The Don Valley Stadium: Memories Of A White Elephant

With the news that the stadium in which Jessica Ennis is about to be demolished, we looked back at Sheffield's love/hate relationship with the Don Valley Stadium - South Yorkshire's white elephant.
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With the news that the stadium in which Jessica Ennis is about to be demolished, we looked back at Sheffield's love/hate relationship with the Don Valley Stadium - South Yorkshire's white elephant.


The Don Valley Stadium has become national news for the first time in its history. After years of being ignored, the training base of national sweetheart Jess Ennis hit the headlines when Sheffield City Council announced that it was to be demolished as part of their plan to trim £50 million from their budget. Local people, who have spent the last quarter of a century complaining that the stadium is a costly folly and a symbol of town hall hubris, have been wheeled out to bemoan its passing on camera. This sudden emotional attachment to a previously unloved white elephant seemed a bit weird- but is oddly typical of the way South Yorkshire folk feel about the DVS. As well as athletics, a complete dud no matter what the Olympics mob tell you, everything has been tried to find a use for the arena. From gigs by the Stones and U2 to the desperate annual After Dark firework display, each idea has failed to make the venue sustainable. I share the same love/disdain relationship with the place. I like the concept and have some good memories of the Don Valley- but all of them remind me that it was doomed to failure from the start.

World Student Games Opening Ceremony - Summer 1991

Unversiade 91 was Sheffield City Council’s master plan. The games would make the Steel City famous around the globe and sport would kick start the regeneration of the post-industrial wasteland. Somehow, they overlooked a possible problem; nobody gave a toss about the student games. Failure to land a TV deal and a sponsor meant that the city had to underwrite the expenditure. In 2011, figures suggested that the cost to council taxpayers totalled £658 million and that annual repayments of £25 million would go on until 2024.

The Don Valley Stadium was the centrepiece and provided the only memorable moment of the games. Helen Sharman, local girl and Britain’s first astronaut, dropped the torch on the last leg. The red carpet smouldered and the Partridge-esque commentary compared the mishap to ‘nerve wracking moments in space’. Many expected the Univesiade to be a flop, but for it to descend into laughing stock status before it even officially started was below even the most pessimistic prediction.

The sad fact is, many more people remember the likes of Bobby Davro, Mr Gay UK and Tinhead out of Brookside competing at the DVS in the Channel 4 reality show The Games than in the games it was actually built for.

Sheffield Eagles 6  - 46 Wigan - 28 Aug 1993

A bumper crowd turned up for first Friday night Super League game- many attracted by the promise of a firework spectacular at the final whistle. Since being formed in the 80s, the Eagles had led a nomadic existence. They needed a home and the DVS needed a reason to be- seemingly a match made in heaven. I was among the horde of first timers who turned up that night. There is nothing more dismal than a one-sided rugby match and I was back in the pub long before the blue touch paper was lit.

It became obvious that there was no demand for Rugby League in South Yorkshire. Even when the Eagles pulled off their shock Challenge Cup win in 98, it barely registered in an otherwise sports mad city. After the original club was Murdoched out of existence, they returned – but only a few hundred hardy souls turn out to watch them.

Championship Boxing - 5 Dec 2007

The Coldwell Boxing show was the best event I attended at the DVS. Mo Khaled had all the moves but Josh Wale stuck his head on the Ingle fighter’s chest and pounded his way to the Central Area bantamweight title. On the same card, Curtis Woodhouse and Ryan Rhodes got rid of their opponents in brutal fashion. Top entertainment in a wholly unsuitable venue. A long thin hall with a low roof is far from ideal for boxing. The height of the room did not leave space for a lighting rig so the ring was positioned under a convenient strip light. Coldwell moved his shows over the border to Magna. Ryan Rhodes defended his EBU title at Ponds Forge- the city centre swimming complex built for the Universiade. Sheffield’s biggest fight nights, featuring Ricky Hatton and Clinton Woods in world title fights and the rise of hometown hero Kell Brook, have taken place at the nearby Sheffield Arena- another Student Games facility that, unlike the DVS, has been embraced by the people of the city.


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Rotherham United 0 - 0 Aldershot -  31 Oct 2009

Without the Don Valley Stadium, Rotherham United would have gone out of business. The Millers lucked out when they had to leave Millmoor- finding a 25,000 seat stadium desperate for a purpose four miles away. The location of the DVS has had a bearing on the lack of affection Sheffielders felt for it. In Attercliffe, it was on the opposite side of the city to the affluent southern suburbs that kick in the lion’s share of the council tax. In contrast, Rotherham folk are well disposed to the state of the art amenities that sprung up on their doorstep- costing them the grand total of fuck all.

In many ways, the ‘Cliffe is the ideal spot for a football ground; great transport links, plenty of budget boozers and food outlets and even a sprinkling of brothels for the more adventurous match goer. My first taste of league football there was a let-down. It takes a special level of boredom to make you think walking to Attercliffe to watch the Millers v Aldershot is an enticing option. The match was predictably dire- the setting even worse. The little things, like doors on every exit, reinforced the idea that this was not a place for football. Add in the major flaws; everyone sitting on one side, athletics track, awful pitch and less atmosphere than Pluto and you had a truly appalling match day experience.  Thankfully, United were able to use the breathing space to get their house in order and moved on to the New York Stadium. In an odd twist, their old home has escaped the wrecking ball and is virtually untouched since the day they left in 2008. The ghost football ground Millmoor, with its ancient 124 ft floodlight pylons looking down on deserted cowshed architecture, still stands and will outlive the DVS.

Olympic Heptathlon - Aug 4 2012

For months, there had been posters all round town and a blitz in the local media- come and celebrate Sheffield’s golden girl in her home stadium. Enjoy a day of family fun and join the crowd in front of the big screen to cheer our Jess on to victory. It was far more enjoyable than I expected- pretty much a parent’s dream. Imagine turning up at an enclosed space where your kids can run about and take part in loads of activities. Even better, the low turnout meant that the kids didn’t have to queue up for anything and the adults didn’t have to wait at the bar. After a few hours of getting pleasantly pissed in the sunshine, it was decision time- stick around for the main event or get off. As the numbers had dropped off to a level that it would be a stretch to call those remaining a crowd, we decided the atmosphere would probably be better in our front room. The TV coverage of the event consisted of tight close ups while a voice over unconvincingly recounted scenes of mass hysteria when the tape was broken at the climax of the 800 metres. Maybe this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. If the people of Sheffield could not be arsed to turn up at the DVS for a free event built around the triumph of a Sheffield lass at the time of peak Olympic fever- would anything ever tempt them?

Tour de France Route Announcement: 17 Jan 2013

Across Yorkshire, people were anxious to see whether the 2014 race would be coming to their town. The route announcement answered all the questions- except one. Stage two would end in Sheffield, but nobody was sure exactly where. The peloton will sweep into the city via Hillsborough then pass through the city centre. After that, the exact finishing point was not clear, although it was definitely somewhere in the East End. Soon afterwards, a reporter at the launch told Radio Sheffield what everyone in South Yorkshire had already guessed. It was his understanding that the original proposal had been for the stage to end at the Don Valley. As the council were assessing the future of the stadium and there was every chance it would be rubble by 2014- the details of the finish were under review. The final irony. Sheffield City Council built the Don Valley Stadium to showcase the city to the world through sport. Unfortunately, the event they secured was one that the world didn’t care about. Now, the city was hosting a premium sporting event that would attract millions of viewers and the concrete and steel expression of Sheffield’s hopes and dreams that was due to star in it would have been flattened and trampled underfoot before it arrived.

Farewell Don Valley. A brave dream that became a monument to failure.