There are many ways for someone to demonstrate a compulsive infatuation with football. Collecting replica kits; buying all the assorted paraphernalia; hunting autographs from the world's greatest players, or Gillingham players for that matter; forking out inordinate amounts of money to travel all over the country watching a team, home and away. There is no activity which it is more socially acceptable to become hopelessly obsessed with than the beautiful game, with the friends and families of hardcore supporters generally unmoved by watching them spend time, effort and thousands of pounds for the pleasure of immersing themselves in the culture of fandom. Obsessing over tactical minutiae; planning major life events around the fixture list; refusing to speak to their nearest and dearest for much of the weekend when their side loses; these things are par for the course for dedicated football fans, and mundane facts of life for everyone else.
Still, if there is one fan who is anything but mundane in expressing his love for the sport, it is Chris Smith, aka 'Brickstand'. Starting a few years ago, Chris made it his mission to make every Football League stadium out of Lego, taking requests and commissions as he went along and branching out to Scottish and non-league grounds here and there. As niche creative projects go, it doesn't get much more ambitious than trying to construct this many detailed models out of nothing more than toy bricks, a painstaking task which takes incredible attention to detail and dozens of accumulative hours of endeavour. Indeed, when it comes to investing time and money in the pursuit of football fandom, Chris puts even the most dedicated of supporters to shame.
While there are few who would deny that Brickstand's output up until now represents quite some achievement as a body of work, especially not after having seen the meticulous, uncannily accurate and aesthetically satisfying stadium models that Chris makes, it would be reasonable to wonder aloud why exactly someone would embark upon such a demanding enterprise. Speaking to VICE Sports over the phone, Chris tries to give some insight into how he got into the project, and why he decided to mix football and Lego to make what is essentially an unconventional form of art. "It started when I was on the internet one day and saw a load of American football and baseball stadiums made out of Lego," Chris says. "I thought that I'd go and look for all the English football grounds as well, because somebody was bound to have done it. When I tried to find them, I realised that nobody had, so I thought I'd give it a try myself.
"I support Crystal Palace, so I did Selhurst Park first," Chris goes on. "The whole thing basically went from there. I thought that I may as well try to do all of the grounds really, rather than just one or two, because that seemed a bit pointless." Working from his base in Altrincham, he was soon getting enthusiastic responses from fans on social media. "Next, I went to the local start-up loans office, and had to do a little pitch to try to get some funding to get me started with enough bricks. I ended up with a small business loan of £5,000 to spend on Lego, and things kind of snowballed from that point on."
As it turns out, there is a significant market for Lego football stadiums, and supporters soon started enlisting Chris to make models of Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, the Emirates and the like as collectibles and household ornaments. With the amount of Lego required for each stadium hardly an inexpensive thing to acquire, Chris' commissions largely cover costs but, nonetheless, it's work he takes pride in for its own sake. As for the actual process of building the grounds, that has evolved as time has gone on and Chris' operation has become more streamlined. "I started off making them at home on the kitchen table, but that quickly got out of control," Chris says. "It's just the amount of bricks you need really, because you obviously need lots of different shapes, colours and varieties. Luckily I've got a little studio now, so I mainly assemble the grounds in there."
So is it mainly the positive reception he gets on social media which motivates him, or something else? "I think it's more for myself really," Chris says. "I guess I'm pretty passionate about football and love Lego, so it's the perfect project for me. I try not to worry too much about the reaction I'll get from making the stadiums, because I kind of know myself when they are as good as I could have possibly made them, if you know what I mean. It's not so much about the response as about doing something that I'm happy with, and that I'm happy to give to somebody else. As long as I've done it to the best of my ability, that's all I'm worried about."
The way Chris speaks about the Brickstand project, it sounds almost like an exercise in catharsis. He seems to broadly agree with this idea, adding that it relates to his previous professional interests, even though he's never been involved with the creative arts before. "I worked at primary schools and nurseries for a long time, and I've done a lot of work with autistic children and disabled children as well. We used to play with Lego a lot, though I'd not used it to build anything like I do now. I guess building things out of Lego is quite a logical process, it requires a lot of patience and – when you're building something as complicated as a football ground – you can just lose yourself in it for a few hours, and it's quite a nice thing to do."
That said, constructing Lego football stadiums does come with its own frustrations. "The only annoying thing is that you can never have enough bricks," Chris says. "I don't draw up any plans or anything before I start, I just get some pictures of what I'm trying to represent and then I start building pretty much straightaway. In terms of the actual bricks, you never really know what you need until you get there, so it can be quite frustrating when you have a good idea and know how to make something look just right but you haven't got that particular brick or certain pieces. Then you have to order them and wait for them to arrive, so that kind of breaks your flow a little bit sometimes."
Pending the delivery of any additional blocks, it takes Chris anything between half a day and a day and a half to get a stadium finished in one sitting. As well as the main Premier League grounds, his repertoire of stadiums includes Loftus Road, Villa Park, Ibrox, Parkhead and The Den, while he has even gone as far down the English league pyramid as Victoria Park, Bloomfield Road and Roots Hall, homes of Hartlepool, Blackpool and Southend respectively. "I start with the pitch, which is always the same size, and then move on to the inside of the stadium," Chris says. "Then if there's any writing in the stands, that gets done next, and I tend to work outwards from there, building the ground up gradually one side at a time.
"It's good to keep it as simple as possible really, and there's a good deal of trust involved," Chris adds. "You're obviously trying to make them as accurate as you possibly can, but then part of the challenge is that you're working within the restrictions of what Lego bricks can actually do and within the range of colours in which they are made. You're confined in that way, but that almost forces you to be a bit more creative. I think people appreciate that, because they can see the effort you've gone to in trying to be precise, even if it's never going to look exactly the same."
For Chris, it's important to make his stadiums in a way that people can appreciate in their own homes, built to a size that people won't "resent" or find overbearing, but rather happily be able to display in their kitchens, living rooms or wherever else. In that sense, Brickstand is much like any other expression of football fandom, in that what makes all of the effort worthwhile is the sense of interconnectedness between people, the mutual appreciation of a football club and the feeling of something privately cherished but widely shared. With dozens of grounds left to make before Chris has achieved his mission, the Brickstand project could potentially continue for years to come, while there are doubtlessly still many fans out there who want to see their own stadiums fashioned from Lego. Quirky as Brickstand undoubtedly is, there is something deeply gratifying about the sight of a familiar football ground built from nothing but little toy bricks.