Sneaking into a deserted stadium can be a magical experience. Those empty stands overlooking the pristine grass, and not a soul to disturb the memories of past footballing glories. But attending a virtually deserted stadium to watch a game is a different issue. Whether on Tyneside or in Armenia, fewer things can drain an occasion of atmosphere faster than vast banks of empty seats.
Such is the problem facing Queen’s Park. Scotland’s oldest club, with a proud history that far outranks its current status as League Two also-rans, the Spiders have seen their Hampden home outgrow their needs. While there’s a charming paradox that the lowliest clubs in the national championship get to play at Scotland’s national stadium, it takes something special to elevate that experience in the face of colossal apathy from the Glasgow public. Saturday’s crowd of 734 was a good one, the best in the division, swelled by a £5-per-ticket offer that offset the sleety approaches of Storm Jorge, but it’s hard to create a sense of occasion with 50,000 empty seats surrounding you.
Queen’s Park, of course, oozes history. The oldest club in Scotland, the oldest outside of England and Wales, it’s always been a pioneer. The only team to play in FA Cup finals north and south of the border, and still third on the all-time list of Scottish Cup winners despite not lifting the old pot since 1893. On the field, the Spiders transformed the way football was played. After decades of teams relying on one man dribbling up field and hoping his mates would bail him out when the defence got to him, Queen’s Park hit on the idea of ‘combination’ play – the simple yet devastating tactic of passing to team-mates and avoiding the opposition altogether.
However, that history was also its downfall. Proudly amateur – the club only agreed to start paying players as recently as last November – it’s stylistic transformation of the game was instrumental in the rise of professional football. Other clubs in Scotland followed suit and these so-called ‘professors’ were attracted south to the pro teams of northern England. Once money began to change hands, Queen’s Park was left behind; a victim of the success it had enjoyed and inspired.
For a time, Hampden was an asset. The biggest football stadium in the world, in a city that boasted the top three arenas by capacity until the Maracana came along, it provided an alternative revenue stream through cup finals and internationals. But times change. Vast bowls of uncovered terracing don’t cut it anymore. Old timers might lament the rise of the snowflake, but it’s hardly surprising that modern day audiences demand a bit more than a small square of concrete exposed to the worst of the Glasgow weather. Hampden in the Sun might have been a bit of Paradise relocated to the South
side; Hampden in weather like this visit made dreich seem like a summer holiday.
As the costs of running and maintaining the stadium increased to unsustainable levels, the deal was done. Hampden Park, the National Stadium, would go to the Scottish FA. Queen’s Park will upgrade Lesser Hampden, an adjacent playing field and pavilion, to meet SPFL standards and, in time, will move to a purpose-built new home with a more modest capacity of around 2,000.
Lesser Hampden has been used before. In the 1998/99 season, when Hampden was undergoing a transformation into its current, less than universally popular state, the Spiders moved next door. It was primitive, with the old farmhouse and a handful of uncovered seats for the die-hards. The manager at the time was philosophical about the temporary move, suggesting that the team might benefit as opponents would not be inspired by treading the hallowed Hampden turf. Two decades later the move is about to become permanent – and it feels like the right path for the club. Saturday’s crowd of 700 would be a lively gathering across the road; in Hampden proper it was telling that the biggest noise came from the well-lubricated crowd in the corporate boxes rather than the shivering crew in the cheap seats.
Smaller ground, better atmosphere … and maybe better football. The team’s fortunes have improved sharply since going semi-pro. Saturday’s 2-0 win over Annan Athletic may have owed more to effort than quality, but it made it 13 points from a possible 18 in February as a playoff place starts to look likely. Moreover, for the first time in five years, Queen’s Park managed to beat Annan. Ludere causa ludendi – to play for the sake of playing – is changing. But, in this instance, change need not be a cause for fear.
Hampden Park, Glasgow, Scotland
Scottish League 2, Feb. 29, 2020
Queen’s Park 2 (MacLean, Kouder-Aissa) Annan Athletic 0