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Identikit stadiums consigning 'tough place to go' grounds to the distant past

Could it be that part of the pre and postmatch interview cliche furniture is being consigned to the past? Last weekend and this will see examples of this oft-uttered expression but it is applicable ever less often.

"Yyyyyyeaaaaahno, as I say, we know it'll be hard, it's always a tough place to go."

It acts as the preemptive dampener for any pride-before-the-fall catastrophes ahead of kickoff and then -- "yeah, they made it tough for us today" -- a magnanimous sign-off after the final whistle.

Chelsea's visit to Turf Moor last Sunday was the perfect case study for the phenomenon. Burnley's home record was rock solid enough on its own -- as good as Manchester City's and better than Manchester United's -- but the concept of the "tough place to go" doesn't have much time for stats.

Victor Moses was ushered in front of a TV camera to do his "tough place to go" duties beforehand and proceeded to pull one right out of the textbook's first page: "It's always going to be a hard game coming to Turf Moor." Even though the league leaders left Lancashire relatively unscathed, earning a 1-1 draw, the impression of Burnley as a rugged footballing destination remained.

It's very much a Premier League contemporary of "mind games" but, with Chelsea's awkward task feeling like an increasingly rare sight, the "tough place to go" may be just as much of an endangered species, an evaporating legacy of the early Premier League years when foreign imports couldn't be trusted to hold their nerve without a Serie A running track between them and the fans.

The term has been so enshrined in English football culture that the word "difficult" has become one of the first words that imported players and managers tend to master for their media duties, completing the holy trinity of football sentiment along with "important" and "happy."

What makes a place tough to go to? The criteria are, at best, deliberately vague. An over-physical game plan, based on spoiling and reducing, certainly helps on the field but the periphery plays its part too, from the local climate -- swirling winds and a drop of rain are useful -- to the proximity of the home crowd to the pitch. It is an environment designed specifically for the job of taking a big club down a peg or two.

Stoke just about cling on to their Premier League prototype -- cultivated during the uncompromising reign of Tony Pulis -- but their home record over the last two seasons is distinctly mid-table.

The reputation of the bet365 (née Britannia) Stadium is itself a descendant of the original "tough places to go," which included Wimbledon's thoroughly unpleasant Plough Lane (once swampland, then bombed to bits in World War II, eventually demolished), Luton and their gently exfoliating "plastic pitch" of the 1980s, Millwall at their old Den and John Beck's Cambridge, famed for their stiflingly hot visitors' dressing room and a punishing playing surface.

There's a pattern: teams boldly punching above their weight by any means possible. And then, once the away side's feathers have been sufficiently ruffled, the home crowd do their bit with a gleeful "waaaaeeeyyyy" as an over-hit pass slides out of play, in itself a hugely underrated candidate for Most Annoying Thing That Can Happen To Your Team Away From Home.

A gusty, gutsy Turf Moor last weekend, though, felt like one of the last hurrahs for the classic footballing culture clash. The modern game is making an accelerating bid for homogeneity. Clubs have left their century-old homes for unthreatening surrounds, most of them almost indistinguishable from each other or -- in the high-profile case of West Ham -- simply devoid of any menace whatsoever. Meanwhile, to the benefit of the quick-passing elite, Premier League pitches are now uniformly pristine, shedding another layer of perceived toughness.

Looking to the top of the Championship, none of the promotion hopefuls play their football in lawless bear-pits, suggesting that the demise of the "tough place to go" -- a traditional weapon of choice for any Premier League newcomer -- is set to continue next season. It's a Europe-wide trend, too; what once used to be "daunting" or, at the very least, "tricky" trips to unfamiliar continental outposts now feel almost interchangeable.

Perhaps fittingly, the "tough place to go" may still have some currency in the grandest, oldest environment of all: the FA Cup. On Monday, fifth-tier Sutton United will extend a no-frills welcome to Arsenal in the fifth round at Gander Green Lane.

The name of the ground might evoke some gritty memories of away trips in a bygone era, but the very idea of the "tough place to go" has had to move with the times; rather than a mud-caked quagmire, the Premier League side will have to come to terms with a FIFA two-star rated artificial pitch. Whatever the result, though, expect the usual platitudes in Arsenal's post-match interviews, because -- no matter how difficult the conditions -- old habits die even harder.