ALSD International Conference & Exhibition attendees closed their venue tour experiences of 2018 in style with a nautical adventure up the River Thames from Westminster to Putney. Pier to pier, the clipper excursion provided guests with scenic views of London and its universally recognized landmarks of grandeur.
Iconic double-decker red buses then transported attendees the last mile to Craven Cottage, which visually, is something less than Big Ben. At a glance, the home of Fulham Football Club sits nondescript among residences and local mercantile outlets in the west London neighborhood. But while lacking imposing physical presence, the stadium arrival wraps visitors in mystique, Craven Cottage a stranger in the night whispering stories of past heroics to passers-by, inviting them to come inside and learn her secrets.
“As you can imagine, we’re very proud of our history. We have to preserve what’s here and do the best that we can with our facilities.”
– Rob Paddon, Fulham FC
Craven Cottage has been Fulham FC’s home ground since 1896. And in that time, arguably no English club has identified with its stadium as much as Fulham. With elements like the Johnny Haynes Stand (the venue’s original stand, renamed to honor the legendary player), now a Grade II listed building (which means the club cannot renovate or really even touch it), Craven Cottage is as much historical landmark as it is football stadium.
The notable triangular gable drips nostalgia in the evening mist. The ghost of Johnny Haynes himself is felt walking the concourse in the same manner as Ted Williams’ phantom in Fenway Park.
Craven Cottage possesses a palpable soul, experienced at the tangible sight of original wood seating and also in those emotions supernatural beyond human senses.
But while loyalists celebrate obstructed views and players’ changing rooms are housed in an actual cottage on the grounds, Craven Cottage is not a decorative antique. It functions as a professional football venue befitting of modern Premiership standards with hospitality amenities like The Gin Bar and Seasons Wine Lounge. And as ALSD International attendees learned, more… much more… is on the way.
“As you can imagine, we’re very proud of our history,” says Rob Paddon, Fulham FC’s Head of Match Day Sales. “We have to preserve what’s here and do the best that we can with our facilities.”
Club owner Shahid Khan, who also owns the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, purchased Fulham FC in 2013, the same season that the club was relegated to the Championship division of English football, a downgrade that brings significant commercial challenges with it.
But rather than do what many clubs do and cut back investment substantially, Khan continued plans to grow the club and its stadium. Meanwhile, Fulham Football Club was promoted back to the Premier League this season.
Khan’s vision for growth includes a complete overhaul of Craven Cottage’s Riverside Stand, the only side of the facility that Fulham is permitted to touch. A new multi-level stand, complete with corporate hospitality and event spaces, will increase the stadium’s capacity to approximately 30,000 while boosting match-day revenues along with it.
But there is one obvious problem with renovating the Riverside Stand. As its name indicates, it stands nearly flush with the shore of the River Thames. To overcome the geographic barrier, Fulham has done something seemingly impossible.
“We have bought five meters of the river, which I didn’t know you could do until we did it,” Paddon says.
“It’s not just a football stand. We’re building a community hub.”
– Rob Paddon, Fulham FC
Expanding the building perimeter into the existing river allows the Thames Path (a public trail that follows the River Thames across London) to run unobstructed through the reimagined Riverside Stand, the current version of which blocks the Thames Path.
This new riverside walk will be a catalyst for mixed-use development, meant to engage neighborhood residents and Fulham fans alike, and not just on match days.
“What we’re doing here is creating a leisure destination that’s open every single day of the year,” Paddon said. “It’s not just a football stand. We’re building a community hub.”
The proposed riverside development will soon bring many amenities that will act as connective tissue between the river, the stadium, and the neighbourhood at large.
Juxtaposed with modern sports cathedrals like Emirates Stadium and the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Craven Cottage stands out for its charm, but also its challenges. Despite competing at a commercial disadvantage to its London rivals, its fan base is no less feverish, no less madly in love with their 140-year-old club, as well as unapologetically with the place they call home and their bloodlines have called home for more than a century.
The Riverside Stand redevelopment helps balance commercial competitiveness while preserving past legacies for the next century to come.