Arctic Monkeys, the band of their generation, are returning to Middlesbrough for the first time since before they hit superstardom. We go inside the huge operation to bring them to the Riverside Stadium
Picture the scene.
It’s June 5: the sun (hopefully) is just setting behind the north stand as Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner waves to the crowd, preparing to croon his first line.
There’s a huge swell of noise as 32,000 ecstatic fans inside the Riverside Stadium stare up in anticipation at a huge stage, which has taken dozens of people a week to erect.
The audience have been looking forward to the moment for weeks, even months – but for those at Middlesbrough Football Club, the planning started a long time before that.
In fact, it was the day after the last time an international rock band, The Killers, played at its stadium last June.
Star names kept under wraps
Sitting in the media suite at the Riverside – normally reserved for manager Michael Carrick’s weekly press conferences – MFC’s Project Officer Gary Stephenson takes We are Middlesbrough behind the scenes with the team working hard to put on the massive event.
He remembers the time, in early June 2022, when plans started being made to welcome the Sheffield superstars to Middlesbrough.
“The thing is, we didn’t know it would be the Arctic Monkeys then,” said Gary.
“The best time to learn from a big event is straight after it. So, when The Killers was over, we started planning for the next one. We just didn’t know what it would be.”
Of course, there was a small group of people who knew that Arctic Monkeys were destined for Middlesbrough – promoters SJM and a few key members of club staff – but the lid is kept intentionally tight on news like that.
“It is a bit strange – I’m planning on holding a major event at the stadium and I had no idea who it was until the day before it’s announced to the public in September.
“It obviously doesn’t change the way you prepare too much, but it’s the same now.
“We’re really hopeful for another big announcement in 2024, but I can’t give you an exclusive!”
Gary admits he’s not the target market for the Arctic Monkeys – ELO, Dire Straits or Queen would’ve been a bigger deal for him – but remembers the buzz in the office as the band were confirmed to staff.
“Even though they’re not my era, I could tell how big it was for Middlesbrough to be able to attract bands like Arctic Monkeys and The Killers,” he said.
“We’re very, very proud that we can bring these events to Middlesbrough.”
A whole different ball game
The Riverside Stadium of course hosts tens of thousands of football fans every other week – so any lessons are learned and applied immediately.
But big concerts come round once a year.
“Because of Covid, we had a three-year gap between hosting Take That – the first concert we’d held at the Riverside – and The Killers, so any learning didn’t really immediately flow through to the second event,” continued Gary.
“Last year, for example, we had a small issue with payments. People pay with card a lot – it seems to be as a result of the pandemic – and as a stadium, we were more used to people paying with cash.
“We had about a 20-minute spell where the WiFi dipped out and payments couldn’t process. That obviously created queues and a bit of a headache for us. But this year, we’ve got secure WiFi which is just for the vendors to process payments – so we know that will be a lot quicker this year.”
Plans have been in place for months but have been affected – in a good way – by the club’s involvement in the Championship play-offs.
Two extra games, one at the Riverside, has kept staff busy beyond the regular season.
“The play-offs are the nicest possible distraction, but it’s a quick turnaround now,” continued Gary. “I can’t go and ask the social media team to do something when we’ve got a big game the next day.
“But when the football is done, that’s when you flick the switch and everything goes into full concert mode.”
On bank holiday Monday, two days after the Wembley showpiece which the club desperately hoped to be involved in, the stadium is handed over to promoters SJM. That’s when the magic happens.
The set-up for The Killers last year
Dozens of staff swarm the stadium, unloading equipment from 12 huge lorries which have been driven onto the pitch through one of the north stand corners.
The pitch has, of course, already been covered to protect the turf both from the equipment and thousands of pairs of expectant dancing shoes.
The huge stage, lights and speakers are then quickly and efficiently dropped into place.
“Seeing the set-up is something else. It’s like watching the military – you can’t imagine how it all comes together, but it always does,” continued Gary.
“While it’s happening, everything is kept under wraps. The band, the promoters, us – we all want fans to have that ‘wow’ moment when they walk into the stadium. It’s a huge operation.”
And there have been changes put in place this year.
The fan village has more than doubled in size and will now incorporate the east stand car park area as well as last year’s space – the fan zone car park outside the west stand. That means there will be around 80% more catering, meaning hungry or thirsty fans shouldn’t have to go far.
“We’ll have 1,000 staff on the day – so the co-ordination across the site is very important,” continued Gary.
“We’ll have about 400 stewards and half will be ones with matchday experience and the rest agency staff who have more experience of working on big concerts.”
A new traffic plan will also be in place, with dedicated taxi ranks and drop-off points, while the new gate across the Shepherdson Way bridge will be in use for the first time.
A site map and answers to frequently asked questions is available on the club website here.
On the day excitement
Ahead of the big day, senior club staff will try and get to one of the earlier dates in the Arctic Monkeys tour “just to get a feel for it” and have been grateful to Sunderland Football Club, who welcomed planners to a recent Elton John concert to share best practice.
Gary also praised the whole team at the club involved in the planning who have been planning the concert alongside their own demanding stadium operation roles.
“Nothing ever goes off completely without a hitch – every major event you go to, it might seem like it’s going smoothly on the surface but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, there’s stress and strain in the stadium control room,” continued Gary.
“There’s all these months of planning – and then on the day, it’s about putting into practice those plans and dynamic management on the ground.
“We’ve got just over 32,500 ticket holders – a sellout for the football, but obviously we don’t have thousands on the pitch then!
“We’ve also got to consider that for football, we have people turning up in the hour before the match then leaving after two hours or so – with a concert, it’s a different logistical challenge.
“We’ll have people arriving first thing and watching all the support bands, and others coming over a much longer period of time.”
The Arctic Monkeys on stage (CREDIT: ARCTIC MONKEYS SOCIAL MEDIA)
But after months of meticulous planning, how does the team feel on the day?
“There’s always contingencies in place. But it’s like whack-a-mole, as you sort out one issue another one pops up,” he said.
“I’ll be up in stadium control on the day with the safety officers, and all round the site, and you’re full of this anticipation, almost a nervous energy.
“It feels like it’s always on the edge, like you’re always on your toes, but it’s a good sort of nerves.
“I wouldn’t say you get chance to enjoy it. If it all goes off well, at the end – that’s when you can take stock and say you’ve done well. But then you’re onto the next thing and the debriefs.”
On the day of last year’s Killers gig, Head of Business Operations and Community Helena Bowman answered a staggering 150 phone calls in six hours, dealing with all sorts of logistical issues – including the moment the band’s guitarist unexpectedly arrived at main reception requesting extra hospitality seats for members of his family.
“Seeing Brandon Flowers on that stage was unbelievable,” she told We are Middlesbrough last year.
“The overwhelming feeling that we’ve done this for Middlesbrough and Teesside was brilliant.”
A boost for the town
The Arctic Monkeys gig will kick off a summer of music in Middlesbrough, with Albert Park also new to hosting its own large scale concerts with Madness and Lets Rock the North East heading there later in the week.
As Gary and Helena said, having large scale events like this in Middlesbrough is huge for the town and its economy.
And the work to prepare for events like this stretch beyond the club – with preparations also ongoing at Middlesbrough Council to help the town centre prepare for an influx of visitors.
Around 58% of the 32,500 tickets sold for Arctic Monkeys were to people with a TS postcode, while 80% live within an hour of the stadium.
But that still leaves many thousands of people who potentially have never been to Middlesbrough arriving in town on the day.
The club has wayfarer teams at different points around the town to direct people towards the Riverside too.
Co-ordination is ongoing over car parking and public transport, while Middlesbrough Council has designed bespoke signage to help people navigate their way to the stadium, and back to the bars and restaurants in the night time economy.
Teesside Restaurant Week – which offers discount menus at some of the town’s best eateries – starts on the night the Arctic Monkeys play, and Middlesbrough Council’s Acting Town Centre Manager Tom Rhind is well aware of how big the concert could be for local businesses.
“Last year’s Killers gig was a huge success for the town,” he said.
“The gig itself will no doubt live long in the memory, as will the great atmosphere throughout the town centre on the day.
“Many of our fantastic town centre bars and restaurants benefited hugely from the large numbers enjoying a bite to eat and a drink or two before heading to the concert.
“We’re all looking forward to more of the same on June 5.”
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