I’ve mentioned this before in these pages, but a couple of years back I was in a pub when I noticed the television above the bar showing a Rugby League match. There was no sound, but the anchor and pundits were rolling through their pre-amble in front of backdrop of red seats and newish concrete; I gazed for a good couple of minutes wondering where they were; Salford perhaps? Maybe St Helens. Wakefield? One wide-panning shot later I clocked it. They were at the Keepmoat.
The fact that I couldn’t recognise the place I’d sat in every other Saturday for the previous three seasons spoke volumes about the nondescript nature of modern football stadia. Remember the Beautiful South song Rotterdam; “this could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome,” as time goes by that song resonates less as inconsequential turn of the century pop and more like knowing foresight toward the future indeterminate follies in which we would watch our football.
With each passing season the unique aspects that mark out the grounds as our own within the haze of goals and banalities of the Football League Show are eradicated, and replaced by indifferent banks of safe plastic; the Hospital in the corner at Gay Meadow, the angled stands of Layer Road, the steps to the pitchside at Saltergate, all gone in the name of uniform progress
Of course nostalgia is just heroin for the old, and so for the young, or the newly converted, football has only ever taken place at these out of town boxes, but trust me kids, it wasn’t always like this. Back in our day it may not have been nowt but fields, but it was at least a miss-match of concrete, wood, wrought iron and grass-banks. Where you now feel corporate we once had character, so yes it may be safer now, and more family-friendly, but who wants that when you could have had all this;
1. Proper Floodlights
Proper bloody great lights on proper metal structures in the proper corners of proper grounds. Not only were these things used to light up the match, but men being men, in the days before Sat Navs and GPS on your phones, floodlights were also our sole reference point when heading to an away game. No need to look at a map, follow signs for Cambridge, then once you get there drive round the town with your head out the window looking skywards like the grinning moron at the heart of one of those US documentaries on storm chasers. It was a foolproof method, and one without which we’d never have sampled the delights of a Telford Goods Yard of a Friday night. Frankly if you’ve not driven excitedly (and ultimately mistakenly) towards a distribution plant in Northampton then you’ve not lived.
Often lamented, and always slated for a comeback, with the Football Supporters Federation among others clamouring for their re-introduction. The thing is though; those campaigning for the return of terracing always focus on the same arguments throwing out words like ‘atmosphere’, as if taking out the seats will suddenly turn the moaning weather-beaten sods behind you into the flag waving Ultras of the Curva Nord. The real beauty of terracing was not in ‘atmosphere’, nor in ‘cost’, it was in the simple pleasure that if you did somehow have the misfortune to find yourself stood next to infamous irritants like ‘the Coach’, or ‘Shoutybags’, or that air-horn toting Mario Brother, you could just, simply and effortlessly, go and stand somewhere else. Bliss.
I know what you’re thinking, and yes I agree – especially having watched Rovers from the back of the top tier of Hillsborough’s away end which boasts the biggest concentration of poles outside of Warsaw – cantilever stands are a great and welcome invention. But for as long as they exist you will never have the joy of locating your seats in a stand and shuffling along the row to find that your mate is sat slap bang behind a thick iron girder (hello Scunthorpe) and can see just the near corner flag, and a bit of the halfway-line.
4. A Sensible location
There was a time when football grounds existed within the communities to which their team belonged, surrounded by the houses of those who supported them. Out the door, hop over the wall, through the turnstile, in the ground, watch the match, home in time for tea. At Luton you still have to go through such a house to get in. Now each new ground is plonked in an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere, three miles from the railway station or town centre, you know, ‘for ease of access’. Even more galling is the realisation that the more we stick grounds out here, the less chance we have of supporters sitting on roof-tops and chimney stacks for important Cup games. No-one is going to risk climbing a PC World for a glimpse of a giantkilling.
Yes cottages; quaint little houses tucked away in the corner of the ground that host the changing rooms. Thankfully Fulham have preserved the one after which their ground was named, but there used to be many others. You had to negotiate the one in the corner of Worcester City’s St Georges Lane to get on or off the terraces meaning that if you timed your exit right you would hear all manner of managerial expletives coming out the back window. In Serbia, Novi Sad’s FK Vojvodina have a semi-detached house at one of their ground housing their changing rooms, with the referees traipsing down from upstairs to knock on the respective front doors of the opposing teams and see if they’re coming out to play. Miles better than seeing two stewards wheel out sponsor-laden concertina plastic.
6. Foreboding Ends
Nothing daunts an away side like turning up on a cold windswept grey day and realising that in order to break down your opponent you must play towards a menacing sounding enclosure straight out of a Roy of the Rovers comic; the Cold Blow Lane end at The Den, the Cemetery End at Bury’s Gigg Lane, Valhalla at Cambridge United. Ok, the last one is made up, but for some reason attacking the Findus Family Stand will never quite instill the same fear… unless you’re allergic to horsemeat I suppose.
7. Away Fans Getting Wet
You’re playing awful, you’re getting tonked at home, and you’ve not even had so much as Ken Avis accidentally leaving his mic. on to cheer you up, but, as they sky darkens, and the spatter of raindrops appear on concrete it matters not a bit, because now, over to your right, the away fans who have been giving it large all afternoon are about to get a soaking, and there is nowhere for them to hide. The schandenfreude of seeing the away fans get drenched on the uncovered terrace is one of football’s great delights; also, imagine how much less memorable that Dalian Atkinson goal for Villa would have been if the first supporter running up to him had, had no cause to be wielding an umbrella.
8. Snack Bars With a View
Concourses never used to exist at football grounds; we just thought it was the plural for really fast planes. And with nothing beneath the stands but earth or ash or yet to be discovered mining subsidence the snack bars sat on the terraces themselves. The upshot of this was that you didn’t need to make a mad half-time dash, you didn’t have to worry about missing goals, because you just simply took your place in the queue and watched the game carry on over your shoulder. If you were really lucky, your team would score, and you’d be able to take advantage of the bedlam to jump a good fifteen places in the queue (hello Orient away in 2003). Or even better, if it was truly your lucky day a hoofed clearance would cannon in through the window sending the sauce bottles flying and bringing the biggest cheer of the game, before it was thrown back on the field, coated in more grease than Stan Burton’s barnet.
9. Anecdotal Toilets
No, I’m not clutching at straws, and I know what you’re thinking; toilets are toilets and much of a muchness; metal urinal, breezeblock wall, eye-level poster featuring a bikini clad model advertising something sexy like contents insurance; and the gents are much the same too. But you ask anyone who went to a match prior to the turn of the millennium and they will give you a story of the horrors of football sanitation which had long existed on the mantra of if it aint broke don’t fix-it, and even if it is broke it’ll probably do for another half a century. Prior to the Taylor Report installing toilets basically meant building a brick-wall and painting the bottom half of it black. There was the open trough at Rotherham, the wall with a pipe attached at York and they were just the highlights. And let us not forget the portacabin toilets on the Pop Stand terrace, not because they were particularly bad, but because it was wildly acknowledged that the window above the middle urinal offered one of the best vantage points in Belle Vue.
I suppose all of the above basically adds up to this; football grounds in the 1980s and early 1990s were for the most part shitholes and death-traps, but they were our shit-holes and death traps. And each one was different; the quirks of our corrugated crap-heap were never the same as the oddities of another sides tumble-down tin-shed. Yes they were inhospitable, but at least each was inhospitable in a unique and quirky way. Stuff your premier seats and jumbotrons, give me a terrace roof that leaks and a scoreboard that only goes up to 5 and I’ll be much happier, along with wetter, colder and more miserable. Its how football was meant to be.