Stadium plans hit council snags
AMBITIOUS plans by England’s domestic champions to build a hockey-specific stadium in Wimbledon Park will fall through unless Merton Council “gets it act together”, according to local MP Stephen Hammond.
Dubbed ‘Pitch in the Park’, Wimbledon HC hope to move into a new home before 2020 – but their bold vision is being held up by consultations.
Wimbledon Park, in south west London, consists of 27 hectares of green space, a lake and sporting facilities including an athletics track, seen as an ideal home for one of England’s leading club sides, who have been seeking a permanent venue since 2013.
Merton’s regeneration options range from a new state of the art stadium, to one where the existing athletics stadium and grandstand would disappear, leaving a running track for general use by Hercules Athletics Club.
“Merton Council need to abandon their plans and get back into talks about what is realistic,” Hammond told The Hockey Paper. “A good idea would be to get the hockey and athletics club and the Friends of Wimbledon Park working together on a stadium scheme.”
Ideas mooted include an all-weather, sunken pitch in the middle of the track, with regeneration of both the grandstand and clubhouse and wheeled seating stands for major matches.
Wimbledon’s proposals are seen as an ideal fit in England Hockey’s bid to entice broadcasters to showcase live domestic hockey after the 2018 World Cup in London.
“The vision in the park would be fantastic and the hockey club are pursuing all options in the borough if the council aren’t being helpful,” added Hammond.
Wimbledon currently play home matches at King’s College School and Ben Marsden, the club’s director of hockey, said: “The Pitch in the Park is a plan that has legs. The issue is how long it will take to come to fruition.”
Hammond, who plays vets hockey at Wimbledon, regarded it as “extraordinary” that Merton Council had not properly engaged with the club and its ideas.
“Wimbledon have been the champions over the last couple of years,” he said. “This would be good for the local area, would be used by schools and a big boost to London hockey in that it could became a centre of excellence. My understanding is that Wandsworth Council are keen to see this development. We need to push Merton Council to the same place.”
Nick Draper, Merton Council cabinet member for community and culture, said: “Wimbledon Park is a glorious park which we are committed to protecting for future generations. Responses to the consultation we held in the summer show most people preferred to keep the park close to what it is at the moment.”
In essence, this means that the athletics stadium would stay where it is – a key criteria in Wimbledon’s proposals taking shape.
PICTURE the scene: it’s 2020 and the final throes of an Indian summer. Wimbledon are hosting the first domestic Super Hockey weekend of the season. Television cameras are here, broadcasting live games featuring top clubs across the men’s and women’s Premier Division.
The club’s sponsors are doing brisk trade. There’s the braai sizzle and smoke from locally-based Savanna, the growing South African food and drink chain, while queues form outside the STX tent. Likeminded hockey fans mingle.
Further, new converts have walked into Wimbledon Park from across Wandsworth, where plenty of sport lovers from South Africa and Australia reside. So much so, that the sold out signs have gone up outside the stadium dubbed ‘Pitch in the Park’.
Now, let’s rewind three years to the present day where the English champions are seeking the fizz of a Gonzalo Peillat penalty corner strike to kick start the blueprint into life.
Their vision falls into line with England Hockey’s consultation with the top flight clubs over what the domestic league might look like when the FIH events portfolio begins from the 2018/2019 season.
Here, each country will have five to six months of regular home and away matches every year, rather than the current norm of top nations playing two-week tournaments.
England Hockey’s chief executive Sally Munday says that that this will “fundamentally change the sport long term”. Domestically, it hopes to have a competitive structure in place that will enable clubs to provide facilities which will, in turn, encourage spectators to watch. Only then will broadcasters take interest.
The current problem, of course, is that many are community-based clubs aren’t set up to host, say, 2,000 spectators.
However, England Hockey research also suggests that members want the fan experience, hence the rising activities at Lee Valley during international matches.
Getting clubs up to this standard in three years will be a tall order. But Wimbledon are already three years in the making thanks to their ' Pitch in the Park' plans at the 27-hectare Wimbledon Park, a heritage space designed by Capability Brown.
If the green light is given, it would also mean a welcome exit from their current home at King’s College School. It’s been slow progress since a consultation meeting was held at the Wimbledon Club in March concerning a proposal to install an all-weather hockey pitch in the park’s athletics stadium where well-established local club Hercules train.
Wimbledon’s vision – together with the Friends of Wimbledon Park who have developed a broader approach as to how investment would be best suited – forms part of Merton Council's multi-option masterplan proposals for the park.
From a sporting point of view, the council’s multi-million pound options range from a modernised and regenerated stadium to a demolished grandstand and clubhouse, with just the use of a running track. Clearly this is not in Wimbledon’s vision statement.
The club, however, has the backing of two local MPs, Stephen Hammond and Justine Greening, as they bid to entice Merton Council into a retraction of their ideas and enter into proper discussions over the stadium’s future, rather than the “vanity project” they believe some of the proposals to be.
At present, Hercules are unable to host athletics’ events, while Wimbledon wants to inject both management and funding into the site to do so.
As the track is on the outside of the pitch, Wimbledon’s plans are on a similar keel to West Ham’s move to the Olympic Stadium, only on a smaller scale and, hopefully, without the politics. Wimbledon would have to be inventive if they were to host top-level events, with the possibility of a sunken pitch and temporary seating wheeled into place for ticketed matches.
There are, though, potential hurdles with the club’s joint venture. Firstly, throwing events would not be able to take place infield. Wimbledon plans to incorporate them but in a different part of the stadium, boosting it at one end and giving off an amphitheatre feel, while other internal issues to overcome with the running club include midweek training. With both sports taking place, it would require some level of high safety netting.
The other stumbling block comes in the form of the positioning of the stadium, which splits directly across Merton and Wandsworth council lines, Labour and Conservative-led boroughs respectively. “Marrying those in terms of planning is difficult and making sure it gets the backing from the community,” says Ben Marsden, Wimbledon’s director of hockey.
“But our vision is to bring hockey back to the Wimbledon Park area. For us the brand name of Wimbledon [the vicinity includes the All England club] carries weight. To be able to build a state-of-the-art hockey stadium in the area could be very exciting for the future of the sport.”
As champions, together with a business-orientated outlook, Wimbledon are in a unique position compared to other London clubs. At a clubs’ forum last week, Marsden heard how finding space for hockey was becoming increasingly harder due to the demand for housing.
“Demand for hockey is not the issue,” he adds. “Every London club is turning people away, particularly at junior level. The issue is where they are going to play. It’s number one on every list, at every meeting.
“Hardly any London clubs can run Back to Hockey programmes, hardly any can run Quicksticks programmes. We’re desperate to try and pursue the next project and want to run additional performance programmes. We have the structure, demands and the energy to do it – we just don’t have the facility to do it”.
The Pitch in the Park would of course change all that. However the current trend of local councils reacting negatively when it comes to sport and space are holding up plans. There is hope, with Merton admitting this week that most residents prefer the park to remain untouched. It means that the stadium will not be uprooted.
Meanwhile, Marsden remains passionate in the wider picture as the club awaits a council decision. “I would be really in favour of England Hockey supporting not just Wimbledon, but the London clubs to help us and find some flagship facilities,” he says.
“One of the big pillars EH has tried to achieve is participation. We have a unique period of time now where we have to harvest that interest in the sport. For me it comes down to facilities and we need that to cater for the increase in the sport.”
The sport certainly has to weather that issue before any Indian summer on television.
We have the structure, demands and the energy to push forward – we just don’t have the facility
Support: Stephen Hammond MP
We’ve big plans: Wimbledon Hockey Club is at the centre of the stadium proposals