“About Villa Park itself hung an aura that seems almost to be visible. Most certainly it is there to be felt and I know of no other ground that has the same effect on one. Almost it seems to be peopled by ghosts – amiable ghosts whose job it is to breathe the great Villa spirit into generation after generation of ambitious youngsters who pass through the great gates to achieve a life's ambition; to wear the famous claret and blue of the great club”
Billy Walker – Soccer in the Blood
Aston Villa moved to Villa Park in 1897 from their previous ground in nearby Perry Barr. After spending the first two years of their formation playing at Aston Park, the Villans moved to Perry Barr in 1876 and some 21 years later they headed back to Aston. At the time this ground was known as Aston Lower Grounds, but is now referred to as Villa Park. The new ground opened in 1897 at cost of £16,400 and it was situated on the former grounds of a Jacobean stately home, Aston Hall. Previously, the site had been used as a Victorian amusement park, as well as a fishpond and kitchen garden belonging to the owner of Aston Hall, Sir Thomas Holte (whom the South stand is named after).
The first game to be played at Villa Park was a friendly match against Blackburn Rovers, one week before the club completed a league and cup double. Initially the pitch was surrounded by a large concrete cycle track and a running track and up to 40,000 could be accommodated inside the ground, many of whom stood in the open.
In 1911 the club purchased the land on which the initial ground was situated, as well as the land that has become the club offices and car park for a total cost of around £10,000, or £12,000 if you include the carriage drive and a bowling green (which remained until 1966). This was all part of an ambitious plan to raise the capacity of Villa Park to an incredible 120,000 by director Frederick Rinder.
Due to the First World War, Rinder’s plans had to be scaled back; Archibald Leitch was approached to help develop actual plans for expanding the ground. Leitch’s plans incorporated original byzantine Victorian buildings from the Aston Lower Grounds which were converted into sumptuous offices and a gymnasium. It was during 1914 that the stadium started to move towards what we now regard as being a traditional football stadium, losing its almost continental feel. The running track was sacrificed to make way for the new Trinity Road stand and, because the running track was removed, the ends of the ground were squared off bringing spectators much closer to the action. The famous Holte End, which originally had a capacity of 20,000 before it was demolished in 1994, was not completed until the 1940s. An equally vast stand was planned for the Witton End but never materialised.
When it was completed in 1922, the Trinity Road Stand was considered to be one of the grandest in Britain; complete with stained glass windows, Italian mosaics and a sweeping staircase. Several commentators including Simon Inglis consider it to be Leitch's masterpiece. It was described as the ‘St Pancras of football’ by a Sunday Times reporter in 1960.
Towards the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s the ground underwent a period of modernaisation. Floodlights were installed in 1958, a roof was added to the Holte End, whilst old the rounded roof on the Witton Road stand was replaced with a plain sloping roof. The 1966 World Cup saw FIFA choose Villa Park to host three matches, but Villa would have to make further improvements to the ground first. Under the conditions, the Witton Road stand became an all-seater, the players’ tunnel had to be covered by a cage and the pitch needed to be widened by 3 yards.
The club was forced into debt after the construction of what was, at the time, a very impressive north stand. The cost of completion caused scandal after it became apparent £725,000 of the money spent was unaccounted for.
In the 1993/94 season the name of the newly rebuilt Witton Lane stand was changed to the Doug Ellis stand. This change caused some dismay amongst supporters, and many still refer to the stand as the Witton Lane to this day, refusing to accept this change. The ground finally became an all-seater during the 1994/95 season with the redevelopment of the Holte End making it the last stand to conform to the Taylor Report. Upon its completion it was claimed to be the largest end stand in Europe, able to hold over 13,000 home fans.
The current capacity of Villa Park stands at 42,640 and was reached with the demolition of the old Trinity Road Stand which was replaced a much larger and modern structure. In November 2001, the new stand was opened by the Prince of Wales, just as the old stand had been opened by his grandfather George VI, 77 years earlier.
Looking to the future there is potential to expand the ground further, which is something that current Chairman Randy Learner is keen to pursue. Planning permission is in place to redevelop the North Stand which is starting to show signs of aging and, whilst no timeframes have been set on implementing these plans, the club is entitled to received funding as the 2012 Olimpic Committee has chosen Villa Park as an Olympic Venue.
Full Name: Villa Park
Cost: £25m (£16,000 at the time)