A Historic Soccer Stadium Is at Risk of Being Abandoned

It doesn’t take long in conversation with Tom Cartledge, the Nottingham Forest chairman, to realise that the dispute threatening the future of the City Ground has accelerated the possibilities of a stadium move.

“The club continue to be frustrated,” Cartledge tells The Athletic in relation to Forest’s standoff with Nottingham City Council, which owns the land where the team play. “Neither the leader of the council, the CEO nor any of the commissioners appointed by central government have reached out to the club.

“Nobody is knocking on the door. Nobody is trying to start the relationship again and say, ‘How do we find a way?’. And in the meantime, other councils and landowners are providing opportunities that we have to consider.”

It is three months since Cartledge spoke to The Athletic about his “masterplan” to upgrade the City Ground into a 40,000-capacity stadium with two new stands bankrolled by the club’s Greek owner, Evangelos Marinakis.

Cartledge showed off the designs. He talked about wanting to create something special and long-lasting at the riverside setting that has been the club’s home for 125 years.

Yet he also accompanied it with a stark warning that the whole project might have to be reconsidered if Forest could not agree terms over a new lease with the council — and that, in a nutshell, is exactly what has happened. Nothing is moving, attitudes have hardened and, as it stands, the entire negotiation is going nowhere fast.

What does all this mean for a stadium regarded as one of the gems of English football?

Well, for starters, the impasse has led to a rethink from Marinakis when it comes to the “corner boxes” of executive suites that were meant to go either side of the Trent End before the end of the season. Work started in February to prepare the ground, including bringing down one of the floodlights and replacing it in a new position.

An artist’s impression of the proposed new ‘corner boxes’ at the City Ground (Nottingham Forest and Benoy)

That, however, has been put on hold. The development would cost up to £7million ($8.7m) and Forest, according to Cartledge, want more clarity from the council “before we spend significant money on capital projects”.

On a wider level, however, Forest’s ongoing dispute with their landlord has left the club contemplating what could, in theory, be one of the most seismic and important decisions in their history.

When Cartledge uses the word “opportunities” he is talking about possible sites where Forest can explore a Plan B — putting up a 50,000-capacity stadium in another part of the city. One area that has been discussed is Toton, six miles south west of the city centre.

The Athletic has been to see the relevant site, earmarked originally for the now-abandoned HS2 railway project. It is land owned by Nottinghamshire County Council. In the coming weeks and months, we can expect more and more discussion about the pros and cons of staying at the City Ground or building something new elsewhere.

“That (Toton) is one of several potential spots,” says Cartledge. “It’s not as easy as to say, ‘Here’s a piece of land, go and build a stadium’. There are highways, transport and connectivity issues. But it’s fair to say we are progressing due diligence on different sites.”

Through the estate, past the Toton Fish Bar, a hairdresser’s called Flicks and some typical Nottingham suburbia, you will eventually come to a mini-roundabout on Epsom Road where you can hear the hum of industry from the railway sidings on the other side of the trees.

The River Erewash is nearby, running along the county border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. There is a Tesco supermarket on the other side of Stapleford Lane, a tram stop and a garden centre, Bardills, that has its own history with the city’s major football club.

In 1898, when Forest moved to the City Ground, the nurseryman and landscape gardener William Bardill was on their committee. Bardill was put in charge of the playing surface and is credited in the club’s official history book for creating a pitch “that was soon recognised as one of the best, even the finest, in the country”.

Today, Bardills looks out on the stretch of dual-carriageway that is named after Brian Clough, Forest’s two-time European Cup-winning manager, and leads all the way from Nottingham to Derby.

And, yes, it feels strange — very strange, indeed — to look down at Toton Sidings from the grassy embankment off Banks Road and try to imagine what it would be like with a gleaming new stadium dominating the skyline and a different set of match-day routines.

“All mist rolling in from the Erewash…”

OK, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. For now, it is only an idea. That idea is in its embryonic stages and, before anything, Forest are acutely aware they need to undertake a long period of consultation with fans, understanding the sensitivities and why many supporters might find it unsettling.

These are always emotive subjects. Some fans might be receptive to a move, others will hate the idea.

Toton sidings, one possible stadium site being considered by Forest (Rui Vieira/PA Images via Getty Images)

Cartledge, in particular, is aware of local feeling, given that he grew up in Nottinghamshire and has been going to matches at the City Ground since the early 1980s. It is all he has ever known and if you want to know why the former manager, Steve Cooper, used to say it “oozed football soul”, there is a 4,000-word love letter here courtesy of one of its biggest admirers.

Critically, though, the issues with the council come at a time when Forest — deducted four points this season for breaking the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules — feel the only realistic way to challenge the elite teams is to generate more revenue.

Uppermost in Forest’s mind is finding a way to do this on non-matchdays — something that has been missing from their ground for many years — and accommodating the thousands of fans who cannot get tickets. Forest reckon they could have sold 50,000 for some games since their return to the top division.

Against that backdrop, Forest’s decision-makers are open about the fact they have to consider every option and, to quote Cartledge, there is “a discussion to be had about, ‘Yes, the City Ground is our home, but just imagine if we did something amazing.’”

On top of that, the club have been re-evaluating everything since negotiations fell through recently over a multi-million-pound deal to buy land off the eastbound A52 for a new training ground.



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Unreported until now, the deal is off because of what Cartledge describes as “a financial disparity between what we believe the land is worth and what the land-owners are asking”. And that is disappointing when Forest’s hierarchy had drawn up some exciting plans and fully expected it to go through in February. The club readily admit their training ground is not big enough.

So what next? Forest, it transpires, have already started looking elsewhere. The relevant people are wondering whether they should think more ambitiously and take their lead from Manchester City, the reigning Premier League champions.

“Because of the noise being created out of the disruption of whether we stay or go, we are getting quite a lot of interesting things put our way,” Cartledge explains.

“The terms on that (training ground) project are prohibiting us, but other things have come forward that have given us time to think. Where do we want to be? Where are those campuses where we can try to put all of this together in the way Manchester City have done?”

City are the only club in the Premier League who have a stadium and training ground on the same complex — and this is one of the ideas Forest think is worth exploring at a time when Marinakis has set aside a huge pot of money for development.

“Mr Marinakis is incredibly ambitious,” says Cartledge. “If we did something with those two things together — the training ground and the stadium — you do that only once. When it comes to these big decisions, he takes an enormous amount of pride and responsibility in getting it right.”

Another area of interest to Forest recently can be located on the other side of Meadow Lane, Notts County’s stadium, on a large expanse of industrial land where there is an incinerator plant and a waste-collection unit.

It is on the other side of the Nottingham Canal from the Hooters bar, a short walk from the city’s railway station.

One option for Forest is to leave the City Ground (foreground) for an area of industrial land (circled), next door to Notts County (David Goddard/Getty Images)

That idea has not progressed, however, because the land is permitted only for industrial use. The city council has indicated there is no scope for that to change. That, in turn, explains why Forest have been looking at the suburbs. At least four sites have been discussed, Toton in particular.

Those talks will continue even if Forest, 17th in the Premier League table, drop into the relegation places — but there have to be some awkward questions, too, about how the dispute with the council was ever allowed to reach this stage.

In 2019, Forest announced, via a blaze of publicity, that they had been granted a new 250-year lease. Nicholas Randall, then the chairman, said he was “delighted” to secure the future of the club’s home ground. Yet, for reasons unexplained, Randall did not follow that up by telling the club’s supporters the agreement was never, in fact, completed.

In reality, Forest have continued operating by the terms of their old lease, which has 33 years to run and, before starting a major redevelopment at huge expense, the club need the securities and insurance of a much longer agreement.

“The rent, if you add it up for the next 33 years, comes to about £9.5million,” says Cartledge, who replaced Randall as chairman in August. “The proposed rent the council wants us to pay over 250 years is more than £250m.

“So if we are talking openly about the Football Association’s desire for financial stability and the future of clubs to be secure, it is simply wrong for us to sign up and put this club in a position where we have to pay £250million in rent to stay here.”

Supporters of a certain generation might recall this is not the first time that relations between the club and landlord have been fractious because of their lease agreement.

In 1991, the council proposed Forest’s annual rent went up from £750, as agreed in 1963, to £150,000. In the end, the two sides compromised at £22,000. Clough threatened to quit if the council got its way with a proposal for Forest and Notts to share a ‘super stadium’ on the old Wilford power station.

This time, however, the issue is complicated by the Labour-run council issuing a Section 114 notice in November to declare itself, in effect, bankrupt, meaning the government has sent in commissioners to take control.

The council says it has “a statutory duty to ensure best value for taxpayers”. Forest, however, say it is exorbitant that the current rent is £250,000 and the council allegedly wants almost four times that amount.

Cartledge says he has not had a response to “a very strong letter” he has written to the council to argue that the proposed terms are unreasonable.

Evangelos Marinakis has grand plans for Forest (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Four local MPs — three Labour and one Conservative — have tried to apply pressure on Forest’s behalf but they have found out, Cartledge says, that “the council’s predicament is very challenging and it’s hard for politicians to become involved now the commissioners are running it”.

David Mellen, the council’s recently departed leader, has said Forest cannot expect “mates’ rates”. However, the club’s frustrations stem, in part, from the absence of any real dialogue to find a compromise.

“We had dialogues with some of the junior officers, but nobody senior came forward,” says Cartledge. “That’s important context for the fans to understand. We are not just sitting here in a black hole waiting and hoping. We are trying to be proactive.”

The Athletic contacted Nottingham City Council for comment.

One of the reasons Cartledge was appointed by Forest is that he is the chief executive of Handley House Group, the parent company for four international businesses specialising in design and architecture. One of those is the Nottinghamshire-based Benoy, which has designed the plans for a new-look City Ground and would also be prominently involved in any stadium move.

In the meantime, word has got back to Forest’s hierarchy that the Jockey Club, owners of Nottingham racecourse, had a lease dispute of its own with the council and it lasted seven years. So how long do the club wait when Marinakis is impatient, as well as ambitious, and many fans feel frustrated that not a brick has gone down since the initial stadium development was announced five years ago?

All that can really be said for certain is that safe-standing areas will be installed at the City Ground over the summer and the roof will be solar-panelled as part of a new agreement with E.ON to be the club’s sustainability partner.

“Across all of our projects – new ground, existing ground, training ground; whatever we pursue – the owner is absolutely adamant the club should start to look to a future whereby we have no carbon footprint,” says Cartledge.

“Regardless of whether we are staying or going, the owner feels it is important for the goodness and wellbeing of the world. He won’t let the council delays stop us from doing what is right.

“We will work together on solar panelling and other energy-saving initiatives. And, critically, if the progress on other sites and discussions about where we want to go mean it is right to move, E.ON will form part of the team, looking at how a new stadium could be built off-grid and carbon-neutral.”

(Top photo: Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images)

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