Driving past Sholing FC’s ground a few days ago I noticed a slight change to the sign at the entrance gate; In big letters above the clubs crest appeared the words Silverlake Arena – The ground has, it appears, succumbed to trend of being re-baptised at the behest of a sponsor, but am I right to feel somewhat sad that a club in the Southern League South and West Division has auctioned off its ground naming rights?
A few words about the old name; VT Sports Ground, was the legacy of Sholing’s recent past as a works team known latterly as VTFC and before that, from 1960 until the 2002/3 season, Vosper Thornycroft FC. Vosper Thornycroft being the name of the shipyard in nearby Woolston which closed in 2003 bringing to an end a ship-building association with the area stretching back almost a century to when the firm of shipbuilders John I Thornycroft had relocated to the site from Chiswick in 1904.
Although VT Group PLC, now diversifying into new areas of business, retained a head office in nearby Hedge End, and the club continued as a works team, taking the name VTFC to reflect the change in ,name of their parent company, various corporate maneuverings - in 2010 the company was taken-over by Babcock International PLC – have meant that the firms ties with the area in which the club was located had become fully eroded. In the same year as the Babcock takeover the club announced they would be taking on the name of Sholing, the name of the suburb adjoining their ground (see here for an article I wrote at the time), citing the hope that this would potentially bring greater investment and support from the community. Around the same time as this the last vestiges of the old shipyard were also being cleared away as a major new housing development began to take shape. It seemed in many ways both the club and the city itself were moving on.
On-pitch the clubs successful run of the previous few years continued. 2nd place in their league and runners-up in the Hampshire Senior Cup in the first sason following the name change, and a respectable 4th place last season. In terms of attendances however, there seems to have been a rather more muted response; for 2009/10 ,the last as VTFC, crowds averaged 128 whilst the average two years later, in 2011/12, stood at 141. The renaming of the ground can be taken as a positive indication that the club is at least attracting the new income streams from local businesses it needs to move forward in the absence of a corporate benefactor.
The new ground sponsors, Silverlake, who are primarily in the business of auto-salvage, are family run and based at a site not too distant from Southampton their website speaks of a desire to play a role in their local community:
Supporting the Hampshire community through sponsorship of events, clubs and organisations is a key objective of the Silverlake group of companies. Additionally we support Hampshire based schools, colleges, Hampshire Fire & Rescue services, and various military bases in the area; supplying vehicles for training and educational purposes.
So is it any worse that the clubs ground is now named after this local business, Silverlake, rather than VT Group who are now just a division of a faceless multinational corporate entity?
The answer is, on reflection, probably no, but can’t get over the slight disappointment when I first saw the new sign. It’s not just a snobbish response to the use of the term ‘arena’, which conjures up images of Bruce Springsteen, or Axl Rose strutting and preening on a giant stage in front of a towering megalopolis of amplifiers and video-screens, it’s something deeper – a despair that the commercialisation at the top of the game is now reaching further down the pyramid.
Whilst the pragmatists may point to the revenue raised from auctioning naming rights, for the romantics there is just something about the history involved in old football ground names, names which however uninspired (after all VT Sports ground wasn’t the most inspired) endured for generations and recalled previous uses, benefactors, characters and stories; Just like the Goldstone ground so named after the Goldstone which sat on Goldstone Farm – upon which the football ground would later be built;
The story is that, according to folklore, the Goldstone ended up in its original location after being thrown by the Devil when he was excavating nearby Devil’s Dyke to let in the sea through the South Downs drowning the population. Also once thought to be a sacred Druidic stone it was buried by a disgruntled farmer aggrieved at the tourists trampling his crops to get a closer look. Excavated in 1900 the Goldstone now resides in a park in Hove.
Brighton and Hove Albion currently play in the American Express Community Stadium.
The Amex, as it is known, is a brand-new 28 000 seater venue and no doubt Brighton fans, after various trials including sharing with Gillingham in Kent and spending years cramped in a barely adaquate council-owned sports ground, were delighted to set foot in it whatever the name.
But, as the protaganist in the book Life of Pi asks; “Which story do you prefer?”