The 2019 Race for the Football League – Tradition vs. Entrepreneurship

IMG_7711The race for winning promotion to the Football League is entering its final stage, and my son Thomas and I have the perfect opportunity to compare two of the leading contenders – Leyton Orient and Salford City – as they both play at home on our last trip to the UK this season.

Whereas Leyton Orient is one of the oldest London clubs, and had continually been members of the Football League from 1905 until their relegation two seasons ago, Salford City have never played in the Football League, and their current status as a National League club is their best ever position. And this position has been achieved by winning promotion in three of the four seasons since the six former Manchester United players – Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, Butt and the Neville brothers – each bought 10 percent of the club. The race for the football league seems to be a battle between footballing tradition and footballing entrepreneurship.

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It is not that Salford City is a brand new club. According to the club website, it was formed in 1940 as Salford Central. It doesn’t tell about the circumstances, although it would be quite interesting to know the story of a football club being formed in the very year that the phoney war turned into the Battle of Britain. On the other hand, Leyton Orient did not adopt the name Leyton Orient until the end of WW2, having previously been named Orient and later Clapton Orient – after originally playing as Eagle Cricket Club’s football team. To add to the confusion, they took over their current ground from Leyton F.C. in 1937, after which they changed their name from Clapton Orient to Leyton Orient. And for a 21 year long spell from 1966, the club reverted to the short version of the name – “Orient”.

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In fact, Leyton Orient have had a quite turbulent history, which is reflected in their ground. You can start with the name of it. When Leyton F.C. played here, it was called Osborne Road. Clapton Orient renamed the ground Brisbane Road after moving in – before changing the club’s name to Leyton Orient. Then, when boxing-promoter Ben Hearn bought the club for £5 in 1995, he renamed the ground after his company “The Matchroom Stadium”. And currently, the Breyer Group has a 2-year deal for the naming rights.

But – with this blog focusing on football and material culture – it is the ground itself that is really fascinating. When Leyton Orient won promotion to the second tier of English League football in 1956, they invested in a new main stand. Or rather- they bought it from the Mitcham stadium. A stadium built just a couple of years before Leyton’s move to Brisbane Road by the housing entrepreneur Sydney Parker. He figured out that the many people moving into the newly built semi-detached houses of the area, would need some sort of entertainment. He build a stadium with a capacity of somewhere between 30.000 and 60.000 – and experimented with rugby, greyhound racing, baseball and football. According to an excellent article by Totts on http://www.gandermonium.com/2018/10/mitcham-stadium-mysteries.html,  Parker almost persuaded Clapton Orient to move into his ground just before they decided to go to Leyton in 1937; and apparently, he was also in talks with the Fulham F.C. owner to move to Mitcham, so Craven Cottage could be converted to housing. In the end, Mitcham Stadium didn’t find a viable concept, and the ground folded in 1955. So what Leyton Orient did, was to buy up one of the stands from Mitcham and move it to Brisbane Road.

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Oddly enough, Leyton Orient only put up 3/4 of the newly acquired stand in 1956. It was not until Orient won promotion to the top tier of English football in 1962, that the stand was completed.  And even more oddly, the distinctive white roof gable with the club name is not positioned at the centre. According to Simon Inglis’ authoritative “Football Ground’s of Britain”, this second oddity is a consequence of the first. They put the gable in the centre of the firstly erected 3/4; so when the stand was extended towards the south, the gable lost its central position. However, Tott’s excellent article on Mitcham Stadium features a photo that shows, that the gable at Mitcham was similarly off-centre. But Inglis do point out that the gable is said to have housed the steward’s box for the dog racing at Mitcham. That seems to be the explanation – that the gable was at the finishing line of the racing track at Mitcham stadium –  which was not at the centre.

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The gable apparently runs all through the roof of the stand, as it can be seen from the outside as well. But inside the stand, you can actually see that the two gables do not quite fit. The one towards the street has probably housed a staircase to get up to a gantry walk, leading to the steward´s box in the gable towards the ground.

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I discover another oddity, as I take my seat in the old main stand. Under my left foot I have wooden floor, under my right foot I have concrete floor. In other old stands, it is fairly common to find a mix of wooden and concrete floor, as concrete was used in the standing paddocks at the front, and wooden floor in the seated area at the back. And you can find the odd stand, where part of the original stand with wooden floor has burned down and been rebuilt in concrete.

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Although Inglis points out that the East Stand nearly burned down on it’s opening day in 1956, there may be another explanation for this oddity. Looking at photos back from the 1970’s, there seems to have been a segregation of the section of the stand under the gable, starting right at the column immediately in front of me. I guess that the stand came from Mitcham Stadium with wooden floor for the section around the finishing line of the racecourse, as this section would be the most attractive and exclusive. The cheaper seats after the finishing line got concreted floor. Inglis points out that the embankment around the ground was built up and concreted by Leyton Orient from 1949-1962. This part was probably done, when the main stand was erected in 1956. But if any Leyton Orient fans reading this has the explanation, please let me know.

IMG_7617I had been in two minds whether we should buy tickets for the new West (Main) Stand, so we would have the pleasure of looking at the old East Stand with the gable during the match, or whether we should go for the “traditional” old stand experience. In the end, I decide for experiencing the old stand rather than looking at it. I am glad I did. I like the quirkiness of it. The East Stand used to contain offices, dressing room, club shop etc. Or rather – small buildings containing such facilities have been attached to the stand  from Mitcham Stadium. A big black O with the club crest in the middle between the words “Leyton Orient” and “Football Club Ltd” make up the decorations on the rather drab grey cladding, along with red and white attached buildings.

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The East Stand is located in Brisbane Road – which is linked to High Road Leyton by the terraced housing of Osborne Road. The community of Leyton is on this eastern side of the ground, whereas there used to be a water works and an isolation hospital between the western side and the railway. Now, you find mainly allotments here. It has a sense of ‘back-yard’ to it. No wonder the prestigious new main stand was put in Brisbane Road to the East.

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We have definitely made the right choice by going for the East Stand. This is a proper old school stand. I love the wooden floor. It gives a completely different soundscape to modern concrete stands. I love the column obstructing my view, making me have to move from one side to the other with the flow of the game. And I love the irregular concourse underneath the stand where I find the “Leyton Lunch” (although the Pukka Chicken Balti pie, I have, is not properly heated).

IMG_7644IMG_7645IMG_7649Our choice of stand may have cost us the sight of the iconic gable as a lovely bacground scenery for the match, but in its own way, the new West Stand is just as fascinating to watch. Above the ordinary rows of seats is a gallery with seats for the visitors to the executive boxes. And at the top of the stand, there is a spectacular gallery for the press. It really looks impressive, when the lights are turned on.

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All the four stands are hemmed in by residential blocks with flats in the corners of the ground. The corners were sold off in order to finance the building of the West and the North Stands. The houses have balconies overlooking the pitch. It must really be exciting to be the estate agent showing the flats to potential residents. Who will get the thrill of their life when they see the view? And who will walk out in protest? I would certainly love to live there – but I am pretty sure my wife would be horrified by the thought.

IMG_7670IMG_7691Anyway, the onlooking residents on the balconies somehow rounds off the press gallery at the top of the West Stand with their silhouets matching the journalists. A fascinating effect – I wonder if it was intended.

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The South, West and North stands were completed in 2000, 2005 and 2007 respectively, after a grand plan to completely rebuilt the site, turning the pitch 90 degrees, had been abandoned. The selling off of land to help finance the rebuilding sums up the struggle to keep up with the stadium transformations after the Taylor Report. Much to my surprise, I really like the presence of the residential blocks. In Parken in Copenhagen, I find the offices in one of the stands highly distracting in the overall impression. But somehow, it works here. In fact, further residential blocks have been built behind the South as well as the North Stand, but you can only see the blocks in the South Stand from the inside of the stadium.

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The entrances to the South and North Stands are located in the residential blocks. It looks like a modern day version of the Oak Road End entrance through a terraced house at Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road – and the now gone Filbert Street at Leicester City. And it is fascinating in the same sort of way – the ground and the surroundings growing together organically. In the same way, the statue of one of Leyton Orient’s greatest ever players, Laurie Cunningham, is not at the ground but in the Coronation Gardens next to the residential blocks.

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The new West Stand not only contains club shop and offices and a supporters’ bar. There is also room for parking facilities, a pharmacy and a policlinic. Mainly due to the bar, it is quite lively – and once again gives this impression of the ground having grown together organically with the community.

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In fact, right from the moment we got off the tube at Leyton, we have got this feeling of being in a vibrant, busy  community with people in the streets. It may have something to do with the time of day – Tuesday at 6.30 – but it is a stark contrast, when we take the bus to Salford City’s Peninsula Stadium at Moor Lane Saturday morning at 11. There is hardly anybody in the streets. The ground is in a residential area but not very heavily populated. Opposite the ground is a church and Kersal Moor.

IMG_8059.JPGAnd arriving at the ground, the contrast is even starker. Salford City has been playing here for 40 years, but until the Class of 92′ owners took over five years ago, it was a very basic football ground with a perimeter fence around a Sunday League pitch – with the addition of two small stands opposite each other by the centre line. The capacity was just over 1.000. But as part of the project of taking Salford City into the football league by 2020, the new owners have built a brand new stadium around the pitch. It was all done in 10 months – raising the capacity of the ground to just over 5.000.

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The four stands – standing terraces behind the goals and seated stands along the length of the pitch – are integrated in a bowl-like design. It gives the impression of being a proper ground. An amazing transformation over such a short time.

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There are no concreted embankments here – and no wooden floor either. It is all metal. Some 15 years ago, I organized an annual tournament of knights at the Danish Military Museum. The stands remind me of the temporary seated stands that we erected for these 10-day events. It looks like a temporary stepping stone on the way to the top tier of English Football – and I have, indeed, heard rumours that they will have to play their matches in another ground, if they do win promotion to the Football League.

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A sign tells fans no to bang on the rear panels. The odd dent in the panels tell the reason why.

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You sense that the ground was really built in a hurry. Near the away end, it seems that they suddenly became aware that the number of seats between the aisles didn’t add up, and an additional aisle has been thrown in somewhat randomly.

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There are some executive facilities in the main stand along Moor Lane (where my mate spots Gary Neville), but otherwise the stands are too small to contain facilities. They have all been places in containers behind the stands – toilets, kiosks, souvenir shop. And it seems that the dressing rooms are not much different.

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Although it is quite cold, the sun is fortunately shining, and it makes it a pleasant area to enjoy halftime refreshments. And, in fact. it is not unlike some old school grounds like Griffin Park in Brentford, where you also have to spend half time in the open air.

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The most distinctive feature of the ground, though, is the pitch. It doesn’t seem as though it was relaid as part of the rebuilding project. It must be sloping more than a yard from Moor Lane towards Neville Road. Standing behind the goal, looking down the other end of the pitch, it is really striking when you follow the lines of the roof and the crush barriers.

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In fact, the pitch look more like the one where my super veteran team Dynamo Birkerod plays every Sunday than a football league pitch. We see groundsman sprinkling the pitch with a garden hose;  although later it is revealed that a couple of sprinklers have been built into the pitch – so some pitch work has been done.

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Whereas the ground at Leyton Orient oozes tradition, history and community, the Salford City ground is underpinned by sporting ambition. This is a necessary stepping stone to becoming a league club – and probably to getting all the way to the top. There is not much history around, but statements about intent like this one of the staircase: “There is no elevator to success; You have to take the stairs”. But Salford City seems to be jumping rather than walking up the stairs.

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Or “You don’t just support a team. You belong to it”. This statement, however, would perhaps be more appropriate at Leyton Orient. It is not just the stadium buildings that differ; the atmosphere in the two grounds differ as well. It is not just that the crowd at Salford is just under half the 5,200 at Leyton Orient. There doesn’t seem to be the same passion around the ground. Maybe it is because the club by many Manchester United fans are seen as a sort reserve team. Plenty of people go to the match wearing their Manchester United colors, and will probably be on their way to Old Trafford for United’s match against West Ham later in the day. Just like we are.

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There is a group of Salford fans standing behind the goal with banners, doing some singing and chanting. But the response to Salford City taking a rather undeserved lead some 10 minutes into the match is quite muted, where we are sitting. Maybe because everybody just expects Salford to record a routine win; maybe because people don’t quite belong yet. In fact, it is the away fans from Maidenhead United, who are having a great day out. They are all dressed up. Superheroes, ghosts and ghostbusters, pirates, wizards, you name it. My favourite is a guy sitting on the shoulders of president Trump.

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That is, there is a group of 15 Maidenhead fans who – with the exception of one – hasn’t dressed up. The one exception really stands out with his bare arms and legs, especially considering that it is bitterly cold. Reminds me of the Bridget Jones’ Diary: “Where are all the other tarts and vicars?”. But, the dressedup guys seems to enjoy himself.

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It is, though, a far cry from the atmosphere at Brisbane Road. The crowd there is really passionate, living every single tackle. It is ooohss and ahhhs and plenty of chanting from all stands of the ground. A cracking atmosphere, much better than at some Premiership and Championship grounds. I guess it has to do with the tradition. Losing their league status has been a completely devastating blow to the Leyton Orient supporters; it is absolutely essential for them to get back now. Whereas the vast majority of Salford City fans seems more laid back. Feeling confident, perhaps even knowing, that with the backing of the Class of ’92, it is just a matter of time, before they will be in the big time. If they go up this year, they will even be ahead of schedule.

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Maybe the actual games influence this impression. Leyton Orient go down to a brillant early goal from Eastleigh. But spurred on by the crowd, they equalize, only for Eastleigh to retake the lead with another spectacular goal. You begin to sense the frustration. But in the second half, the fans rally again, and Leyton grab two goals within five minutes to take the lead. It is a pulsating game – and the quality is surprisingly high. My son and I are both impressed with the technical ability and some of the flowing football displayed by both teams, if fact.

IMG_8161The match at Salford is the opposite. It is quite scrappy, littered with technical mistakes and plenty of long balls just being whacked forward. Maybe the pitch doesn’t help. Salford capitalize on two technical mistakes by Maidenhead to break and score within the first half hour. Still, they don’t play very well. But on the stroke of halftime they go 3-0 up from a penalty after some chaotic defending of a corner.  Nothing much happens in the second half. There is nothing for the fans to get excited about, except some pushing and showing at set-pieces.

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There is something exciting about new clubs suddenly making headway through the league system. For instance, Bournemouth’s rise to the Premiership has been exciting to watch. But I must admit that my favorites in the race for League football are Leyton Orient. It is one of those little gems like Grimsby Town that just win me over with their passion and their tradition. And really good football on top of it. I know that they tried to move to the Olympic Stadium before West Ham United beat them to it. I think that they are fortunate that they didn’t get it. Brisbane Road is a brilliant place to go – I will certainly recommend to anybody going to London wanting to have a proper match day experience. As I am writing this, both Leyton Orient and Salford City are ahead in their matches – with another two matches remaining. Leyton Orient are two points ahead. What an exciting race for football league.

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Posted in Football grounds

Pittodrie – from gallow hill and dung yard to cemetery and football ground

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It is almost surreal. It is February, the sun is beaming down, it is hot – and I am sweating on my way up the sloping Park Road in Aberdeen. A green bus stop marks the summit. Standing out against the blue sky. As I approach, the landscape on the other side gradually unfolds. The sea, the coastline, a cemetery – and the giant eastern stand of Aberdeen’s ground, Pittodrie! Like a scenery from the movie “Bagdad Café”. An strange but awesome sight.

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The basic no-nonsense of the scenery is captivating. I love football grounds surrounded by terraced housing and small gardens. The day before, I visited Tannadice with allotments in the back yard. Grounds where the neighborhood over a century has evolved around the ground –  football ground and neighborhood growing together organically. But this is somehow raw. As though the cold winds from the sea have prevented nice little gardens and terraced housing from growing.

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I check a map of the area from 1879. This area was very much out of town. There were two hospitals – an epidemic and a boys’ hospital. A militia depot with a rifle shooting range right on the edge of the current football ground – and there used to be a police dunghill. There was no cemetery yet in 1879, but a gallow hill at what is now the western corner of the cemetery. A map from 1883 shows that the western half of the cemetery had been established by then – and the gallow hill had been converted to a powder magazine. In 1894, a huge gasholder was built between the cemetery and the shooting range. According to Simon Inglis, Pittodrie football ground was established in 1899 – and in the 1902 map, you can see how the football ground has taken over part of the rifle range and all of the dung hill. The golf club has also set up its club house, although the golf course itself is not marked on the map yet.

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Simon Inglis suggests that the name Pittodrie might derive from a celtic word for “place of manure”, but point out that it could also refer to a village 20 miles north-west of Aberdeen. Looking at the maps, the latter seems to be the most likely explanation. Pittodrie Street might lead to the site of the old dung hill, but a map of 1897 shows Pittodrie Place slightly to the north, whereas the road leading to the dunghill has been named Merkland Road East – and in fact continues around the dunghill where you now find Pittodrie Street. It seems as though Pittodrie doesn’t originate from the dunghill. Whatever the origin of the name, it adds to the magic of the place. Pittodrie. It is just as captivating as “Tannadice”.

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Maybe it is the setting with a cemetery and the sea – and the history with a gallow hill, a rifle range and a dunghill –  but as I walk around the ground, I feel that there is certain rawness to it. The towering Eastern (or Richard Donald’s) Stand, for instance, is so overwhelmingly huge. It has the appearance of a giant bulwark against the cold winds and floodings from the sea. It absolutely dwarfs the rest of the ground – or shelters it.

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The Richard Donald Stand is the only stand at Pittodrie built after the Taylor Report. It was opened in 1993. Most clubs have built one or more stands since 1990, trying to comply with new ground regulations including all-seaters. But Aberdeen were not really forced into building a new stand. Pittodrie had been an all-seater stadium since 1978 – the first all-seater ground in Britain. So the Richard Donald Stand was mainly a statement, a testimony to the club’s status as the challenger to Celtic and Rangers during the 1980’s under Alex Ferguson.

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Continuing around the ground down Pittodrie Street, I find the oldest stand – the main stand from 1925. It is the age of Archibald Leitch, although the great man wasn’t behind this one. But it does have the appearance – just a little more raw. There are no fancy sandstone ornaments in the bricks like at Craven Cottage; no club crests; no elegant doorways or window openings like at Ibrox. Just plain red bricks with raw steel framework, factory-like leaded windows, and very basic entrance gates.

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The eastern end of the stand was ravaged by a fire in 1971, and had to be rebuilt. It is quite visible from the outside. The rebuilt section has the same bricks and windows, but does not feature the same steel framework. Also, it is slightly higher, because – as can be seen from the inside – the roof construction is slightly different. The main stand entrance also stands out. It may just be that they have rebuilt the original main entrance – but I would have thought it would have featured right in the middle of the stand like at Ibrox or Dens Park – and not at the eastern end of it.

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The overall impression of the original main stand has thankfully been preserved, but nevertheless the old part has a little bit more character. It seems more authentic. Especially at the end of it. I think it is mainly due to the steel framework which seems more ornamental than functional here.

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The stand-out ornamental feature of Pittodrie, though, is the granite entrance gate at the Western (Merkland Road) End of the ground. I curse the beaming sunshine as it casts a shadow of the neighboring house down the middle of it. But with no clouds in the sky, I figure out I will have to wait quite a long time for the chance of taking a decent photo of it. So I have to settle for this.

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The gate is almost just as old as the main stand – it is from 1928. The terraced embankment behind the wall was roofed as early as 1934 – another proof that Aberdeen was well ahead of the rest when it came to cater for their crowd. Probably a reflection of the rough weather conditions with Pittodrie not only next to the North Sea but also one of the most northern grounds on the British Isles.

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To my knowledge, it is still the original embankment, but in the early 1970’s Aberdeen put benches on to it, making it a seated area. During the 1980’s the roof was replaced by a new one, and the benches replaced by plastic seats.

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In comparison to the other stands, the South Side looks rather dull. Like the Merkland Road End, it used to be a terraced embankment. But whereas the Merkland had a roof long before the seats, seats were installed here in 1978, completing Pittodrie as an all-seater stadium – before a roof had been put up. The untenable in this was quickly realized, and two years later the current cantilever roof was built. But it doesn’t extent all the way to the corners of the stand. You still have the possibility of enjoying a seat in the rain.

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As I walk back around the ground, there is a gate open, and I take the opportunity to have a look inside. Seen from the South Side, there is a marked difference between the roof at the western and eastern end of the main stand. And oddly enough, it is the roof over the original western end that looks new and bright. I find the explanation when I am allowed a walk around the ground in the evening before the match.

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The main stand was – like almost any main stand of the time – divided into roofed seats at the back, and an uncovered standing paddock at the front. As seats were installed in the paddock in 1968, it became necessary to extend the original roof to cover the paddocks. An extension was added on top of the original roof, probably in connection with the rebuilding after the fire 1971.

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The difference is even more apparent, when I take my seat at the back of the stand for the match. But it also strikes me that just as the outside is devoid of ornamental features, the roof construction and pillars look basic and raw compared to Archibald Leitch’s work at the time. The functional structure, though, is basically the same. But without the little extras. It may be that they have disappeared. I have seen photos showing that the roof used to have a Leitch style gable. And the Craven Cottage-like pavillon that used to be in the north eastern corner of the ground next to the main stand, also had one. As though the cold winds from the sea have swept any ornaments away.

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Whereas the front of the main stand was upgraded from standing paddock to seating in 1968, the back of it was upgraded from seats to executive boxes in the early 1980’s. I guess the visitors must be celebrities guarding their privacy, as all of them have white curtains drawn down right until kick-off.

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Apart from being the first all-seater stadium in Britain, Pittodrie was the first ground to erect a dugout for their trainer, so he could keep his notebook dry. That was in the late 1920’s. But with no substitutes in those days, he would probably only have needed one or two chairs. Not a bench long enough for 8 or 9 men. So I guess the current dugouts are modern constructions.

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Another kind of dugout has been constructed for wheel-chair users on the South Side of the ground to shelter them. But there are no such comfort for people visiting the Y-section in the south-western corner of the ground (background of the photo).

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Nor to a section of the visiting supporters. If you as a home supporter chose to go in the uncovered Y-section, you can save £2 on your ticket. I wonder if the away fans getting an uncovered seat get a similar reduction. Or whether it makes much of a difference, because I can imagine that quite a few of the away supporters under the roof get soaked as well during bad weather, as the wind from the sea is likely to sweep under the cantilevered roof of the stand, as it has no wind shield at the end.

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I take another look at the ground from Broad Hill before going back to my hotel to get some rest before the evening’s match – the Dons against the Academicals. Whereas Hamilton’s Academical is a link to the club’s roots as a school team, I guess Aberdeen’s nickname refers to the river Don, though – and not to the university. Anyway, my expectations are high. When I saw Aberdeen play less than two years ago, they won 7-0 away to Dundee FC, with their away support in full voice. I know they have had a few disappointing home results of late, but Hamilton seems to be in an even worse state than Dundee FC were – and they have a fresh 5-0 defeat against Rangers from the weekend.

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Approaching the ground in the dark is quite spectacular. There is always something special about a floodlit football ground. Two things make this more spectacular than most. Seagulls keep flying around in the floodlight over the ground. They glow in the air from afar. It is almost like the 1978 World Cup confetti in Argentina.

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And the floodlit cemetery is also a spectacular if not a spooky sight.

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But the ground is also an enjoyable sight. Especially the main stand, where the glassed windows glow and the floodlights beam from the pylon in the corner.

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And the granite gate of the Merkland stand looks impressive in the lights.

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Inside the ground, the Richard Donald stand looks even bigger with the lights on along the roof.

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From my seat in the eastern end of the main stand, I can look right across to the away support. A yellow fence and yellow stairs separate them from the home fans. I wonder if the away fans section is extended to the yellow gangway when Celtic or Rangers visit with their massive away support. Hamilton have only brought 32 fans. Even though the weather is dry, none of them opt for the open-air seats in the away section. Usually, away support gather as one single group, however few they are. But the Hamilton fans scatter out in 4 or 5 groups.

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After my visit, I regret that I didn’t try to map out the concourse – to find out why the ceiling is sunk in part of it. I almost bang my head into it. Again, it is not like Archibald Leitch at his best, but I love it. With lots of redpainted doors and staircases, and at the same time pretty spacious.

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For some reason the queues at the kiosks are not that long, not even at halftime. One explanation, of course, could be poor quality – but that is not the case. I have a good pie as well as a nice cup of coffee. I can only assume that the ratio of kiosk per spectator is higher than usual. Especially because the concourse of Pittodrie is much more appealing than the stands before kick-off.

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Not really for keeping warm, as I had expected going to a match in Aberdeen in February. It is 6 or 7 degrees in the evening. It is more the loudness of the music played over the tannoy in the stands. It is absolutely deafening. I try to have a conversation with the season ticket holder in the seat next to me – but it is next to impossible because of the loud music.

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When the music finally is turned off at kick-off, the crowd respond with – silence! At last, they seem to think. Or is it just that I have been deafened by the music? I don’t think so. When I visited Tannadice the previous day, fans grouped in the stand irrespective of seat numbers. There was a constant din of talking – with ooohhhss and aaaahhhs rising from the crowd whenever a promising seemed to be under way. But everything seems so quiet inside Pittodrie, despite the crowd being 3 times bigger than at Tannadice. I can hear some talking in the distance – it sounds almost like whispering from one or two people. And it takes a very big chance for Aberdeen to raise the crowd to an oooohhhhh. Most of the time, you only hear some groans over poor control and misplaced passes.

At the same time, the Aberdeen players look like a team short of confidence – and the groaning and moaning seem to get under their skin. Aberdeen have the majority of possession, and they do create some decent chances. But, somehow, lowly Hamilton with their 32 supporters look the more likely team right from the start. Especially the wee Miller up front seems to give Aberdeen all sorts of problems with his movement. And suddenly, Hamilton’s Oakley fires in a stunning volley from the tightest of angles – with shades of Marco van Basten in the 1990’s. Although Aberdeen still create a number of chances, they seem to lack belief, whereas Hamilton grow in confidence.

For the second half, someone has taken out a drum in the Family Stand at the Merkland end. I didn’t hear it in the first half. Normally, I hate drumming at matches, but in this case, I can understand the need to do something break the silence that hangs thick in the air. Even though the drumming is not particularly good, and nobody joins in to clap, sing or chant.

It is not really a surprise, when Hamilton go two up in the second half. Silence. The 32 Hamilton supporters don’t make much nice – even though they dance around wildly. The season ticket holder next to me gets up. “For f***’s sake, take a good look at yourself, Aberdeen!” he yells. It rings out loudly amidst the silence. There is still the odd Aberdeen chance, but a comeback doesn’t seem to be on. Not even some unsporting behavior by Hamilton’s Oakley, as he wins a very soft free-kick and laughs in the face of the penalized Aberdeen player sparks a reaction from the crowd.

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By the end of the match, security gathers by the gangway in the away section to prevent a pitch invention. The 32 Hamilton supporters, seeing that they are outnumbered, abstain.

The difference between the Aberdeen performance against Dundee two years ago and tonight is beyound belief. Not just the performance of the team – which oozed confidence and belief – but also the supporters, who were having a carnival time, singing and chanting. It may be that it is just the lack of belief and confidence after five home games without a win. Or maybe there is more to it. Maybe more than 40 years as an all-seater stadium has created a more restrained fan culture. Or is it the noisy pre-match music that makes the fans long for some silence. Or the usually cold weather, which makes fans want to wrap up in some warm clothers over a cup of hot coffee? Or have I just witnessed one of those off-days that every experiences?

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I ask the season ticket holder next to me and a couple of other fans about their thoughs on the new ground. One of them is quite convinced that this is, what the club needs. It is embarrassing that they don’t have proper training facilities – and you need a modern ground in the modern game. The season ticket holder is not sure. He can see the point of improving training facilities, but it is a big step to leave behind all the heritage at Pittodrie. The last fan is negative. At the end of the day, it doesn’t make any difference if a football match is played in a modern or an old ground. But moving away from the city will spoil the match day of having a drink in the pub before walking to the ground.

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From a groundhopper’s perspective, I identify with the latter views. It is the heritage of Pittodrie and the place that have made me make the trip to visit the ground. And will make me attempt to throw in another match at Pittodrie on my next trip to Scotland. Whereas the new Kingsford Stadium will find itself way down the list of football grounds, I wish to visit. But, of course, Aberdeen have to cater for their own fans, not groundhoppers.

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Posted in Football grounds

Tannadice – what gives a football ground character?

IMG_6661.JPGWhen I made my list of the top 24 English football grounds back in December, I was asked about the criteria. Well, they are not clear-cut. If I should nail it down to just one word, I would say “character”, something that stands out from the rest. Of course, there are many ways of doing this. Dundee United’s Tannadice Park does so in a number of ways.

To start with, there is the name. “Tannadice”. Taste it. It is like a smoked malt. And compare it to “Bet365” or “Amex” or the “SportsDirect” or some other sponsor named ground. When I listened in on the BBC Saturday afternoons in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I was always fascinated by the sound of the name – especially when pronounced with a proper Scottish accent.

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Then, there is the place. Tannadice is not located outside town, next to a recycling station or a McDonalds by a ring road. You climb the steep Hilltown from the centre of Dundee and walk through residential areas before arriving at Tannadice Street to find that there is not just one football ground but two! They are – apparently with the exception of a couple of back-to-back grounds in Budapest – the two closest football grounds in Europe. A good goalkeeper will be able to kick the ball from one ground to the other. I am a big fan of Simon Inglis’ encyclopedic work on British football grounds, but I cannot share his lament that Dundee FC and Dundee United didn’t go ahead with plans of a shared ground in 1990. THIS is magic – and Inglis does admit that “all the while we are secretly captivated by the absurdity of it all”.

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Well, I don’t find it absurd. As I said. It is about character. And a ground that had to be the home of the tangerine side of a city one week, and then the home of their rivals from the blue side the following week just wouldn’t have as much character. I have not studied the early days of Dundee football properly, but whereas Dundee FC at Dens Park down the road proudly state that they are the oldest club in Dundee – from 1893 – Tannadice can, according to Simon Inglis –  lay claim to being the oldest ground, as football has been played here since 1891, although admittedly it was Dundee United’s predecessors Dundee Wanderers who made it their home that year, calling their ground Clepington Park. It was Dundee FC challenging an existing football club, when they moved to Tannadice Street in 1899 – despite laying claim to being the oldest club. At least, this is what Simon Inglis writes. I have had a look at maps of Dundee from 1891 to 1910 – and whereas Dens Park is clearly marked as a football ground from 1903, there is no marking of a football ground down Tannadice Street before 1910.

When the Irish community of Dundee set up Dundee Hibernian in 1909, they ousted Wanderers from Clepington, renaming the place Tannadice after the name of the street. But you could argue that it was a completely new ground, as Wanderers – much to the surprise of everybody – took stands and fences with them. As I said, I am not that much into the early history of Dundee football; but the story of rival clubs competing for a home in the farmland that was then on the outskirts of the town does tell of the importance of football club identities.

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Currently Dundee FC are discussing plans to move to a new ground. From my point of view, it will be a pity if they just throw away their heritage, having one of the remaining eight Archibald Leitch stands. But to me and other football ground enthusiasts, it will not just be Dundee FC losing their magical appeal; Tannadice will lose some of its attractive magic, if Dens Park is demolished. The proximity of the two grounds is compelling.

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On my first visit to Dundee, I went to watch a match from the Archibald Leitch stand at Dens Park. Therefore, my first view down Tannadice Street was from the Dens Park end. With the classical Leitch main stand in the foreground, Tannadice looked very much second best. But if you approach from the other end of the street, the tangerine of United and the façade of Tannadice’s main stand look the more appealing, with the blue of Dens Park looking more like a background curtain.

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I spend more than an hour in the afternoon, walking around the grounds, not being able to decide which is the most fascinating. Archibald Leitch’s Dens Park, or the tangerine Tannadice? It is a truly unique place. To add to it, the area behind the East Stand of Tannadice (named the Eddie Thomson Stand) are allotments. Or rather, the East Stand has been given an oddly irregular shape to be able to squeeze it in behind the allotments.

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That is another element in the “character” of a ground. That it is not a modern spaceship-like designed ground that has been constructed on a drawing board and could have been put up anywhere. It has taken shape from the surroundings – it has become an organic part of them. It is not just the north corner of the East Stand that has been sliced off to squeeze in behind the allotments. The western corner of the North (George Fox) Stand is also sliced off by the Sandeman Street, giving this otherwise fairly regular stand a characteristic look.

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In fact, all the stands seem to have irregular shapes. From the East Stand, you cannot help noticing the asymmetrical look of the West Stand – or the Shed as it is called. There are almost shades of Carlisle United’s Brunton Park, as it looks as though the builders have got it wrong and placed it way too far to the south. The southern end of the stand extends beyond the touchline and the South Stand – and probably therefore, this part of the stand is not in use. On the other side, the northern end of the Shed doesn’t even reach the touchline by the North Stand. Were they drunk when they build it? Maybe. But the reason for the asymmetrical look is probably the two-stepped construction of the South Stand – the main stand.

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The South Stand is probably the most irregular one of them all. It was built as the first cantilevered stand in Scotland and opened in 1962 – the third in Britain after Scunthorpe and Sheffield Wednesday. It doesn’t extent the entire length of the pitch, though. This isn’t unique. You can find plenty of old stands not spanning the entire length of the pitch, but the peculiar thing about this one is that rather than placing it centrally, it spans only the eastern half of the pitch – and then curves around the eastern corner in an L-shape and takes up a little bit of the East Stand. Just like Archibald Leitch’s main stand at Starks Park, by the way.

When the East Stand was built in 1994, it was linked to the L-shaped South Stand. But not much effort was put into unifying them. On the outside of the ground, an extension building – with club offices – was added with a glass façade that contrasts sharply to the profiled steel of the stands. On the inside, the roof is not quite the same height, and the top tier is much smaller in the East Stand, whereas the lower tier is much bigger than the one of the main stand.

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Similarly, an extension of the L-shaped cantilever stand side from 1997 stands out. In 1971, the lower tier of the stand was replaced by a glass-fronted sponsor lounge (the first one in Scotland). In contrast to this, the extension has a lower tier of ordinary seats. This lower tier takes up much more space than the lounge, almost encroaching on the pitch – and it is probably this extension that makes the Shed look misplaced. Almost to underline the difference between the L-shaped main stand and the extension, the roof is much bigger over the extension, trying to shelter all the seats in the lower tier.

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It doesn’t stop there. The pitch is visibly sloping from west to east, at least judging from the advertising boards along the North Stand.

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And the floodlights are also an odd mixture. I presume that four classical, identical corner pylons were put up in 1962. But in the 1990’ies, floodlights were fixed along the roof of the new North Stand, making the corner stands in the corners of the north side redundant. One of the pylons, though, remains in place, but in a strangely amputated version. And as the new East Stand was built and linked to the L-shaped South Stand, there was no longer room for the original pylon in the southeastern corner of the ground. A stubby new one has been placed on the roof of the stand instead.

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It is not just the appearance of the irregular shapes and features that make the ground so full of character. Each of them embodies a little piece of club history. According to Inglis, Dundee United became the first Scottish club to operate their own pools in 1956, raising the money for the Shed at the West End in this way. Then, promotion in 1959 gave a new cash injection that was invested in the L-shaped, cantilevered main stand. The erection of the sponsor lounges also marks a new development in Scottish football in 1971.

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Whereas these traces of history can still be seen, others have disappeared along the way. When Roy Stewart was sold to West Ham in 1979, the money was spent on a roof over the terraces on the north side of the ground. And in 1987, Dundee United’s fans won a prize from UEFA for their sporting behavior as they reached the final of the UEFA cup – a prize that paid for a roof over the northern terrace of the South Stand. Both these two new roofs were swept away by the changes in the 1990’s, once the plans of ground sharing had been abandoned. Incidentally, according to Simon Inglis, these changes were mainly financed by selling four players to Glasgow Rangers.

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The closer you look at Tannadice, the more fascinated you get by all the irregularities and the stories behind them. Simon Inglis labels it “an odd assortment of angles and awkward corners, but at least now partially unified by external styling, orange seating and plain grey roof fascia”. Once again, I don’t share Inglis’ view. To me, it is precisely the assortment of angles and odd features that gives the ground character, making me increasingly fond of it, whereas the external styling at first made the ground look a somewhat pale background to Dens Park.

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Still, there are more stories to be discovered. As she kindly allows me pitch side to take some photos of the stands during my afternoon walk around the ground,  Dundee United communications manager Riki Dauer tells me that over the years fans have had their ashes scattered inside the ground, and in fact, former Dundee United hero Ralph Milne, who tragically died at an early age a few years ago, has had his ashes interred by the Shed. Many modern, anonymous grounds derive their character from memorial gardens and statues erected around the ground; Tannadice doesn’t need that.

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I go back to my hotel to rest my weary legs before the evening’s match – Dundee United against Inverness. I have asked for a ticket for the part of the ground with the best atmosphere – and the lady at the ticket office doesn’t hesitate. The East Stand. Before the transformation of the ground in the 1990’s, the Shed used to be the most stronghold of the Dundee United supporters. From 1957 to 1979, it was the only covered terrace, so that was where the home fans preferred to go. But now the Shed alternates between holding the away support and home support, depending on the crowd and the number of away fans anticipated.

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For this match, there are about 150 Inverness supporters in the Shed. But I am told that when the two clubs meet again the following Sunday in the FA Cup, a much bigger crowd and away support is expected – and the away support will be transferred to the main stand, with Dundee United fans able to take over the Shed.

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As the main stand in this way also alternates between holding home and away support, it is no surprise that it is almost empty. Only a tiny section in the middle of it is completely full – presumably the director’s box. Quite strange, as they seem lost in the emptiness of the surrounding stand. Whereas the Shed and the main stand are almost empty, the East and the North stands are pretty full. It underlines the irregular shapes of the ground and makes the atmosphere a bit surreal.

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I had bought a ticket in advance, but it turns out that you can also pay at the turnstile. Not really thinking about that, I try to find my allocated seat, only to find it occupied, of course. You just have to find a free seat. Which is great, because it enables supporters to group together as they like. With mates going in groups, there is constant din of talking around the stand – a sharp contrast to what I experience at Aberdeen the following day. But whenever there is a chance of a promising Dundee United attack, ooohhhs and aaaahhhs take over. There is very little chanting – but the constant mumble and the engaged oooohhhs and aaaahhs make it a great atmosphere.

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The most disappointing feature is probably the Scotch Pie I have on the concourse during half-time. Somehow, it is unusually greasy and dry at the same time. And I must admit that the concourse doesn’t have the same charm as the narrow corridors of Archibald Leitch’s main stand down the road at Dens Park.

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Dundee United play some very good attacking football in the opening stages of the game and ought to have taken the lead. But as they don’t, Inverness gradually gets a foothold, and it becomes a fairly even contest. And gradually the crowd seems to become more engaged in pushing their team forward to score. They eventually do from the penalty spot in the middle of the second half. But the relief of getting the breakthrough is almost immediately followed by a second yellow card to a United player for a reckless challenge.

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That makes for a tense final 20 minutes. If  Inverness’ former Dundee United player, Donaldson, who was involved in the sending-off incidence, wasn’t already the pantomime villain, he certainly becomes that as he shortly afterwards lashes out at a Dundee United player in an off-the-ball incidence that neither referee nor linesmen spot. It adds to the tense atmosphere – and the United crowd delights, when Donaldson sees a deflected shot just being tipped over the top by United’s keeper in injury time. He buries his head in his shirt, accompanied by triumphant jeering from the East Stand.

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The match ends with a 1-0 win for Dundee United. Exiting the ground, the surrounding streets are lit up by the floodlights. And the two functioning pylons can be seen from afar, whenever I turn to have a look back, as I make my way back to the city centre. I look forward to being back in Dundee for football – and hope and pray that there still will be two football grounds in Tannadice Street.

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Posted in Football grounds

Top English Football Ground Advent Calendar 2018: 24th December

01 Everton (1)

Day 24 – Ground no. 1: Goodison Park, Everton.

It is almost like an open-air museum. The Archibald Leitch stands at Bullen’s Road and Gwlady’s Street are top-drawer. The stairs, the concourse in the lower section, the wooden floor and the criss-crossed steel balustrades in the upper section. The rows of terraced houses leading to the ground, which so dominates Goodison Road. And the St. Luke’s church with the Memorial Garden right in the corner of the ground. It just has everything – hurry up, before it is too late.

Merry Christmas

 

01 Everton (2)01 Everton (3)01 Everton (4)01 Everton (5)01 Everton (6)

 

1 Goodison Park, Everton

2. Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday

3. Craven Cottage, Fulham

4. Fratton Park, Portsmouth

5. Kenilworth Road, Luton Town

6. Brunton Park, Carlisle United

7. Blundell Park, Grimsby Town

8. Griffin Park, Brentford

9. London Road, Peterborough

10. Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace

11. Bramall Lane, Sheffield United

12. Loftus Road, Queens Park Rangers

13. The City Ground, Nottingham Forest

14. Priestfield, Gillingham

15. Valley Parade, Bradford City

16. Villa Park, Aston Villa

17. Boundary Park, Oldham Athletic

18. Turf Moor, Burnley

19. Bootham Crescent, York City

20. Anfield Road, Liverpool F.C.

21. Elland Road, Leeds United

22. The County Ground, Swindon Town

23. St. Andrew’s, Birmingham City

24. St. James’ Park, Exeter City

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Posted in Football grounds, Uncategorized

Top English Football Ground Advent Calendar 2018: 23th December

02 Sheffield Wednesday (4)

Day 23 – Ground no. 2: Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday

So much football ground history packed into this. The impressive Kop Stand, one of the very few stands that have kept the original embankment underneath. The first full-pitch-length cantilever stand looking very 1960’ish. The renovated Archibald Leitch stand with a replica gable. The two-tier West Stand built in time for the 1966 World Cup. Surrounded by a park to the one side and terraced housing to the other, a river flowing along the ground, a memorial garden. And a cracking atmosphere inside.

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2. Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday

3. Craven Cottage, Fulham

4. Fratton Park, Portsmouth

5. Kenilworth Road, Luton Town

6. Brunton Park, Carlisle United

7. Blundell Park, Grimsby Town

8. Griffin Park, Brentford

9. London Road, Peterborough

10. Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace

11. Bramall Lane, Sheffield United

12. Loftus Road, Queens Park Rangers

13. The City Ground, Nottingham Forest

14. Priestfield, Gillingham

15. Valley Parade, Bradford City

16. Villa Park, Aston Villa

17. Boundary Park, Oldham Athletic

18. Turf Moor, Burnley

19. Bootham Crescent, York City

20. Anfield Road, Liverpool F.C.

21. Elland Road, Leeds United

22. The County Ground, Swindon Town

23. St. Andrew’s, Birmingham City

24. St. James’ Park, Exeter City

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Top English Football Ground Advent Calendar 2018: 22nd December

 

03 Fulham (2)

Day 22 . Ground 3: Craven Cottage, Fulham

There is a reason, it is listed. THAT stand by Archibald Leitch. Well, many more ought to be so. But this is just wonderful. The Dutch renaissance-like facade with red bricks, limestone and velvets. The wooden floor and wooden seats pitchside + an Archibald Leitch roof that gives a much better soundscape than modern grounds. The elegant columns, the charming concourse. Just great. And, on top of that, you have the cottage and a riverside location.

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3. Craven Cottage, Fulham

4. Fratton Park, Portsmouth

5. Kenilworth Road, Luton Town

6. Brunton Park, Carlisle United

7. Blundell Park, Grimsby Town

8. Griffin Park, Brentford

9. London Road, Peterborough

10. Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace

11. Bramall Lane, Sheffield United

12. Loftus Road, Queens Park Rangers

13. The City Ground, Nottingham Forest

14. Priestfield, Gillingham

15. Valley Parade, Bradford City

16. Villa Park, Aston Villa

17. Boundary Park, Oldham Athletic

18. Turf Moor, Burnley

19. Bootham Crescent, York City

20. Anfield Road, Liverpool F.C.

21. Elland Road, Leeds United

22. The County Ground, Swindon Town

23. St. Andrew’s, Birmingham City

24. St. James’ Park, Exeter City

Posted in Uncategorized

Top English Football Ground Advent Calendar 2018: 21st December

04 Portsmouth (4)

Day 21 – Ground number 4: Fratton Park, Portsmouth

As you walk down the Frogmore Road and see the mock-Tudor club office and the remains of the pre-Archibald Leitch stand, you know that you are in for something special. And, of course, the Archibald Leitch stand itself. The stairs with the old ticket sign, the concourse, the pillars, the barely recognizable criss-cross steelwork, and the backgardens between the stand and the terraced houses. Phew. The other stands look cracking as well. And a wonderful walk down Specks Lane behind the Milton End.

 

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4. Fratton Park, Portsmouth

5. Kenilworth Road, Luton Town

6. Brunton Park, Carlisle United

7. Blundell Park, Grimsby Town

8. Griffin Park, Brentford

9. London Road, Peterborough

10. Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace

11. Bramall Lane, Sheffield United

12. Loftus Road, Queens Park Rangers

13. The City Ground, Nottingham Forest

14. Priestfield, Gillingham

15. Valley Parade, Bradford City

16. Villa Park, Aston Villa

17. Boundary Park, Oldham Athletic

18. Turf Moor, Burnley

19. Bootham Crescent, York City

20. Anfield Road, Liverpool F.C.

21. Elland Road, Leeds United

22. The County Ground, Swindon Town

23. St. Andrew’s, Birmingham City

24. St. James’ Park, Exeter City

Posted in Uncategorized

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