.
Ninian Park is still standing at present, albeit only just, with the Grange End mostly demolished and the Main Stand being ripped apart, the cladding having been half removed to reveal a picturesque sign on the original part of the stand, perhaps dating back to its erection in 1937. Not having seen the light of day since the stand was extended and cladded in 1973 it was attracting the attention of fans, with traffic impeded on Sloper Rd as home supporters, many of whom would never have seen it before stopped to take a look at both the sign and their former home, whose days now look limited. It’s only the length of a hefty goalkeepers kick that separates Ninian from its successor, and the gates that once stood outside the main entrance have been moved to the opposite side of the road to provide an entrance for fans to pass through into the new car park. Perhaps unusually, the Main Stand is on the opposite side to the main approach, with the aptly named Ninian Stand first in view as you go through the gates. The cladding on the new ground has been the topic of some debate due to an unusual white, blue and grey pattern, but I quite liked it, and after a quick walk around then I made my way in, having bought tickets for the Canton Stand at the near end of the ground.
Duncan and a Cardiff fan we’d met in the Vulcan pub beforehand had advised me that the ground wasn’t just a normal boring bowl ala Leicester or Southampton, but I still wasn’t convinced after having walked around, but after going in through the new electronic turnstiles, then the first surprise is evident straight away. The concourse is absolutely huge, bigger than any I’ve visited domestically, and even perhaps bigger than those in the lower tier at Wembley with plenty of light coming in from the rear, and the exit gates in the corner of the stands making them feel quite open (not necessarily a good thing as winter approaches!). The main seating area is slightly different as well, with the Grandstand two tiered with a small upper tier overhanging the lower section. The other three sides are more conventional single tier stands, but they are broken up with the aforementioned corners, which have large exit gates below a section of seats swooping around above them. Away fans are located in the south-east corner, with a small videowall above, whilst there are electronic clocks at the rear of the stand behind each goal, presumably more for the players than the fans. One thing to note at present is the height of the roof, and the gap between the back row and exterior wall. The ground has been built in mind to be quickly expanded should the need ever arise, with rows easily added behind without the need for major construction work. The facilities are good, especially the toilets which like the concourse are huge and spacious, easy to get in and out of at half time without long queues, which is one of the better, less obvious thoughts that has been put into the grounds design.
Onto the game, and after being hounded out of the club by Paul Ince and certain members of the board, Dave Jones still casts a controversial figure at Molineux, many of the more ungrateful fans virtually trying to write him out of history, but those of us who have more respect for him know what he can do and at Cardiff he has been proving this since taking over from Lennie Lawrence in 2005. On virtually a shoestring budget and forced to regularly sell his star players he has guided the club through turbulent financial times to an FA Cup final appearance and gradually better league positions, missing out on the play-offs last season by the narrowest of margins, Preston qualifying above them by just two goals. Before this game they sat in fourth place only behind the three relegated teams of last season, so things were looking up as Palace and Neil Warnock made their first trip to the new stadium. The visitors kicked off in the harsh autumnal sunshine, and enjoying their own run of recent form, they looked bright early on, forcing a number of chances before Bluebirds defender Mark Hudson nodded home a cross into his own net to give Palace the lead in just the eighth minute. This seemed to wake up the home side who had been a little slow to get going, and after some good work down the right they soon equalised when Peter Whittingham tapped home a cross to make it 1-1 on 19 minutes. The rest of the half was mostly City, but they couldn’t break down a resolute Palace defence who seemed happy to sit back. The second half was much the same, with few incidents of any interest, Cardiff mostly dominating, and but for a late penalty shout then the game seemed to lack a spark until the final whistle had blown when it all kicked off, the players starting to push and shove each other as they made their way down the tunnel. What for was anyones guess in a relatively good tempered match that had seen few bad tackles or such, but the point proved good enough for City to move up to third place and on towards the Premier dream.
After staying behind a little while to take some pictures of the ground empty then we eventually made our way back, walking into town and having a drink before catching the train, arriving home in good time.
Overall it had been a good day. The ground, whilst still having the slightly generic ‘stadium’ feel to it, was better than expected and had a number of good unique points. Also worth mentioning was the crowd. Perhaps it was due to sitting in the home end or it being a less ‘high profile’ fixture than when Wolves visit, but it felt a lot less hostile than it did at Ninian Park, certainly outside the ground, which is always a good thing, even if the atmosphere inside had been slightly flat, despite the efforts of a number singers at the back of the Canton End. Another plus point is that it’s good that the club have kept their location, unlike their rivals at Swansea who have relocated miles out of town, so all in all the move so far seems to have been a positive one, with increased attendances and hugely improved facilities making up for the loss of terracing thanks to a government who continually refuse to re-evaluate their stance, despite the baffling contradiction in their opposition to it.
Old and New
Rear of the Canton Stand
The Grange Stand
The Ninian Stand
The Canton Stand
The Canton Stand
The Ninian Stand
The Grange Stand
The Gates to the Ground
All material copyright © T.S. Rigby, 2009