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Friday 23rd December 2005

Lesser Hampden - Living in the Shadow

by Stephen Halliday

If Hampden is the home of Scottish football, then Lesser Hampden is its much-loved but long neglected shed at the bottom of the garden. It is a venue most Scottish football supporters have seen, yet only a few have attended. Nestled between a row of houses and the rear of Hampden's West Stand lies a unique and historic ground which is 80 this year but has precious few reasons to celebrate.

In the year that the Old Lady of Mount Florida's successful facelift received further recognition with the award of the 2007 UEFA Cup Final, what of her threadbare little sister just a few yards away? While the National Stadium is now resplendent in its five-star status as one of Europe's leading stadia, Lesser Hampden is in limbo as the forgotten victim of the financial difficulties which almost stopped the redevelopment of the home of Scottish football in its tracks.

In the original plans for the Hampden project, Lesser Hampden was to be converted into a national coaching and educational centre for youth football, with its existing grass pitch upgraded alongside the installation of an indoor leisure facility including synthetic pitches. It was known as Phase 3 of the Hampden redevelopment, Phase 1 having seen the National Stadium's North and East Stands built at a cost of £12million in 1993, before the troubled Phase 2 was carried out between 1996 and 1999 with the South and West Stands completed for £59million.

Work was envisaged to start in 2000 on the £7.5million Lesser Hampden regeneration but had to be placed on hold with no more money in the pot. It now appears unlikely it will ever happen.

"We are still chapping on doors, trying to secure the funding needed, but we have been singularly unsuccessful so far," says Alistair MacKay, Secretary of Queen's Park, who own Lesser Hampden and whose offices are located in the glorified temporary cabin at the Somerville Drive end of the ground.

"We would still like to go ahead with the original plans for Lesser Hampden and believe they are as appropriate as ever with the impetus that currently exists to try and push forward the cause of grass roots football in the country."

The prospects of the project getting off the ground, however, appear to be seriously threatened by the SFA's plans, in conjunction with the Scottish Executive, to build a football academy as part of their much trumpeted Action Plan for Youth on the ash park playing fields at Toryglen, less than half a mile away from Hampden.

For Lesser Hampden, a venue with a fascinating and often bizarre history, troubled times are nothing new. In 1923, as they searched for a subsidiary facility, Queen's Park purchased the site where Clincart Farm was located immediately to the west of Hampden. Lesser Hampden was opened two years later, boasting a 12,000 capacity, to be used by the various teams then run by Queen's Park outwith their first XI.

In order to save money, Queen's Park decided to retain the old farmhouse building, which dated back to the early 19th century, as the ground's pavilion and dressing room. The front wall of the upper floor was removed, with windows and an overhanging roof installed. It remains, almost unchanged, to this day and is believed to be the oldest football building in the world.

During the Second World War, the Government commandeered Lesser Hampden with the pavilion used as a headquarters for the Home Guard. Happily for Queen's Park, a further plan to plough over the pitch to restore the agricultural facilities of the land to aid anticipated food shortages never came to fruition and they were able to reclaim Lesser Hampden in 1945, when their local Captain Mainwaring and Private Pikes departed.

When the future of Hampden itself came under its greatest threat in 1980, the Government reneging on a promise of £5.5million to redevelop the then badly ageing stadium, Queen's Park were facing the prospect of closing it down and relocating permanently to Lesser Hampden. That scenario was avoided, but Lesser Hampden has played host to Scottish League football when the amateurs were given special dispensation to play their home matches there during the National Stadium's redevelopment.

It is still regularly used by the romantically named Strollers, Queen's Park's reserve team, as well as their Under-19 and Under-17 sides, while Head Coach, Billy Stark's, first team train there. When the Scottish Claymores were in residence at Hampden, Lesser Hampden became the stage for their pre-match backfield parties featuring bands such as the Cosmic Rough Riders.

It was when UEFA decided to use the facility for their tented village at the Champions League Final in 2002 that Lesser Hampden encountered its most recent drama. While lowering the banking on two sides of the ground, traces of contaminated earth were discovered. It was identified by environmental experts as chromium, the legacy of an old metal works situated in nearby Rutherglen, and immediately removed at a cost of around £40,000.

Queen's Park are still the legal owners of Hampden, which is on a 20-year lease to the SFA with the option of a further 20 years. The stadium that their predecessors had the vision to build more than a century ago is now revitalised as a thriving national icon Scotland can be proud of but it seems wasteful that an ancillary facility with the obvious potential of Lesser Hampden remains in the doldrums.

Occasionally used by the Scotland Under-21 side for training, Queen's Park are still hopeful however, of ensuring a viable future for Lesser Hampden.

"We are ever hopeful," says MacKay. "Something might come our way, for example, if Glasgow's bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games is successful."

Until something does come along, the old farmhouse on Letherby Drive will remain in the shadow of its resplendent neighbour, its future as uncertain as the National Stadium's is secure.


(The Scotsman)