One of the few positives to come from following an ailing football club is that with every relegation comes another collection of odd venues in which to observe more defeats.
A little over eleven years ago my team was relegated from the Championship after a five year stay.
While relegation was confirmed way before the season’s end, we still managed four home wins out of our final six, one of which came against a team called Manchester City.
While such successes for Stockport seemed the norm at the time, the two clubs are worlds apart now. While City won the footballing lottery and got mega rich owners who for once seemed to know what they were doing, County became their polar opposite.
Financial woes were brought on by wealthy people whose expertise evidently lay well away from the sphere of football.
Recently relegated to the 6th tier of English football for the first time in their 130 year history, County will regularly play games in front of sub-1000 crowds this coming season. All the players at this level are part-time and most have day jobs. A far cry from an 11,000 capactiy Edgeley Park and beating local aristocrats. While I won’t pretend it’s not been a crushing disappointment, there remains a tiny part of me which will appreciate the backdrop.
A feature of our five division fall has been the chance to see our team play (and usually lose) at something like 80+ different grounds. As one of those dutiful mugs who is tied to his team no matter what, I’ve seen the majority of these; the good, bad and ugly amongst the homes of English football.
New grounds should be the best, but they’re not. They’re the worst.
There can be no denying that in Bolton for example, the Reebok offers a safer, more comfortable experience for the football supporter. There’s also the added bonus that you’re not sharing the away terrace with a supermarket. I remember visiting Burnden Park in 1993. We lost, which was actually a rarity back then.
Half of the away end had been sold and in its place stood Normid Superstore. It was weird. And yet such quirks of character are what make visiting new grounds interesting for me. I don’t visit the new ones and come away enthusing at spotless bogs or pristine pissers. Give me Burnden over the Reebok any day. There’s a lot of misty-eyed revisionism regarding crumbling terraces but as someone who still resides in such surroundings, I’m speaking from recent experience. It’s just better.
Invariably, new grounds are referred to as community stadia and yet few are located within the community. Take Shrewsbury’s new ground vs the old one. I visited the brilliantly named Gay Meadow numerous times in the 90s and yet if our fixture fell at a certain time of year I knew there would be a chance it’d be postponed. Centrally located in a town served by excellent pubs and a station within walking distance, its only drawback was its proximity to the River Severn. Floods seemed to happen frequently and the Shrews even employed a coracle maker by the name of Fred Davies to retrieve balls which had been cleared over the modest stands and landed in the water. If you don’t think that’s ace then you may as well stop reading right now and get back to your sushi, or whatever it is you clothes-melvs eat these days.
They now play in an out of town venue which has no individuality to the point where it could be Colchester or Chesterfield. Both have similar grounds having relocated from archaic former homes and both have employed an aesthetic that is – at best – prosaic.
Further up the food chain a look at Leicester, Derby, Reading and Middlesborough reveals a similarly generic blueprint for the future. They only seem distinguishable by seat colour.
Having watched games through 10ft fences amongst loads of daft racists, I’m happy to see comfort and an inclusive atmosphere at games. But when clubs moved from their traditional bases they threw the baby out with the bathwater.
I can think of only Huddersfield who get anywhere near ticking the boxes laid down by more traditional fans. Their space age stadium is within chanting distance of their old Leeds Road ground, a short walk from the town centre, is instantly recognisable as Huddersfield and it isn’t overly posh either.
In an attempt to get over the disappointment of last season’s relegation, myself and my clan headed to the familiarity of Mallorca in May. We’ve been there many times before, though my plan to see the local team play never materialised due to the time of year. This year though, our trip coincided with their final game of the season so off we went, another new ground.
Typically for me, Real Mallorca were rooted to the bottom of the Spanish Premier League. Only a win and several other teams losing would keep them in the division for the 17th season running. If I was looking for soccer solace I came to the wrong place.
Though the home side despatched Real Valladolid with an impressive 4-2 win, they were still relegated and the fans decided they’d act up as a result. A veteran of relegations and the subsequent protests they tend to bring, I’ve seen it all before. Needless to say, my malaise for all things football went unchallenged.
Being a football geek I spent half an hour the previous evening reading about the recent history of Real Mallorca. The derelict Lluis Sitjar Stadium I’d visited while in Palma a few days previous was succeeded by the new, council-owned Son Moix in 1999. Since then though the location and atmosphere of the latter have led the current owners of Real Mallorca to seek a return back to their old stomping ground.
It’d need plenty of DIY, not to mention planning permission from the council but for once it seems the club are in tune with what the fans want. A move back to their heartlands to a venue which still carries echoes of past glories, even in a state of complete disrepair. The last I heard, planning permission had not been forthcoming. Anyone would think the council have a vested interest in keeping Real at the Son Moix.
What’s refreshing though is that Real Mallorca appear to have a finger on the pulse. Rather than citing executive boxes and unrestricted views as progress, they have seen it’s possible to improve facilties but not at the cost of soul, character and location. They’ve realised their club is a less appealing proposition since the move.
Their plan to go back home might be fanciful (not to mention 15 years too late) but as someone who has seen over 100 football grounds in the UK, plus a few abroad I can say that for me, peeling paint and a terrace crumbling like cake has always stuck in my mind a lot more than the featureless landscape of a new ground.
At Shrewsbury’s old ground the local castle and abbey were visible. At their new ground, a car park and a train track.
“Live in the now!” exclaimed Wayne to Garth in that film, and probably you the reader to me, just then. That’s what I’m doing. It’s just that I don’t really like it that much. I’m not pining for piping hot pies or piss-soaked Puma pumps. I just want the good bits that have been lost to be brought back.
When I go to a football match I don’t want a sterile experience, I want a story to tell. Real ale enthusiasts famously favour variety, even if it gives them the shits and raging heartburn. Similarly, I’d like variety too, even if it means bopping from side to side like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, as I observe the game behind a rusty pillar. Even if it means entering the ground through someone’s back garden, as is still the case at Luton Town (Editors note: that’s what that photo at the top is, if you were wondering).
Next season for me promises to be an eerie experience but one which begins with a trip to Workington, whose ground has barely changed since they played in the old Fourth Division the year before I was born.
I’m looking forward to it more than I’d be willing to admit in public.
Hopefully we won’t lose.
Photos courtesy of whoateallthepies.tv, Google Street View, footballgroundmap.com and Mark Smith