The terrace, one of our favourite football characteristics, practically extinct in the UK since Hillsborough. Up to this day, they still serve as a breeding ground for heated discussions, rightly so. Albeit that they have been making way for all-seater stadiums and safe standing with football rail seats for the past 25 years. This doesn’t only demolish old stands or one of the most romantic sights in football; but also the work of a certain Archibald Leitch: the inventor of the terrace.
Leitch began his career in his hometown of Glasgow, Scotland as an engineer and factory architect. This way, he got used to building functional buildings in the most efficient way possible: quickly and cheaply. But Leitch was a football fan. Architects who were football fans were fairly scarce back then, allowing Leitch to dominate the market from an early perspective. He was asked by Rangers to expand their stadium. Since Rangers were his boyhood club, Leitch considered it such an honour that he would do it for free.
Debut at Ibrox
Rangers wanted a stadium capable of gaining revenue from matches. Leitch then expanded Ibrox Park with terraces behind the western goalmouth consisting mainly out of wooden planks bolted onto a framework made of iron. A similar wooden terrace was constructed at the eastern end, giving Ibrox Park a total capacity of 75 000 and bombarding Glasgow as the football capital of the world, boasting the three biggest stadiums on the planet. On the inaugural match between Scotland and England at Ibrox, a crowd of 70 000 gathered to watch the match. The stage was set for a memorable afternoon. Shortly after kick-off, one section of the terracing “collapsed like a trap door”, as was noted in the newspaper, causing 25 people to lose their lives and 517 were injured. It was like the sinking of the Titanic.
Leitch blamed the contractor for using low quality wood, but the contractor got acquitted and Leitch was held responsible. Wooden structures were unusual for holding such a capacity. Fortunately, that didn’t stop Rangers from continuing to work with Leitch. A lucky escape from what would have undoubtedly been a career ending. Determined to revolutionise the design of the terraces, Leitch would do anything but throw the towel.
At Ibrox, spectators stood on timber boards laid on an iron framework. Before that, spectators watched from atop grass or dirt slopes around the pitch. Leitch’s new terrace design was built on a bank of earth and held together with reinforced concrete and steel bolted barriers. They were characterized by fixed steps, designated aisles and steel crush barriers which he patented. Terraces were now stronger and safer than ever before; and the type we all grew to love, was now born.
From terrace to grandstand
Craven Cottage and Stamford Bridge were the first stadiums in the UK to adapt this style of terrace. But many, many more followed briefly after. Anfield, Ayresome Park, The Old Den, Ewood Park, Fratton Park, Goodison Park, Hampden Park, Highbury, Lansdowne Road, Old Trafford, Selhurst Park and Villa Park are just some of Leitch’s mind-baffling list of built stadiums; many of which have been, sadly, demolished.
Leitch wasn’t just famous for his terraces. His background as an industrial factory architect was also reflected in his typical red brick facades which he mainly used for the Main Stands of the stadiums he has built. One of them, the awe-inspiring Trinity Road Stand at Villa Park, was one of his masterpieces. Yes, was. The marvel gave way to a renovated and rebuilt stand in 2000. But Ibrox Park and Craven Cottage both have the same sort of facades which are standing the test of time.
Craven Cottage’s Johnny Haynes Stand (previously: Stevenage Road Stand) was built in 1905 and creates the iconic façade for Craven Cottage together with The Pavilion. The stand has largely remained untouched, thus making it the oldest active stand in English football. This nearly changed in 2002, when Fulham moved to QPR’s Loftus Road since Craven Cottage didn’t meet the Premier League’s requirements anymore. The fans protested heavily against this by boycotting their ‘home’ games and the club agreed to renovate the stadium for almost £5,5 million. Many parts of the stadium were renewed but the Johnny Haynes Stand and Pavilion were left untouched, apart from the new seats and floodlights. A clear indication of how the clubs value Leitch’s work.
By the time of his death in 1939, 16 of the 22 clubs in the First Division were clients of Leitch. And even onwards during the 1966 World Cup, six of the eight venues used, were grounds where Leitch had played a significant role. His son continued his work for twenty more years after his death.
A disaster ignited Leitch’s idea of a revolutionary type of terrace and grandstand. Another disaster, 87 years later, would bring it all to an end. The Hillsborough disaster would change the way spectators attend football games in the UK for decades to come. The Taylor Report, the official inquiry of the disaster, blamed police and the poor crowd management drawn out by the organization. It didn’t mention the design of the terraces as a culprit. Authorities still decided to ban them and clubs in Britain’s top divisions had to replace them with seats or construct all-seater stadiums. A raid which would see much of Leitch’s work fall into rubble.
Leitch’s legacy still lives on as there are still enough of his designs standing today. Ibrox Park and Craven Cottage have already been mentioned. But make sure to visit the Selhurst Park Main Stand and White Hart Lane’s East Stand in London. If you’re ever in Liverpool, don’t leave without visiting the Bullens Road and Gwladys Road Stands at Goodison Park, and the Main Stand of Anfield; where the concrete core of the 1906 built Anfield Main Stand still exists along with the brick façade. The last Leitch terrace to disappear was the one at Saltergate in 2010. Simon Inglis, the man who wrote the book Engineering Archie, saved two Leitch barriers. One can now be seen at the National Football Museum in Manchester and the other in the Scottisch Football Museum at Hampden Park.
I know where my next trips will be going.