Andy Burnham has proclaimed he's certain that Everton's new stadium will be the most iconic ground in English football.
The structure of Everton's 52,888 capacity future home at Bramley-Moore Dock, scheduled to open in the 2024/25 season has already become part of Liverpool's world-famous riverfront skyline, taking its place alongside the likes of the Three Graces and the city's two cathedrals. Mayor of Greater Manchester Mr Burnham, a lifelong Evertonian, believes after over a quarter of a century of failed projects to relocate from Goodison Park, the long wait will be worth it for fellow Blues supporters.
Speaking after officially opening Everton in the Community's The People's Place, the first-purpose-built mental health and wellbeing hub attached to a Premier League football club, he told the ECHO: "It's hard on every level going the game right now. Without getting into all the details, my dad is getting on a little now and at times when you look around Goodison you realise we're in the final stages of this.
"In some ways it's life isn't it? Things come to an end and renewal is necessary.
"Goodison is, if we're honest, at the end of its life in terms of being a football facility. I remember the pride we had growing up as Evertonian kids over Everton being the first this and the first that and Goodison is part of us and part of who we've been.
"Sometimes you have to accept that an era ends and another one starts but it does make it hard when you're going to the match, every time you go you're getting closer to that wrench of leaving.
"I think we all accept now we've got to leave for the club to move forward in the future but it wouldn't be right if Everton didn't leave in the right way. The People's Place, alongside the other facilities here on the campus, is doing things in the right way."
Goodison Park, as the first purpose-built football ground in England in 1892, was one of those 'firsts' that Burnham references but while watching games at 'The Grand Old Lady' has been, like for many generations of Evertonians, a way of life for the 53-year-old, he speaks with great excitement and anticipation on the prospect of the club relocating to a modern stadium on the waterfront. He said: "It will be the most iconic ground in English football. I'm absolutely certain about that.
"I've been down and had a look. It will be the most talked-about ground, I'm certain.
"At Everton we were first with so many things but sometimes when you're first you get trapped with the old infrastructure so Goodison became outdated but by going last with a new stadium I think we've looked at all the other ones that haven't worked brilliantly. Because we're going last to a new stadium, whereas everyone more or less everybody else has pretty much gone before us, and I think the way this ground has been designed with that dominant home end with an intimidating location right on the banks of the royal blue Mersey, I think we will actually benefit from coming last to a new stadium.
"I think the early ones lack atmosphere because they're not built as tight. In some ways it's like life coming full circle for me as we were first with Goodison but we're now coming through this period and will get the benefits of a modern ground that will be the most iconic and superior ground in English football going forward."
As a passionate advocate of mental health causes, Burnham was back in his home city to unveil the plaque that marked the opening of The People's Place, which became a reality thanks to the generosity of fellow Evertonian Phil Brown. But the Labour and Co-operative Party politician believes it should prove an inspiration for other football clubs to hopefully follow suit. He said: "This really should be the start because I think we've got to rethink the way we talk about mental health and the way we support people with their everyday mental health. I guess when we were growing up it was an issue that we didn't talk about and if we did it was about people who would be shut away in institutions but life won't allow that anymore because life is challenging for everybody, there's pressure on everybody and everyone is living more insecure lives so mental health is the health issue of our times.
"What I've found as Mayor of Greater Manchester is you can't just leave people on waiting lists for mental health support or just on anti-depressants, something different is needed and the something different is places in communities where people can come together - particularly people who have been through similar experiences - support each other and talk it through and I think that's what The People's Place will be long into the future."
It was also highlighted at the opening how mental health issues are not bound by team colours and despite being in the shadow of Goodison Park, The People's Place is for all the community, regardless of their football affiliation or lack of one, and Burnham believes the same goes for the North West's neighbouring city regions with Liverpool and Greater Manchester having much in common in this respect. He said: "I speak to Steve (Rotheram, Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region) a lot and we both see the similarities and the challenges that the two city regions face. We went to a place up in Bootle called Sean's Place which is a very much community-based facility doing a similar thing as a space for people to come.
"These are people who might find it hard to open up in front of their families or speak to someone at work so you need a place where people can speak with others in a similar position. I feel that's a growing need and Steve and I as mayors have got to support the development of places like this for communities."
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