Selhurst Park – searching for Crystal Palace’s memorial garden

 

P1270814Selhurst Park was high on my football ground wish list this season. For three reasons. Firstly, with Palace about to get the final seal of approval of their plans for a new main stand, the days of the original main stand by Archibald Leitch seem numbered. So it is about time to see it.

Secondly, I am doing a project on football memorial gardens. When I visited Selhurst Park a year ago to see their memorial garden inside the ground, I was told it had been scrapped. Later, I later spoke to the club chaplain. He sounded astonished by this, saying that he couldn’t believe it, but it  admittedly, a couple years since he had last been called upon to participate in a ceremony. Had it been scrapped? It seemed I had to go and have a look for myself. Another reason for putting it high on the wish list.

Thirdly, commentators on Danish Television keep praising Selhurst Park for arguably the best atmosphere in the Premier League. Well, of course, I have to sample that.

P1270817For the past couple of years, I have looked for tickets for Selhurst Park whenever I have been in London, but as demand is much greater than supply, tickets have only been on sale for members. During my visit last year to see the memorial garden, I asked if they did any stadium tours. “Not at the moment”, I was told, but I was advised to sign up for their newsletter to learn when they took the tours up again.

So when I got a newsletter offering special overseas membership, including priority for tickets for the London derby against Spurs AND a free stadium tour, I decided that this was my chance.  I signed up as a member, booked two tickets for the Spurs match, so I could bring my cousin Jorgen, living in London – and then I asked how to sign up for the stadium tour. Well, the membership may have contained free ticket for a stadium tour. The problem, however, was that they still hadn’t any tours planned ….

That was a huge disappointment, and things almost got worse. When I purchased the ticket for a Monday night kick-off, I remember seeing a notice that the match may be moved in case of a FA Cup replay. But with the Crystal Palace out of the cup and Spurs having drawn struggling League One team Rochdale, it seemed a rather academic information – and I forgot all about it. Sunday morning, I got an email from Crystal Palace that I could use my tickets for Monday for the match today – a 12 o’clock kick-off! Spurs had a replay scheduled against Rochdale for the Wednesday.

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Wikimedia commons

Fortunately, I was not travelling from Denmark, but from Putney. My cousin and I set off for Selhurst Park right away. As a football club, Crystal Palace is one of the younger English clubs – formed in 1905. But in a sense, its history stretches further back than most clubs’. The name originates from the Crystal Palace built for the first great world exhibition in 1851. An exhibition, I have studied as a historian – an exhibition where Samuel Colt’s famous 1851 Navy revolver was displayed among so many other things, that Karl Marx called it “the emblem of capitalist fetishism of commodities”.

The palace itself was moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham Hill in 1854. From 1895 to 1914, the ‘new Crystal Palace’ hosted the FA Cup Final – and this prompted the owners to decide that they ought to have their own football club, Crystal Palace. However, when the Great War broke out, the armed forces took over the Crystal Palace grounds, and the club had to move. Initially, they played at Herne Hill cycle and athletics grounds, and then the Nest, the ground of recently folded club Croydon Common. But in 1919 they began the purchase of the land in between the housing in Holmesdale Road, Park Road, Clifton Road and Whitehorse Lane. It was completed in 1922 and the building of the new ground, Selhurst Park, started the following year.

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National Library of Scotland

It is quite interesting to consult old maps to see what the area looked like in those days. I have found maps of the Croydon area from 1910 and 1932, that is respectively 14 years before and 8 years after the ground was founded. On the 1910 map, there is a cluster of buildings named “Brick works”, north of the Whitehorse Lane. South the lane, where the stadium was built, there is just one very small building in the middle of a white area on the map. The white area extends right to the Holmesdale Road. On the other side of the road, the current terraced houses has been built.

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In his football ground bible, Simon Inglis has illustrated the article on Selhurst Park with a photo of Selhurst Park on the opening day in 1924. A brilliant photo showing the fans queuing up outside the turnstiles, the sloping Holmesdale Road terrace and the brand new Archibald Leitch main stand. Inglis has a dig at nostalgic ‘old ground’ fetishists like me: “Fans who complain of modern grounds looking all the same might well reflect on this, the standard Leitch creation, barely different from those he was designing twenty years earlier.” Well, that is, Palace couldn’t afford the roof gable, the exterior brick detailing, and as far as I can see the criss cross iron work on the balcony. So there are differences. But, still, I can see his point.

Having said that, though, I still prefer old grounds to modern grounds for several reasons.

P1270811First of all, the location. Old grounds are usually situated in residential areas. Quite often they have been squeezed in among narrow streets and houses – resulting in irregular stands. Or they have been hindered in their expansion, giving them characteristic features – like scars, wrinkles and warts in an old man’s face. They have grown and changed with the community around them. Most new stadiums are built on ground available and affordable, which is rarely found within the community (although, happily, some clubs do manage that like Arsenal). Therefore, many new stadiums are built in non-spaces – devoid of community life, without any history. Selhurst Park, on the other hand, has been there for almost 95 years. You sense that it is woven into the fabric of the community.

Secondly, you can often detect the history of a club in an old ground. At Selhurst Park, the Arthur Wait-stand is a monument to Crystal Palace finally making it to the top division in English football in 1969. The curious mixture of Sainsbury and Whitehorse Lane stand is evidence of the financial troubles in the early 1980’ies, whereas the impressive Holmesdale Road stand is a remembrance of the early 1990’s, when Palace were relegated in the first season of the Premier League with the highest number of points ever, won straight promotion, only to be relegated again as the first club finishing fourth from bottom to be relegated (as the number of clubs in the league was reduced from 22 to 20). Talk of hard luck. The Holmesdale Road stand today looks as a statement of defiance during those turbulent years. And then, of course, there is still Archibald Leitch’s main stand from 1924. But we will get back to that. In a modern ground like The Emirates, they try to add history with an increasing number of statues outside the ground. But it is just not the same.

Thirdly and finally, many new stadiums with their massive concrete constructions not just look like the parking house architecture, they sound like it. The Archibald Leitch stands, especially those that have still got the wooden floors, generally have a much better soundscapes. There is something hard and metallic in a modern concrete stand.

 

We arrive by train to Selhurst station and walk up the Holmesdale Road. That is what approaching a football ground should feel like. You can see the giant stand in the distance, where the road starts to go uphill. A few grafters are selling Crystal Palace scarfs along the way. Maybe it is because my childhood Danish team, Boldklubben Frem, had the same red and blue colors, but to me they look really stylish.

 

The Holmesdale Road stand oozes character compared to most modern stands. The brick façade with windows is a reminder of good old-fashioned stands that were built for factory workers and not for money men from the city. The outside stairs, the ticket office booths, the wall, the entrance gates – they all have a retro look. According to Simon Inglis, this is to maintain some semblance of a residential street.

IMG_2222.JPGThe roof is also very impressive – the curve probably gives better shelter against rain and, I could imagine, offers some good acoustics, allowing the noise of the crowd to reverberate inside the ground. But, possibly, the best thing about it is the floodlights. They stand on scaffolds at each corner of the roof, parallel to the floodlights standing on pylons at the other end. They look like horns on a viking’s helmet.

As mentioned, one of the reasons why I am so keen to visit, is to find out if the memorial garden is still there. Having noticed that quite a few British stadiums now feature a memorial garden, where ashes of deceased fans can be scattered or buried, I have made a study of them. As far as I have been able to establish, Millwall’s garden from the early days of the New Den (1994) is the oldest. But two other South London teams run them close; Crystal Palace and Charlton. Charlton’s is from 1999, whereas I have not found the exact date or year of the Palace garden. In a survey on clubs’ policy on the scattering of ashes on the pitch from 2000, Palace answered that they had a strip of grass for the purpose behind the Holmesdale Road stand. The memorial garden.

When I visited Palace last year to see this garden – and was told it had been scrapped – I asked about the founding date. The lady I spoke with, told me that it was there when she started working at the club in 1994. I must admit I doubt it. When the Holmesdale Road End stand was built in 1994-5, 30,000 cubic meters of earth was excavated to a depth of 12 meters at the rear of the stand, and a concrete containing wall was built to prevent the Holmesdale Road caving in. I can’t imagine a memorial garden surviving that …. But it is likely that it was founded shortly after the stand was completed in 1995. (if anybody reading this knows about it, please contact me!)

I had also asked the lady why the garden was scrapped. She explained that a tree in the garden had grown so big, that it damaged the exterior wall. And as the garden was difficult to maintain in the first place, it had been scrapped all together two years ago. When I returned to Denmark from this visit, I went on a Palace Fans forum – and found a debate among Palace fans about the state of the garden. Situated opposite a burger stand, it was littered with rubbish, probably because some fans didn’t recognize that it was a memorial garden. One Palace fan offered to raise a fence around it, and, in fact, he posted a photo of the fence after it had been put up – and the tree had already been felled at the time! Making me doubt the tree-explanation for scrapping the garden.

IMG_2231.JPGI hold up my camera to a gap in the gate at the corner of the Holmesdale Road and take a photo. The white fence is still there. I plan with my cousin that at the final whistle, we will rush to this gate and try to enter. And if security tries to prevent us entering, he will try to distract them, so I can slip in.

 

We proceed down the Park Road along the Arthur Wait Stand. At the end of the road, another hill rises, with white houses and green areas. You really get a sense of Palace being a community club.

 

Whereas the Arthur Wait Stand looks invitingly minimalistic, the Whitehorse Lane (or rather Sainsbury’s) stand with the Sainsbury, the Crystal Palace shop and the Crystal Night Club really looks like a patchwork. And, I must admit, so does Archibald Leitch’s main stand. A number of buildings with offices and club reception have been attached, almost camouflaging that it is a stand – certainly, there are no distinctive Archibald Leitch features on the outside.

 

But it is a nice patchwork. The entrance gates with the Palace Eagle give you a sense of arriving. And a fan zone opposite the main reception attracts a lot of supporters and gives a buzzle of life just outside the ground. And I like the corners, where you can get a glimpse of the Arthur Waits stand opposite.

 

We enter the stand through some good old Leitch-style turnstiles. I don’t have the nerve to stop to study them for any inscriptions, indicating the date of manufacture. I hope Palace will preserve them, when they build the new stand – perhaps for the club museum that features in the plans for it.

 

But the stair leading to the concourse feels a bit flat. It is not like walking the stairs at the Gwladys End at Leitch’s Goodison Park. In fact, the concourse as well seems to have been refurbished recently. It has lost the charm of the brick and steel of old stands, without adding much more space. It feels quite flat – it really could be anywhere, we are standing, queuing for our coffee.

 

But, I forget about the concourse as I look up the narrow stairs to the stand. I can see the characteristic Archibald Leitch steel work on top of the pillar holding the roof. And as I get to the top of the stair, the wonderful sight of a Leitch roof construction greets me. Beautiful.

 

The paddock at the front of the main stand was converted to seating back in 1979, and the balcony separating it has been removed. You can, however, still discern the paddock from the concrete floor in contrast to the wooden floor in the old seating area.

 

Together, wooden floor and the gable roof creates such a special soundscape. You feel like in a living room.

 

The ground looks beautiful in the morning sunshine. Although it is freezing cold, the sky is blue and the February sun bright. The Holmesdale Road End is equally impressive from the inside, although I am glad I am not the camera man, having to climb up to the television gantry at the top.

 

I particularly like the look of the corner towards the Arthur Waits stand. You can see the housing in the street – and up there, maybe, the memorial garden almost overlooks the pitch. In fact, the position is quite similar to the memorial garden at the Valley. You would have thought that Charlton during their tenure at Selhurst Park from 1985 to 1991 became acquainted with the idea of a memorial garden – and copied it once they had resettled at the Valley. Only, I seriously doubt that the Crystal Palace garden was founded till 1995.

IMG_2300Our seats are at the back of the stand. From there, we cannot see much of the Holmesdale Road End. It is one of the main arguments against old stands that I frequently encounter. The restricted view. I don’t mind a bit, though. Not just because the velved roof contributes to the soundscape. It adds to this – you-are-in-the-theatre-feeling. And to be honest, the pillars may force you to move your body in order to catch every bit of action. But you will have to be sitting stubbornly still to miss any of the action. I remember some 10 years ago in the museum business, one of the really hot trends was to construct showcases in a way that forced visitors out of their passive strolling-by mode. They should have to bend forward or kneel or do something else to be able to see. To become active.

IMG_2323I may not be able to see the entire Holmesdale Road End, but I can see the small group of Crystal Palace ultras with their flags near the corner flag. And hear the noise of their drum. I must admit I am not particularly fond of this ultra-trend, which I am encountering at more and more grounds. A drum may be good for getting a chant going. But more often than not, it is used to create a continuous, monotonous sound, completely out of sync with the flow of the game.

IMG_2354.JPGThe great thing about the atmosphere at Selhurst Park is that you can really hear and feel the roar of the crowd when a chance suddenly opens up. But once or twice, the crowd seems lulled to sleep by the drumming and is slow to get the roar going. I have discussed the drumming at other grounds. Some people argue that with the atmosphere in general becoming more and more subdued, it is great that somebody tries to do something about it. It is just that I don’t think it lifts the general atmosphere. It looks to me as though the ultra-element is fairly cut off from the rest of the crowd. And I remember the Crystal Palace fans away at the Hawthorns a couple of years back, where they were quite vocal without the drum.

But, of course, travelling to an away match usually sets the fans up in a different way. The Tottenham fans, right opposite our seats, are in fairly good voice, even though they haven’t had to travel very far to get here. And then, Tottenham makes quite a good start to the match. The Crystal Palace defenders live very dangerously in the opening 15 minutes, but then Palace get their act together, and look almost just as threatening on the break.

IMG_2379Without being a high-scoring match, it is quite entertaining But in the final 10 minutes, Palace is forced back, and  you just get the feeling that a Tottenham winner is inevitable. And so it proves. Harry Kane, of course. We really do feel sorry for Palace. All their hard work of getting back in the game undone 2 minutes from the end. But the Tottenham fans, of course, are ecstatic.

IMG_2391.JPGAt the final whistle, we rush out of the ground and make our way towards the exit at the Holmesdale Road End to find out if the memorial garden is still there. We are walking against the stream of disappointed fans leaving the ground. Surprisingly, we are not stopped by security as we enter rather than exit the ground. We head for the white fence. It is, as the survey back in 2000 put it, more a strip of grass than a garden. But it is fairly well kept. There are fresh flowers around a stone eagle. An inscription on a stone tells us: “Here lie the ashes of Palace Supporters. The attend every game. Please show them the respect they deserve”.  Clearly, the garden has not been scrapped, as I was told. On the fans forum, there was a photo of a metal plaque with the same inscription. It has been renewed.

 

It makes me wonder why I was told that the garden had been scrapped. Maybe it is a security issue. For every year security at football grounds, especially in the premier league, is increased. It is probably considered a risk having people coming to visit the garden and pay their respects. It is easier to tell that there is no garden. Or it could be that the plans for the new main stand may interfere with the garden. According to the fans forum, the club plan to move the fanzone from just outside the reception by the main stand to this corner of the ground. And the memorial garden will be in the way for that move.

 

I do wonder, what the Palace fans think about it. Any comments and stories about the garden – if any of your friends or family have had their ashes scattered there – shall be most welcome for my project on football memorial gardens.

In the end, we leave Selhurst Park quite content. The garden is still there. And we did get to see the Archibald Leitch stand. Of course, I am a little sad that it will be demolished before too long. But not as sad as I was last year to visit the Archibald Leitch stand at Tynecastle. It was still intact – whereas the outside and the interior here has been renovated beyond recognition. And from the photos, the new main stand project does look exciting. They want to strike a resemblance to the Crystal Palace of 1851. And add a museum. To go back to the words of Simon Inglis, you certainly cannot complain that it looks the same as all new grounds. It will be interesting to come back.

 

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“Not fit for modern-day football” – or “a magical monument for 119 years of footballing history”? – Blundell Park, Grimsby

Within the same week in September 1899, five new football grounds staged their first match. Highfield Road in Coventry, Tottenham’s White Hart Lane, Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough, Fratton Park in Portsmouth, and Grimsby Town’s Blundell Park.

Having attended matches at the first four grounds – of which Highfield Road and White Hart Lane now have been demolished, and the future of Fratton Park is in the balance – I am looking forward to completing the set with a visit to Blundell Park. But most of all, I am looking forward to taking my seat in the oldest main stand in the English league.

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Although it is often pointed out that Grimsby Town actually play in Cleethorpes, whereas Cleethorpes play in Grimsby, we decide to take the train to Grimsby Town and walk to the ground. After all, this is a chance to get an impression of Grimsby. According to Wikipedia, legend has it that it was founded by a Danish fisherman. That is not the reason, however, why I have been looking for Grimsby Town’s results over the years. When I started at university in Copenhagen 1982, football fans were few and far between. I finally managed to find one – and his favourite team was Grimsby! They had recently won promotion to the second tier of English football – and he thought it was cool of seaport town to challenge the clubs in the big industrial cities. So I started looking for Grimsby’s results.

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The forty minute walk from the station takes us through street after street of terraced housing. They look very much alike, so it is oddities like seeing two neighbours placing a christmas tree and a palm tree respectively in their tiny front garden that springs out. And the sun! I have been warned that it will be freezing cold with stadium almost next to the North Sea, but we seem to have been blessed with the first real day of spring – sunshine and 7 or 8 degrees.

 

I had written to the club in advance and asked about the possibility of taking some photos of the ground before the match for my blog. And stadium manager Nick Dale has very generously agreed to take me and my son Thomas on a tour round the ground in the morning before the match against Stevenage. As we have tickets for the old main stand, this is the opportunity to take a photo of it from the opposite side of the field.

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Acccording to football ground expert Simon Inglis, Grimsby Town played in Clee Park when the club was formed in 1878, but in 1889 moved to Abbey Park. In 1899, however, the owner of Abbey Park sold the ground for housing, so Grimsby Town moved back to Clee Park and opened Blundell Park in September, bringing two stands from Abbey Park with them. But when they two years later won promotion to the first division, 150 fans pledged to give £10 each to build a proper main stand. And that is the stand that is still there. Amazing! 117 years old, it is the oldest surviving stadium structure in a British football ground.

IMG_3693The stand originally only covered about half the length of the pitch, and as Grimsby dropped out of the league, it seemed that it would stay like that. But a second spell in the first division from 1929 generated money to extend it in 1931 towards the corner flag by the end by Neville Street. Here, one of the wooden stands from Abbey Park was standing, until it was replaced by the current Osmond Stand in 1939 – the money this time generated from Grimsby Town’s appearance in the FA Cup semi-final against Wolves at Old Trafford. Amazingly, the crowd of 76,962 remains the highest ever at Old Trafford!

Seen from the opposite side of the pitch, the L-shape of the Main Stand and Osmond Stand may look a bit odd, but it is exactly this fact that gives the ground character compared to modern grounds. Some of the highlights of the club’s history are inscribed or perhaps rather embodied in the stands. The ground doesn’t look like this because some random architect thought it should. It looks like this because of two promotions to the top flight and a record-breaking FACup semi-final appearance.

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The floodlight pylons tell a similar story. Standing 128 feet high on concrete bases, these pylons actually lit up the first floodlit match at Wolverhampton’s Molineux in 1953. Allegedly a 6-year-old George Best attended the match and later said: “it was the floodlights which made football magical for me, it turned football into a theatre”. In 1958, Wolves replaced the pylons, and Grimsby purchased them second hand. Nick tells us that none of his staff feels like climbing them to replace the bulbs, so he has to do it himself. It looks scary, and Nick assures us that it feels even more so, as the pylons sway in the wind that is constantly coming in from the sea.

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As we walk along the Pontoon Stand behind the goal, we notice the considerable slope of the pitch in the goalmouth. It is difficult to catch on a photo, but if an attacking player is clean through in play, he would be ill advised to just trying to roll the ball into the net – it might stop on the way and roll back out in open play. In fact, later during the match, the Stevenage keeper looses his footing three or four times in the first half as he attempts to kick the ball upfield. Maybe because of the slope.

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The slope is there for drainage of the goalmouth. And Nick tells us that the pitch at Blundell Park is actually the original one – one of only five pitches from the Victorian Era. It has never been relaid. No modern mixture of natural and artificial grass, no undersoil heating and drainage systems. Still, the pitch looks perfect – the sloping apparently works. And Nick points out that they hardly ever have cancel a match.

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We get to the main stand – which is made of timber. As I understand Nick, it has always been an all-seater stand, but since writing that several Town fans have pointed out that they used to stand in the paddock at the front – right up till the 1980’s. Of course, the Bradford City fire in 1985 has taken the romantic gloss away from wooden stands, but I must admit that I am very fond of them. The soundscape during a match seems very different to modern, hard, concrete floors. When it is quiet in the stands, there is strange indoor-living-room-feel; but when something happens to get the crowd on their feet, you hear it and feel it.

 

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Even the roof construction is made of timber – the Archibald Leitch stands I have visited have all had distinctive steel constructions. And steel was also used for the extension of the stand in 1931, as you can see on the photo above.

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Some people make a great fuzz about pillars in old stands restricting the view. And, admittedly, in some cases I have had my view severely restricted. But these ones are so fine and narrow that they just make you have to move with the flow of the game. Of course, if you are not prepared to move an inch, you may miss a glimpse of the action. But going to a match, you are there to take part in the flow of the game. To go back to the George Best quote on floodlights turning football into theatre, wooden stands and pillars have a bit of the same effect.

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Nick takes us to have a quick look into the dressing room – with about three hours to kick-off, everything is ready for the players’ arrival.

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The old bath tubs are still there, although they are no longer in use. The players have to make do with a shower nowadays. The players would probably prefer a top-modern dressing room – but hopefully the bath-tubs serve as an indirect reminder that Grimsby Town has been playing here for the locals for more than 100 year – and the players are here for a short time to carry on the torch for the fans.

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Next stop is the match officials’ facilities. Sandwiches are ready for them, a there is a kettle for them to make some tea. And an old television. Nothing luxurious about this either. But then I remember visiting the similar room at the Etihad. That one seemed almost just as barren – but was in much starker contrast to the players’ dressing room.

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With me and my son both being 6 foot 5, we cannot help noticing that footballers as well as supporters were much smaller when the stand was built 117 years ago: “Mind your head” warnings are really a must here.

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Moving to the top floor, we get a look inside the manager’s office. It looks as though somebody has just cleared it – and, in fact, it is only a few weeks since Michael Jolly took over as manager at the club. Apparently he has spent all time on the training ground until now.

 

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Opposite the manager’s office is the old board room. It is not used by the board anylonger, but it is used for guests on matchdays. Looking at the panels, you cannot help thinking of the pride the 150 supporters, who raised the money for this stand, must have felt back in 1901.

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The same panels mark the entrance to the old directors’ box. Whereas the old wooden seats have been replaced by red plastic seats in the rest of the stand, there are still wooden seats in the box. Apparently different sponsors have led to the mix of colors. I look at the seats with a bit of envy. Not just because it feels more authentic than plastic; there seems to be much more space for the legs here.

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Down the stairs, we take the walk through the players’ tunnel to pitch side.

Opposite us, the two-tier Findus stand towers over approximately half the length of the pitch, very much like the Main Stand used to do until the extension in 1931. It was built in 1980 by fish processing firm Findus – again at a time when Grimsby’s footballing fortunes were on the rise. Even though cantilever stands were quite common by then, the roof is still supported by pillars. The roof only covers the upper tier (from where you supposedly can see the ships sailing by behind the main stand). The lower tier has probably been a standing paddock – in the open. In the middle of the stand, there is row of corporate boxes.

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That is where we head next. The boxes cater for some 150 guests on match days. All of them being served in the same lounge.

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From the boxes, you can clearly identify the 1901-part of the main stand opposite through the red pillars. It is strange that they didn’t extent it to the other side in 1939 when Grimsby earned the FACup money, but opted for the Osmond Stand instead. Maybe the old wooden stand there was is such a bad state that it had to be replaced then. Maybe an extension of the main stand was planned, but the outbreak of the World War and the ensuing slumb in Grimsby’s fortunes put them to a halt? One day, I will have to look closer into the history of that.

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Having said hello to Grimsby Town commercial manager and former star player David Smith (who tells us that he actually played Denmark in an U-21 match for England in the 1980’s), Nick takes us to the new board room – awaiting the directors’ of both the clubs before today’s game. And I ask him if it is really true that the Grimsby directors still present the visiting directors with a package of fresh fish. Alas, it is not. They stopped back in the 1980’s or early 1990’s. IMG_3740

Finally, Nick takes us to the supporters’ bar in the Findus stand – or Young’s stand as it is called at the moment. We have a pie and a drink – and gradually the bar fills with supporters. The mood is not very good. Grimsby hasn’t won since early December and is staring potential relegation to the National League in the eyes. It is only two years since Grimsby managed to get out of the National League after 7 years. The guy next to us has been following the fortunes of his side for more than sixty years. And he will be here next season, no matter what happens. And, he points out, when they were in the National League, they stood out by their massive, loyal away support. Although he didn’t travel to away matches himself – instead he went to see local rivals Scunthorpe, hoping they would lose. In fact, Scunthorpe are on TV against Oxford – and are really playing Oxford off the park.

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Apart from the plight of the team, the supporters are also quite disturbed by the beer being served in plastic glasses. They used to serve it in proper glasses here, but for the last home match against Port Vale, some Grimsby yobs had got into the bar. And as some Port Vale fans had managed to make their way, there had been a small scuffle and glasses had been thrown. First bit of trouble for years, but now the door through which the Port Vale fans had entered had been blocked – and the glass had been replaced by plastic.

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As we are in fishermen’s town, we have to have a fish ‘n chips before the match. So rather than waiting for kick-off, we leave the bar 1½ before kick-off to find a chippy. As we get out, the weather has changed dramatically. From bright sunshine and blue sky to a cold mist blowing in from the sea. The floodlight pylon on the other side of the pitch is difficult to see.

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I have started to register facilities at football grounds that probably wouldn’t have been there 30 or 40 years ago. Or seem unusual. Blundell Park is only the second English stadium I visit with official bicycle parking – although they stress that it is at the owner’s risk!

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Finding a chippy turns out to be easy. The Mariners is just around the corner. I think it is quite good – but my son thinks that the ones we usually get at Lou Macari’s before matches at Old Trafford beat it.

After the chippy we walk around the ground towards the official entrance to the Main Stand. There is nothing like a football ground tucked away behind terraced housing. It is as though it has grown out of its local community. The floodlight pylons rising about. And the little glimpses of the stand in the back garden of the houses.

Apart from the two roads leading to the front of the Findus Stand, you can only enter the ground from two alleys from Harrington Street, separated from the coast only by a railroad track. The first alley leads to the visitors’ entrance in the Osmond Stand. The timber facade of the main stand is stunning – just as it is amazing to look into the back gardens of the neighbouring houses immediately behind it.

 

We continue down the road towards the main stand entrance for home fans. Again – it is really thrilling to catch glimpses of floodlight pylons and the stand between the houses on the street.

Entering the ground, we get a closer look at the wood. We can see the downside to it – it is really a maintenance challenge. But worth it. In most businesses you would like to have a unique brand, setting you apart from competitors. If Grimsby build a modern concrete stadium outside the town – and especially if they drop into the National League – who will go? If they line going back 117 years is broken, how many fans will decide that if they have to go by car to the new ground, why not go all the way to league match in Scunthorpe or Hull?

We find our seats in the stand – perfect! With restricted view – which at no point bothers us. If we were to complain, our knees are hurting because lack of leg space – long before halftime. But that only adds to the sense of being there.

Supporters for the Pontoon Stand enter the ground through turnstiles next to the Findus stand. You can see the housing behind the turnstiles. In many ways, the magic of a football ground is creating a theater, cut off from the exterior world. Two days after this match, we go to the Academy Stadium by the Etihad, where we can hear the heavy traffic just outside the stand. Which ruins the theater-like feeling. Blundell Park is not a closed bowl either. But houses look like a piece of scenography intended to make you feel that you are in Grimsby (or Cleethorpes, as the locals will stress). There is nothing disturbing the atmosphere.

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From our seats in the Main Stand, the slope in the goal mouths is clearly visible. It looks as though the club photographer has also spotted it!

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Just before the two teams enter, the floodlights are turned on. We look anxiuously as it seems that one of the bulbs need changing – poor Nick. We are glad we don’t have to do the climb. As I spot a female linesman, I think of the match officials small room. I had thought that it was small for four men. Could there have been separate changing facilities for female match officials in there? Come to think of it, I didn’t get to see if there was more than one shower. Incidentally, she is on duty again three days later, when we are at Oldham.

 

 

 

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As we are seated right behind the benches, it gives a good opportunity to study the contrasting styles of the two managers. Stevenage’s Tunisian manager Dino Maamria is a tracksuit manager. He runs to the 112 away supporters before the match and greets them. He is constantly talking to his players, high-fiving them, padding them on the back.

New Grimsby manager Michael Jolley is wearing a smart suit – although he doesn’t look that comfortable in it. He greets the home crowd for his second home match in charge – but seems to cut a lonely figure, standing on the touchline. He is not talking very much, but his frustrations as Grimsby miss a couple of decent chances are clear to see. Just before halftime he finally communicates with an assistant – to get a coat.

As for the match, Grimsby desperately need the points. And gradually they built up some momentum to create a few good chances. But when you haven’t won for 18 matches, confidence runs low and chances are wasted.

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0-0 at halftime, and I take the opportunity to have a closer look at some of the stadium features. Such as the intersection of the 1901 stand with timber roof construction and the 1931 stand with steel construction.

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The corner linking the Osmond Stand and the Main Stand turns out to be a peculiar no mans land. It probably used to be a standing paddock – but it has not been converted to seats and has therefore been fenced off. The number of seats you can put in there are probably not worth the investment.

The construction of the Osmond Stand is also a bit odd. I wonder if it is two drains right behind the goals – and if so, why they have been placed there? They certainly don’t seem to support anything.

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I head for the gents’ room behind the main stand. Again, I love the feel of it being anything but mainstream, although I realize that during the winter months, you would love to be able to get inside for a bit of warmth during half time – and to have shelter when you are queuing for the toilets.

The second half gets under way – and now Maamria has also given in to the cold mist and put on a coat.

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The match gets more and more tense – and Stevenage have a couple of good chances as well. It may not be football for the purists but it is entertaining – and the crowd of 5,368 create a good atmosphere. There is a small group of Grimsby supporters with a drum. But at least it is not constant banging – so it is not that distracting.

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Opposite in the Findus Stand, a few people get up to leave before the final whistle. But quite a few of them regret -and watch the last few minutes standing, hoping for a late winner. It doesn’t arrive. The match ends in a goalless draw. Frustrating – and the fans seem resigned.

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As we leave the ground, we walk past the Grimsby substitutes’ bench. With the 119 year old Victorian pitch next to it, I come to think of it as an archaeological excavation site. What has been left from that bench over decades? If Grimsby leave the ground, will they allow archaeologists to dig and explore what players have been eating/drinking/smoking over the years?

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As we exit the ground, I look for a sign telling that this is a residential area, asking fans to leave quietly. There are signs like that at other grounds in residential areas. But I don’t spot it here.

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Instead I notice two signs in the alley behind the parked cars. “Please do not park in front of these gates”. The alleys, however, seem to offer the best parking facilities in the small streets around the ground.

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I had asked Nick about the plans for Grimsby Town to move to a new ground. Well, he answers. There has been talks over the past three decades. And they have located a potential site outside town. But they need to find the funding. The main arguments for moving are costs of maintenance and lack of parking facilities.

As I get back to Denmark and search for more information on the potential move, I find this passage in a report by the North East Lincolnshire Council:. Community Impact and Social Value Assessment.

“Blundell Park, the Club’s current home, was built in Victorian times and is now uneconomic, outdated, and not fit for modern-day football. GTFC is at risk of going out of business unless it follows the pattern of other clubs that have successfully achieved relocation and subsequent sustainability.”

You could also look at clubs who have obtained the opposite by building a new stadium. Darlington, for instance. Nine years after moving to their new stadium, the club was wound up in High Court. Clubs look at potential income from more fans, more hospitality facilities – and an overall increase in turnover from greater number of visitors. But if change is not followed by immediate success on the pitch, what happens then? What happens, if Grimsby is relegated? If fans are angry at not being able to drink their prematch beer from glasses before the match, will they follow a relegated team to see them play in a completely new stadium outside town – that carries nothing of the tradition and history of the club?

In the “Football Stadia and Grounds” facebook group, there are lots of fans complaining about their new ‘soulless’ grounds. You could argue that only a special segment of fans are members of such a group. And that the majority will enjoy the comforts of good parking facilities, unrestricted view, more leg-room in the stands (although it is not necessarily good even at new grounds), more catering- and hospitality facilities. But you could argue that if convenience is the main thing, then a new stadium won’t count for much, if you are relegated.

If they leave, the club will be selling 120 years of history. Of promotions and FA Cup semifinals in their heydays. Of the floodlight pylons that captivated George Best at Molineux. Of the Victorian pitch. Of the Findus stand from the time when Grimsby got up to the second tier of English football again. The stadium is a monument over the club’s history. Which must be dear to the heart of the club’s true supporters.

The verdict that it “was built in Victorian times and is now uneconomic, outdated, and not fit for modern-day football” sounds as though it has been made by businessmen or politicians with no sense of history – and no knowledge of the importance of ‘place’ for identity.

 

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A women’s top game – but why not in a proper stadium?

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The Etihad can be seen from the windows of the Academy Stadium

My first women’s game in the UK is a top match. Manchester City against Reading. If Manchester City win their game in hand, they are top of the league – and they have already qualified for the Champions League semi-final. Yet, the match is not played at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium but at the club’s Academy Stadium.

IMG_4086On my way to the UK, I have read the anthropologist Mariann Vaczi’s book on Atletic Bilbao, in which she makes a strong case for the Atletic women’s team playing their matches at the San Mames Barria stadium – just like the men’s team. But instead, they play at an academy ground in a mountain village. “A visit to a women’s game reveals that futbol femenino is embedded in a feminized rural context as opposed to the tough masculinity of urban competition”.

IMG_4085At least the Manchester City Academy Ground and the Etihad are part of the same City of Manchester complex, built for the Commonwealth Games in 2002. But apart from being much smaller – the capacity is 7,000 compared to 55,000 – the Academy Stadium does not feel like a proper football ground. And you could argue that there is a similar difference to the two grounds as the one Vaczi points out.

IMG_4087One of the characteristics of a great football stadium is the ability to create the atmosphere of “a world apart” – a theater of dreams, where you are completely absorbed by the matchday experience. A total immersion. The Academy Ground seems to be deliberately striving for the opposite. It seems intended to be a transparent space as opposed to a closed and mystical shrine.

IMG_4098There are huge windows in the corners of the ground; and in three of the four stands, the roof is floating high above the outside walls, allowing the noise of the passing cars to dominate the soundscape. It seems like something conceived for a desert stadium. Fresh breezes are invited into the ground to cool spectators seeking shadow – not shelter – under the floating roofs. Well, no need for that in rainy Manchester.

To some extent, you could argue that it might be appropriate for an academy stadium, the main purpose of which is to develop young talents. To give fans a glimpse of the stars of the future. But to have one of the top women’s teams in Europe playing there?

IMG_4092Vaczi mentions two arguments for Atletic’s women playing at the academy ground. The first is costs. It takes a lot more staff to operate a big stadium compared to an academy ground. That City wish to cut down staff expenses for the Academy ground can be inferred from the self-service ticket machines outside the ground. First time I have seen such a thing at a football ground, although to be fair, I bought our tickets at the small, staffed ticket office just outside the ground. Given the millions Manchester City splash out on players, however, it is difficult to imagine that City can’t afford the staff necessary to operate the Etihad for a women’s game.

IMG_4088The second argument from Atletic is the psycological effect it may have on the players to play in a stadium with more than 90%  of the seats empty. Just as the self-service ticket machines might indicate that it is an issue of cutting down staff costs, the coloring of the seats inside the Academy Ground might indicate that a horror vacui – or more precisely fear of empty seats – may be at play.

IMG_4124It is not unusual to use different colored seats at grounds. They stand out in order to write sponsor names, club names, or even to form club crests or portraits of club legends across the empty stands. But here, the apparent random use of grey seats among the sky blue ones only seems to be a disguise of empty seats. The crowd is just over 1,200 – and apart from some 40 standing behind one of the goals, everybody is packed in the main stand with no access to the opposite stand. So the policy is to pack a stand as much as possible – at the cost of leaving the others empty. With a 7,000 capacity, the ground is almost 20% full. Compared to 2% if it had been played at the Etihad.

I do not buy the argument about the negative effect on players, though. Why would Queens Park keep playing at Hampden Park with crowds of around 500 in a 50,000 stadium, if the effect was that demoralizing? One thing is that it might lift the players to play in a proper stadium without disturbing traffic noise. But it could arguably attract larger crowds. I guess a lot of families, who can scarcely afford the pricy tickets for men’s games, would take the opportunity tho visit the Etihad for a women’s game. We paid £6 for an adult ticket and £4 for a student ticket. You could argue that the value for money at women’s game already is better than at most men’s game – and that it would be better still if you got inside the “real” ground. Vaczi also points to the fact that to sell women’s game to a larger audience, you have to show that you have faith in the product.

Talking of “selling the product”, it is in some ways a relief to find a ground with no advertising – except for Manchester City. But – ironically – it adds to the feeling of being inside a training ground rather than a football stadium.

If you look at it historically, there is no reason why women’s games shouldn’t attract big crowds. At the end of WW1, women’s matches were frequently gathering five figure crowds – up to 50,000. Before the FA put an end to them in 1921.

Anyway, it would be interesting to know what the female players themselves actually think about it.

Prior to the match, a girls team enter the pitch and have a photo taken in front of the main stand. And after the City players have entered the field, they come over for a joint photo. A nice gesture – and lovely to see some of the girls beaming with pride as they leave the pitch afterwards. In fact, the women’s team seems to be great at creating a community feeling, whereas the men’s team seem to be targeting a place among the European elite, rather than the community.

From my point of view, if I just want to watch a game of football, I turn on the TV to watch top quality. But I go to matches to be caught up in the special matchday experience. And that seems difficult to generate at the Academy Ground. Of course, there are many things to it. For instance, there was no away fans among the 1,200 crowd, so a vital competitive edge was missing. And the composition of the crowd was quite different from a men’s game. I always do a count of the gender composition of 100 random people passing my seat. Normally, the ratio of men is between 75 and 95%. Here, it was 51%. This is not to say that women cannot generate a good atmosphere. But it reflected that the crowd was mainly a family audience with kids. They tend to go to stick as a tightly knit family unit, rather than to be absorbed in a crowd.

IMG_4133A small group of City fans did their utmost to generate an atmosphere. They sold souvenirs from a desk (maybe it was a one-off that the Manchester City shop at the Etihad was closed for the match – due to Easter – but it seemed strange), they handed out clappers to the audience, and as the match got under way, they took up position fairly close to us with a drum.

IMG_4192For those who have read my previous blog posts and my posts in the facebook group on football grounds and stadia, it is no secret that I am very annoyed with drums at matches – as well as clappers. To me, they basically ruin atmosphere rather than generate it. The special thing – to me – about British football, is the way the ebb and flow of the match are expressed by the crowd. How the noise gradually rise as an attack is building up – to culminate in a collective sigh or roar. Drums do not follow the flow of the match. If anything, they are a response to it. Sometimes – after a chance has been missed – the drum is used to get a chant going. Other times, the drum is used to get a chant going as nothing is happening on the pitch – and everything has got disturbingly quiet. And then, if by chance a promising attack is set up in the middle of the drumming, you don’t really get the response to it from the crowd. In the first half, City do get a sudden break, but the crowd seems preoccupied with the drumming, rather than raising the noise level to strike fear into the defence and encourage the attacking players. The game is lulled into the same, predictable rhythm of the drum.

IMG_4152I know that some people will argue that my perception of a good atmosphere is gendered. One of my friends in Manchester went for her first match at Old Trafford during the 2010 Olympics – a women’s game. She told me and another of my friends – a male City supporter – that it was so great. Whenever a player excelled, all the crowd cheered, no matter which team she was playing for. We looked at her in disbelief. “But you have to support one of the sides”, we tried to explain. As she just answered that they didn’t, we insisted that they missed the point of the match. That you are taken for an emotional ride that may end in despair – or jubilation. That is the essence of football. But she had had a great time anyway. Of course, I also know women who are just as passionate about their side as I am – or just as “hot fans” as some researchers call it. But there may be a case for arguing that the matchday culture at men’s matches basically has been developed by men and is gendered.

Or maybe it is more of a generational thing. Just like thousands of others moaning about the modern game, longing for days gone by with packed terraces, pay at the turnstile, singing and chanting, muddy pitches and sliding tackles, I treasure everything that reminds me of those old days. Old wooden stands, obstructed views – and the oohhs and aaarrhs of the crowd. You could argue that basically we are just mourning our lost youth, looking for scraps and pieces to relive it. And there probably is an element of truth in that. But I do believe that there is more to it than that. For instance, the reason why people bring the drum in the first place is to generate more of an atmosphere in a modern all-seater stadium. The question is whether it works or not. I think it doesn’t.

Other things may have contributed to the rather flat atmosphere at the Academy Ground. It was freezing cold. And everybody probably expected City to walk it. But in the opening ten minutes, Reading seemed to be playing with more purpose. Gradually, City took over most of the possession, but the Reading central defence was well organized. City did have a couple of good runs on the wings – particularly with left back Stokes going forward – with dangerous crosses coming in. Especially Nikita Parris made some good runs, sometimes cutting inside as well. And City did manage to catch Reading in possession on a couple of occasions. But Reading seemed more direct in their attacking play, so it was not a great surprise that they took the lead. Although it was from an unlikely source – an overhead-kick after a set-piece that looped over the City keeper.

IMG_4134Still the small section around the drummer tried to get some chants going, but whereas they did manage to get people to use their clappers to accompany them at the start of the game, it just grew more and more quiet.

At half-time, we went to get a snack. Looking at the food on sale, it looked much more inviting than at most grounds although the “Be nourished” sign over the kiosk probably didn’t reflect in the pies and pastries on sale. And although the pie looked more delicious than the standard Pukka Pies at grounds, it turned out not to be that good. Too dry and fluffy, and not really hot.

IMG_4137For the second half, we went to the standing terrace behind one of the goals – along with some 40 others. On a cold day, it is much easier to keep warm when you are standing. But the noise of the cars was more disturbing there.

IMG_4195Just before Reading doubled their lead from a corner, City put on Danish striker Nadia Nadim, and the cheer-leading group responded with a “We’ve got Nadim, Nadia Nadim” chant. And she did add some much needed movement in the City attack with a couple of good runs into space behind the defenders. Alas, it seemed that her teammates are not used to look for her runs. She did get into a number of finishing positions with one shot blocked, one shot wide and one shot saved.

IMG_4118Normally, I am quite sceptical about Danish players. No matter how they play, Danish media always hype them and claim that they were decisive for any success their club may enjoy. But I really like Nadim. Not just because she is a cool person, making the transition from Afghan refugee to medicine student and professional footballer. She is also the type of player who offers you something unexpected. The type of player that can raise a crowd in anticipation of something special when she gets on the ball – and that is also essential for generating a good atmosphere.

IMG_4199But there is no way back into this for City. Even though Reading have one of their two strong centre backs, Jo Potter, sent-off 10 minutes from the end. Impressive holding-midfielder Rachel Furness slots comfortably into central defence to keep City from creating more than a few half chances.

After the match, the City players walk to the touchline to sign autographs and chat with fans. There is really a lot to learn for their male counterparts at the top clubs, the majority of which won’t bother to stop to sign any autographs after a match nowadays. Many of them seem to be living in a bubble world, not really caring about the world around them. There are, of course, notable exceptions, like Juan Mata and his Common Goal initiative. But last time I had a look at the players who had signed up for this, a third of them were female. Considering the number of professional male footballers – and how many of them earn astronomical amounts of money – it seems to reflect that female footballers generally are more grounded in the real world. Which is yet another reason why I think they should be playing inside the Etihad rather than the Academy Ground. To bring some sanity back to the game.

Back in Denmark, I meet an English friend at the gym. He has also been in England for Easter, and he has been to see Wimbledon. And a sign at the ground told that it had been purchased by Chelsea for the Chelsea Women’s team. I am pretty certain that the atmosphere would have been much better, if the City women’s team had played at Bury, Rochdale or Oldham – all lovely football grounds. But the 30 to 40 minutes train ride would probably scare off some of the families with children from going.

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Football grounds

Not just another brick in the wall!

My first football trip to the UK of 2018 has two main features. Football memorial gardens and Archibald Leitch – the great stadium architect. A year ago, there were still nine stadiums with Archibald Leitch stands remaining in the UK. But last summer, the grandstand at Tynecastle was demolished, leaving only eight. Of the eight clubs, Everton and Dundee FC have announced plans of moving to another stadium, Crystal Palace have announced plans to replace their Archibald Leitch stand, Portsmouth are once again contemplating a stadium move; and some rebuilding at Raith Rovers’ Starks Park is also due. Only Fulham’s and Glasgow Rangers’ stands are listed – I am not up to date with discussions at Ayr United. The Archibald Leitch stand is a doomed species, and if you want to see them and savour them, it seems to be the last call.

 

The two main matches of my tour, therefore, are at Portsmouth and Crystal Palace with tickets purchased for the two Archibald Leitch stands (although I do also pop in at Fulham’s Craven Cottage). Then – via Peterborough – I am off to Edinburg again, where I visited the Archibald Leitch stand at Tynecastle twice last year. So why Edinburgh? Well, as the stand was demolished at the end of last season, Heart of Midlothian announced that supporters could sign up for the possibility of buying a brick from the grandstand. An Archibald Leitch brick! I had to do that, of course, but in November, I got an email from Hearts telling me that I had to go to the ground to pick up the brick in person within a couple of weeks. With no trips scheduled, I wrote to my friend in Edinburgh, Siobhan, and asked, if she could pick it up for me. And I promised to come and get it, within a few months.

 

 

Apart from picking up my brick in Edinburgh, I have arranged a visit to the Archibald Leitch stand at Starks Park in Kirkcaldy; a visit to the memorial garden at Dunfermline – and, finally, I have got a ticket for Hibernian – Hamilton to take my tally of Scottish Premier League grounds to four.

As the time for my midweek Peterborough-Edinburgh detour approaches, the weather forecasts get increasingly worse. There is a yellow snow warning for Scotland. I start to consider a plan B. I could go from Peterborough back to London instead and take the opportunity to visit the new Wembley for the first time, where Tottenham will be playing Rochdale in a cup replay. But, I have prepaid my train tickets and my hotel in Edinburgh. And I have a brick to collect.

On the Tuesday night, Hearts’ match in Edinburgh goes ahead as scheduled. So does the match in Peterborough, although the referee stops the match to get the lines cleared of snow. Conclusion? I decide that if the first morning train leaves for Edinburgh, and the match is not called off by then, I will go ahead with plan A. Long live Archie!

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Peterborough’s Steven Taylor takes the snow shovel in his own hands to make sure the match is completed

Early Wednesday morning. I get to the station at Peterborough. The first train towards Edinburgh has been delayed for 40 minutes, but that is due to a technical issue. And it has passed through Peterborough, when my train arrives, bang on time. It is on!

I get on the train, turn on my laptop – and start working. But then ….

First, Hibernian call of the evening’s match; and the other matches in Scotland are called off as well. Then, as the train is running slowly and behind schedule, I email my contact at Dunfermline, Michael, and tell him that I may be slightly delayed. He writes back that the stadium has been shut down for the day due to the weather.

I get into contact with Judith in Kirkcaldy. She wants to know, if I will make it. I confirm – even though I might be delayed. So – the brick and the Archibald Leitch stand are still on. After all, those are the two most important things seen a long term perspective. And with neither a match in the evening nor the trip to Dunfermline, I will have plenty of time to see the Archibald Leitch stand in Kirkcaldy and pick up the stone in Edinburgh, despite the delays. So, actually, I am feeling quite relaxed about it. I will even have time to check in my luggage before going from Edinburgh to Kirkcaldy.

We are an hour delayed, as we arrive in Edinburgh. That is ok – there is time to check-in at the hotel and get on the train to Kirkcaldy. I write to Judith that I am on my way. She answers that the stadium has been closed down because of the weather, but she has stayed behind to let me in for a look. She advises me to get a taxi at the station – and make sure that it will wait for me during the visit to the ground.

IMG_3071Just as I arrive at Kirkcaldy station at 2 pm, I get a text from Siobhan, asking about my whereabouts. I answer that I have just arrived in Kirkcaldy. “Keep an eye on trains”, she writes, “You don’t want to get stuck in Kirkcaldy”. That message is immediately followed by another: “Just heard that every train is stopping at 3, maybe head back to Edinburgh”. In fact, Edinburgh is shutting down, and Siobhan and everybody else is hurrying back home while they still can.

My first instinct is to head straight to the other platform to get back to Edinburgh. But, then the thought of being close to an Archibald Leitch stand gets the better of me. I go to the ticket office at the station. “I have just been told that the trains will stop at 3. Is that right? I have to get back to Edinburgh.” The lady at the counter calms me down. “Oh no, they will not stop until 6. There are still plenty of trains for Edinburgh.” Relieved, I exit the station – but there are no taxis.

That doesn’t put me off, either. After all, I am Scandinavian. And although it is snowing, and it is windy, there is not that much snow. I start running through the snow towards the ground. There is hardly any traffic in the streets. As I get to the ground, though, I am  feeling a bit anxious. Judith asks me, if I would like a coffee. I thank her but say that I have probably better get back to the station as quickly as possible to make sure that I get train. She agrees that that is the wisest thing to do – although she does point out that there is a hotel in Kirkcaldy which I might notice on my way back towards the station. Just in case.

 

We make a dash out in the snow to see the stand. Everything is closed down, so I don’t get inside and see the concourse. I ought to run to the opposite of the ground to get a photo of the stand from a distance. But by now, I sense that time might be crucial – the thought of getting stuck in Kirkcaldy has grabbed hold of me. So, after a few photos, I say goodbye – and run all the way back to the station.

 

I arrive at 2.45. The 2.41 is delayed. Great! I will make that one. Siobhan texts me that she has left my brick witg the hotel reception on her way home. I thank her – I am on my way back to Edinburgh.

The 2.41, however, never comes. There is no further information on it. But the 3.01 is, according to the information board, on time. That is until 2.57, when the board suddenly tells that it has been cancelled. Along with most of the other trains on the board. 15.21 is the next train.

My increasing worries turn to a state of panic shortly afterwards. The lady from the ticket office comes out in the corridor and shouts that all trains have been suspended! Bus services have been suspended, too. Disbelief and shock all way around. Some people claim refunds for their tickets, others just leave the station. We are just a few staying behind, looking bewildered.

With the trains and busses stopped, there only seems to be two ways of getting to Edinburgh left. Hitchhiking or a taxi. As I have never had much luck hitchhiking, I go outside the station building to look for a taxi. And I am lucky. A taxi drives up and drops a passenger. I ask the driver, if he can drive me to Edinburgh. He thinks about it for a few seconds, makes a call on the radio – and tell me that he has to do another tour but will be back in 20 minutes. Hope! The next step is to cut my expenses, as I guess it will be quite costly. A man and a woman, both in their 40’s, seem to be discussing what to do. I approach them and ask, if they are heading for Edinburgh. Yes, they are. And they brighten up a little, as I tell them about the taxi coming back in 20 minutes. “I thought the bridges were closed”, the man says.

I hadn’t thought of the bridges you have to cross to get back to Edinburgh. For the trains, they shouldn’t be a problem. But as they are steep, I imagine that cars without winter tyres may have problems crossing. Well, the taxi driver must know about that.

Another taxi drives up to drop a passenger. As 20 minutes may be decisive, I ask this driver as well. “No taxis are allowed to drive in this weather” he says. “The insurance won’t cover, because it is a red alert now”. I begin to doubt that the first driver will return – but, at least, I now have two fellow travelers to consult with.

The lady has a long look at her smart phone. “It looks like this train is moving” she says and shows us the travel page for the 15.21. We stare at the screen. And, yes, it does seem as though the cursor indicating the position of the train along the line moves a little. Suddenly, it jumps to the other side of a station. It IS definitely moving. I go back to the lady in the ticket office. “Excuse me, but do you know if the train approaching will continue all the way to Edinburgh?” I ask her. “All trains have stopped”, she just repeats.

It is quite surreal. Three persons standing in an almost deserted waiting room, staring hopefully at a smart phone, accompanying any movement of the cursor with the nervous excitement of a football manager on the verge of a cup final triumph, but still with 10 minutes of relentless pressure from the opposition to see through. Two minutes before the train is due, we step out on the platform. We want the driver to know that even though most people have left the station, there are still some passengers in Kirkcaldy to pick up. The thought of the train just driving through the station, straight to Edinburgh, is the ultimate nightmare. Finally, we can see the train approaching. And it stops! I would have thought that it would be crowded with people trying to get back to Edinburgh. But, actually, it is half empty.

This is too good to be true. I have a nagging feeling that something will go wrong. Maybe all the bridges, including the train bridge, are closed? If only I can get across that. Then there will just be about 15-20 miles to Edinburgh, and in worst case, I would be able to walk back to Edinburgh from there. I have been walking an average of 10 miles a day so far on my trip.

I needn’t have worried. Without any delays, the train gets all the way back to Edinburgh. It is only 4 pm. I have half the afternoon to spend there. I take a walk up Princess Street, hoping to find some shops open. But they are all closed. This is surreal too. That a city like Edinburgh has ground to a halt because of a bit of snow. It is not that bad.

IMG_3095I then decide to go to Hibernian’s ground, Easter Road. There must be somebody there informing people, that the match is off. And maybe they will allow me inside to take some photos of the snow-covered pitch as a compensation for missing the match. I get to the ground. But it is completely deserted. When I visited an early morning last spring, I was stopped twice by security, as I walked round the ground to take photos. Now, all security had run off because of the snow. Hastily, it seems. Only a short, printed message on a sheet of paper in the window and on the door of the ticket office, and on the main entrance to the club reception.

 

When I get back to my hotel, I go to the reception to pick up the brick. “A friend has handed in a carrier bag for me this afternoon”. The hotel receptionist looks around in vain. “No, I can’t see anything. What does it look like?” This could be the final straw. If somebody has managed to run away with my brick! I don’t know how to describe it. “Well, a normal bag, I guess. A little heavy.” “Ohhh! Your brick!” And she picks up a big box from the floor. She hands the box over to me – and it feels as though it is falling apart under the weight. I am satisfied that it must be the right one without looking.

I get to my room – and unwrap it. There it is! “CLEGHORN TERRACOTTA CO Ltd GLASGOW”. There is a certificate of authenticity and a small “Archibald Leitch Stand” sign to stick on it. Fantastic! I have a long look at it. It has been worth it. And I did get a glimpse of the Archibald Leitch stand in Kirkcaldy. I made the right decision when I opted for plan A rather than plan B, I think.

IMG_3108I get plenty of time to rethink this. Edinburgh is cut off from England by the snow. I spend four days in Edinburgh, desperately searching for information about the progress of clearing the railroad track of snow; slipping and sliding on the steep streets of Edinburgh in my search for a vacant hotel, carrying my bag with the added weight of the brick, as it is impossible to drag it on wheels through the snow; figuring out new plans A, B, and C to escape or find a football match somewhere.

It is definitely better to be stuck in Edinburgh with my luggage rather than in Kirkcaldy without it. But shops and museums are closed; and streets are difficult to walk as pavements are not cleared of snow. I see a shopkeeper polishing his shop window, trying to lure customers to come inside, but leaving the pavement covered in snow. Talk about priorities.

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The new main stand at Tynecastle

At least, the unplanned stay gives me time to visit Tynecastle and see the stand that has replaced Archibald Leitch’s grandstand. Not that the sight itself is uplifting. The new stand looks so grim – lifeless and soulless. Maybe a bit of sunshine would have helped. But it doesn’t look like a football ground at all, rather some municipality offices built in the 1980s. How could they? Replace the warmth of the Archibald Leitch’s terracotta bricks with this?

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The now demolished Archibald Leitch grandstand at Tynecastle

I also get the chance to go to Glasgow and see Celtic play, before I finally – on the fourth day – manage to get a flight out of Scotland. Not to England to complete my round trip, but to Copenhagen. As I am about to depart for the airport and I lift my bag, the thought strikes me that it may be too heavy with the brick. What shall I do if it is? Or maybe the brick looks like a bomb in the security scan, and my bag is taken off the plane! I suffer from a feeling of desperate anxiety until the moment I am reunited with my bag at luggage reclaim in Copenhagen. It is still awfully heavy! I made it back to Copenhagen with an authentic Archibald Leitch brick!IMG_3380

The brick is now on my windowsill, so I can glance at it whenever I work on my computer. It is not just a brick. I will always think of Archibald Leitch, when I look at it. And of Kirkcaldy, snow, trains, slippery slopes in Edinburgh and hotel rooms. It is priceless. Memories are made of this.

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Football grounds, Football museums, Uncategorized

Fratton Park – an iconic ground

IMG_2044A couple of weeks ago, someone in the facebook group “Football Stadia & Grounds” asked members to name the iconic features still in existence at British football grounds. Most mentioned the cottage at Craven Cottage, others Goodison Park and the Archibald Leitch stand at Ibrox – and a couple mentioned the mock Tudor entrance to Fratton Park in Portsmouth. And after visiting Fratton Park with the cottage from 1905 and the Archibald Leitch stand from 1925, I think it definitely must be in the top 5 iconic English grounds.

IMG_1832Actually, the club has been about to leave the ground several times over the past three decades; and the future is once again in doubt at the time of writing. But it would be a disaster, if they left.

IMG_1763Only the previous day, I had paid Brighton & Hove Albion a visit. A brand new stadium, built in the middle of nowhere. Despite the effort of giving an imprint of fan relations through a memorial garden, it just felt completely dead. Just off a station at Falmer – with green fields and a university campus next to it. There was no life at all.

IMG_1877Fratton Park was also deliberately built close to a train station; but also  in a residential area. The main stand is right in the back yard of the neighbouring terraced houses. In fact, the reason why it hasn’t quite got the proportions of a standard Archibald Leitch stand is the very proximity to the houses which limited the allowed height of the construction.

IMG_2113.JPGI am fortunate that chairman of Pompey History  Society, Colin Farmery, has agreed to give me a guided tour of the ground before kick-off. We meet in front of the cottage, which, according to Simon Inglis, was built in 1905, not 1898 when the club was formed and the club purchased the ground. The stadium was ready for use in the first week of September 1899 – the same week as Hillsborough, White Hart Lane, Highfield Road and Blundell Park.

IMG_2008A mock Tudor pub in Frogmore Road was built in connection with the cottage in 1900. Today, the ground floor of the former pub is the ticket office, whereas the first floor is used for hospitality. Originally, the pavillon had a balcony towards the pitch, as well as a clock tower. But that was demolished 20 years after, when Archibald Leitch came along.

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Trying to catch up with the remaining Archibald Leitch stands before they are demolished, it is strange to come across something that was actually partly destroyed by Archie himself. But credit to him that he did not demolish the entire cottage. He built his stand into it, and I guess he put in these massive pillars to support the construction, as he ripped out the ground floor and made it into an entrance gate.

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The reason why Archie was invited to built a new stand in the first place, was that Portsmouth in 1920 was elected to the football league – and in this way received a financial boost. In fact, the different chronological layers of the ground reflect the Pompeys’ fortunes on the pitch.

Colin takes me through to the Fratton End stand. It is a new stand, and it sums up well the turbulent years, Fratton Park has endured for the past three decades. Back in 1956 – only 6 years after Portsmouth last won the league – a new stand had been erected at that end, but just 30 years later, it was partially condemned, as the steel had been corroded by the concrete. With reduced capacity in the partisan end (only the lower tier), Portsmouth was relegated in 1988.

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For the next years, plans for a new stand were partly thwarted by new requirements of the Taylor Report, partly by failed attempts to build a new stadium and to take over more land from the railway. It was not until 1996 that the remaining stand was demolished and replaced by the current Fratton End, which was opened in 1997.

Colin informs me that there is no proper space for a memorial garden, but inside the Fratton End, supporters are allowed to put up plaques for lost ones on a memorial wall. There are no standardization, no control. Fans are free to put a plaque to their liking. This has turned out so popular that there are actually four walls.

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But beside these memorial walls, there is also a Wall of Fame, where fans have paid £50 for having a standardized plaque put up.  Portsmouth are famous for the fans having rallied to save the club and take it over financially – only to sell it to a business man, hoping he can put the money necessary to compete at the top level of football into it.

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Outside the Northern Stand, all the fans who bought shares to save the club are listed, just as they are commemorated outside the cottage with a blue plaque: “We cannot change the past, but we can shape the future”.

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We walk through the Fratton End stand to have a look at the main stand from this side. A striking feature is the television gantry on top of the stand, rather than the characteristic Archibald Leitch gable. I wonder if the television gantry replaced it. Anyway, I am glad I don’t have to climb the stairs to it.

Another Archibald Leitch feature which is conspicuous by its apparent absence is the criss cross fencing of the balcony. It is there, hidden underneath an advertising hoarding, but Colin informs me that it actually was fire safety regulations in the wake of the Bradford City fire disaster in 1985 that resulted in the coding of the wooden fence behind the steel crossing.

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In fact, the criss-crossing can be discerned in the concourse underneath the stand. It is still there. Colin tells me, that if the new owners of the club decide to stay at Fratton Park, it his dream to make the stand a living football museum. Split in four sections, each section will be turned back to a decade to give fans an experience of football in decades gone past. To me, it sounds like a fantastic idea. It would be even greater if you were allowed to have standing sections with crush barriers in the paddock in the ‘old’ sections – and maybe even make track the food and drinks being sold in old days. I guess Bovril was the bestseller back in the 1950’s.

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As Portsmouth was the first English club to stage a floodlit league match back in 1956, I am interested in having a closer look at the floodlights. After all, floodlight pylons are becoming a rarity at football grounds. The days of the pylons, though, seem numbered at Fratton Park as well. Floodlights are now fixed to the roof of the north stand, and one of the pylons look sadly impotent without any lights.

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As much as Colin is keen on preserving the historic features, he is not that bothered by the potential scrapping of the floodlight pylons. After all, the pylons were not erected until 1962. Originally the were placed on the roof like they are now. I am the romantic one, loving the sight of floodlight pylons in the distance indicating from afar that here lies a football ground.

Colin awaits s group of visitors to the university to take on a guided tour. They are a bit a late, so there is time for Colin to show me some of the historic objects on display in the mock-tudor ticket office building.

The top floor is being prepared for matchday hospitality. The building is very atmospheric, but I will have to admit that the space is rather limited, compared to modern stadiums – and thus the possibility of generating revenue from hospitality. Which is, sadly, one of the factors in the decision making on whether to stay at Fratton Park or move to another ground.

As the university group arrive, we proceed through the old office building to the board room, which is also used for hospitality. At one end, there is a painting of Lord Nelson’s HMS Victory, but I am more interested in the plaque declaring that this steel column marks the commencement of Archibald Leitch’s stand.

As the directors’ box is situated right in the middle of the stand, we have to walk through a corridor for stadium security to get there from the board room. As usual, padded seats testify that we are, indeed, in the directors’ box.

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However, I am more interested in Archibald Leitch features. Like the roofing. Somehow, the gabled roof gives a completely different feeling to the stand. You feel that you enter a room, rather than just being sheltered by a roof. It also gives a different soundscape to most modern grounds.

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Under the television gantry, the roof has been strengthened by steel constructions. That must be comforting to know for the camera men, who have to make the climb.

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The columns are basic steel columns – not as fine as some of the others of his creations, but the steelfitting to the roof construction has the right has the right Archibald Leitch look.

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Another element that gives this indoor feeling and slightly different soundscape is the wooden floor. In concrete stands, the acoustics are more like a parking house.

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A final feature that I notice is the directors’ box is the elegant railing of the stair.

Nest stop is the home dressing room, which is all set for the arrival of the players with under 3 hours to kick-off with the fruit already in.

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Each player has been handed a sheet on the day’s opponents, Blackpool.

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The best thing, though, is the whiteboard with the short assessments of an opposition team. I can’t recognize the names, and they may be from a reserve or junior match. But it really gives the dressing room feel: “9 McGrath. Strong, compete, will run all day, is a threat”.”8 Aguair – can play”. “6 Headland. Aerially dominant, lacks pace, compete”.

Leaving the dressing room, we walk down the narrow corridor towards the players’ tunnel. “Fortress Fratton” proclaims the message on the wall just outside the home dressing room. “Play up Pompey!” says the board hanging on the stair the final steps down to the tunnel.

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The final message for the players before they enter the field is another reminder for the players of the historic roots of the club: “Remember who you represent! 30,000 men from Portsmouth served to fight in the Great War alone, many of these were recruited at Fratton Park. Over 6,000 never returned. This Portsmouth, people went to war from this city”.

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After this message, you would have expected an old fashioned dug-out for manager and reserves, but no. It is just rows of modern, comfortable chairs. The dug-outs were probably demolished when more than one substitute was allowed.

The downside to some of the supporters in the old Archibald Leitch stands is, of course, that they were not intended to cover all the fans standing in the paddock at the front. And now that seats have been installed there, you risk the rather dubious pleasure of sitting in the rain watching a match. The roof at Fratton Park does, however, cover most of the seat rows – as long as the wind and rain is not coming from the north.

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Last stop of the tour is the stair leading to the upper tier of the Archibald Leitch stand – with the board displaying ticket prices in the 1950’s. If only other clubs had preserved and made use of historic features like this, the many modern grounds wouldn’t have been quite as anonymous and boring.

Colin has to get back to match day duties, and I thank him for a brillant tour. There is still  almost 2½ hours till kick-off, so I walk down Carlsbrooke Road along the terraced houses that are almost attached to the Archibald Leitch stand. Only the floodlight pylons reveal that they have a stadium in their back garden.

Along the Milton End, the stand is at least sepearated from the housing by Specks Lane. But still, it gives you a feeling that the ground has been shoehorned down among terraced houses more than a hundred years ago – a far cry from stadiums like Brighton’s, which look more like spaceships that have landed in a desolate place as far from populated areas as possible.

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The roof to the Milton End stand was only added in 2007 after away fans had been complaining for several years over having to sit it out in the rain. For such a modern construction, it is quite rare to have pillars, partially obstructing view.

The North Stand almost looks like an Archibald Leitch stand with its gabled roof and a slight bend in the middle of it. And just like the Leitch stand, it was opened by John McKenna, only 10 years later, in 1935. Again, it was success on the field in reaching the FA Cup final, that generated the money.

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It was built as a standing terrace, but in 1951, seats were installed in the upper tier, with the rest of the stand being seated in 1996, at which time the wooden seats in the upper tier were replaced by plastic seats. As a nice gesture, the roof was extended slightly to give some cover to the front rows.

I manage to get a glimpse of the concourse in the North Stand. I like it with the open room and steel constructions. It will be worth watching a match from the North Stand for the concourse alone.

As I get round to the outhside of the Fratton End, some of the Portsmouth players arrive for the match, among them defender Christian Burgess and winger Jamal Lowe. Compared to all the security and restrictions at Premier league matches, it is great to see players stopping for autographs and photos with the fans.

When the gates are opened, I enter the Archibald Leitch stand’s upper section – I need a pie. The concourse may not be as spacious as in modern grounds – but the windows make it quite bright, and it doesn’t really feel congested. As for the pie, it is quite good – not the standard pukka pie.

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Along with the financial aspect of lack of hospitality, another complaint with old grounds is the lack of comfort. Not enough space between the seats and restricted view from the pillars holding the roof. I have a pillar in front me, obstructing my view of the penalty spot. But I can see the goal clearly, and if I move a little from side to side, I can actually follow all the action. And being 6 foot 5, I am probably more likely than most to suffer the effects of lack of space between the seat rows.  But I don’t feel troubled by either at all. It just serves to remind me that my body is actually inside a football ground – and I am not sitting at home in my comfortable armchair watching television. This is how it should feel like.

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I have heard that the Fratton End is noisy and generates a great atmosphere at Portsmouth matches, but I must admit that I am quite disappointed to find out that most of the noise is generated by the almost constant banging on a drum, accompanied by a bugle and bell by a couple of dressed-up Portsmouth fans. A week later, I express my dislike for drumming at football matches in a facebook group – and get just short of 450 responses. To me, the special thing about British football are the ooohhhhs and arrrggggs of the crowd living through the dramatic peaks of the game. How the volume noise increases as an attack starts to look promising – and either fizzles out or culminates in a roar. You live the ebbing and flowing of the match. But the constant drumming spoils that. There is no increase in noise level correlated to events on the field. In many grounds, in fact, the drumming is orchestrated by leaders with their back to the game. They are completely out of sync with events on the field. And as these modern ‘ultra’ sections are generally relative small, they don’t make a lot of noise. They just make the rest of the ground go even more quiet, as the monotonous drumming blurs out the game as a spectacle. IMG_2166

Most of the 450 respondents to my post agree. Some point out that all-seaters and football tourists have made stadiums go so quiet, so you have to try out anything that may have a reverse effect; a few others point out that it is mainly younger fans trying to adapt this element, and the older generation should allow them to develop their way of consuming a match. And finally, a handful of fans are offended. They point out that the Portsmouth drum, bell and bugle go back more than 10 years and are not just an attempt at ‘ultra fan culture’. They claim it usually instrumental in generating a good atmosphere – but at the same time admit, that the atmosphere for this match against Blackpool was unusually poor. Just like the match.

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And yes, the match is really poor. There are so many poor passes and miscontrols that you resign to the fact that post teams mainly resort to hoofing long balls forward. And very soon, you get the impression that the away team Blackpool just have that little more aggression and desire to win the duels for these balls at both ends of the pitch.

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Especially the Blackpool number 7, Kyle Vassell looks menacing as he gives powerful chase to all the long balls. The fans around me are worried. “Watch out for that number 7”, the guy behind me keeps saying.

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According to the pattern of the game, Blackpool takes the lead shortly before halftime, when the Portsmouth defender Christian Burgess (whom I was looking out for after seeing him arriving to the game and being a central defender myself) tried to control a long ball rather than just hoof it away. He was rubbed by the Blackpool number 7 Kyle Vassel, who calmy slotted the ball home when one on one with the keeper. At least, it allowed the guy behind me to shout out “I told you so! That number 7! He was the one to look out for!” They should have written that on the whiteboard in the dressing room.

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In the second half, Blackpool double their lead. I am reminded of a chapter in one of my favourite football books, Daniel Gray’s “50 Eternal delights of modern football”. One of the delights is “Watching an away end erupt”. But, as Gray points out, “It has to be a large following for the full effect. Away ends in which 143 supporters sit freckled across plastic seats don’t work. When their teams score, they resemble the survivors of a shipwreck waving for help”. There may be more than 143 Blackpool supporters, but that is nevertheless exactly what they look like. Especially with a number of orange shirts scattered among them, looking like life jackets.

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There is no way back for Portsmouth in this. The fans around me resign immediately completely after the second goal, and some start leaving. Time to do my usual statistical mini-survey of the local crowd, counting the 100 spectators immediately around me. There is an usually high percentage of women, 26%, which, I think, only Sunderland has been able to equal. But the ethnic composition is very one-sided. 100% white.

The air is thick from frustration, but as the crowd is absorbed in the narrow streets around the ground, I have got a feeling that the frustration is washed away. For more than 100 years, fans have been leaving this ground through these very streets. Jubilation or relief have always followed frustration. It will again. It is part of this place’s history. This was just a single match in very long history. Place gives perspective.

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I make my way back to Fratton station. Time to reflect. Fratton Park is certainly in my top five British football grounds. The Archibald Leitch stand and the mock tudor pavillon are not the only reasons. Together, the four stands reveal archaological layers from football throughout a century. All shaped by the streets of terraced housing around the ground. And although the atmosphere in this match was not particularly great, the fact the fact that it was almost a capacity crowd (just like the rest of Portsmouth’s home matches) testifies to the proud history and tradition around the ground. It will, indeed, be fitting, if Colin’s vision for the Archibald Leitch stand is realized. Then all proper football fans will have to go and live this experience.

 

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Posted in Football grounds

Posh in the snow

IMG_2903“A proper old school ground” that is how one of my fellow groundhoppers described Peterborough United’s London Road – or rather the ABAX stadium as it is called now. One of the standing terraces, however, was replaced by a brand new all-seater stand in 2014, so maybe it is just a matter of time, before it looses it’s ‘old school’ character. So to be make sure that I am not too late, I head north from London, braving weather forecasts about “The Big Freeze”.

IMG_2639It is, perhaps, a bit ironic, that Peterborough should have an ‘old school’ football ground. The club is relatively young, from 1934, and they only won promotion to the league in 1960 – three years before I was born. The ground, though, is a lot older. It was founded by the city council in the 1890’s, but taken over by “The Posh” shortly after their formation. Since then, however, everything has changed. At the match, I chat with a supporter, who has been going for 60 years. According to him, the main stand was the only proper stand in those days. It was built behind the old wooden stand, but when that was demolished, the pitch was moved – and a terrace had been constructed opposite. But this wasn’t a proper stand.  He had been going to matches ever since, so considering the amount of money he had paid for tickets, he felt real ownership to the club.

IMG_2699The current main stand is from 1957 – that is, perhaps, part of the reason, why  it has not been re-developed in contrast to just about any other football stand. Well, some redevelopment has taken place. New buildings and facilities have grown on the exterior. And the paddock at the front has been seated.

IMG_2649I have an appointment with club photographer Joe Dent to walk round the ground and take some photos in the afternoon before the evening’s match against Walsall. As I have purchased a ticket for the remaining standing terrace at the London Road End, this is my chance to have a closer look at the stand.

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The stand is prior to the cantilever stands, but it does not feature Archibald Leitch’s – admittedly sometimes crude – ornamental features. No gable, no criss-cross railing, no ornaments on the pillars. Just simple and functional.

IMG_2717What really catches the eye are the seats. The old wooden seats are still in place. Some are painted white, some blue, to make it look like a modern plastic-seated stand. Around the directors box, seats are padded – and the front row has been replaced with comfortable modern seats.

Right by the directors box, a couple of safe standing seats have been installed as a test for the directors to inspect. With the seat locked up, it serves as a crush barrier for standing supporters – but the seat can be pulled down as a normal seat as well. It looks simple, it looks a good idea – but it is expensive. And, later in the evening, as I stand on a proper terrace, I wonder whether it is the right solution after all. But more about that later.

IMG_2719To complete the selection of seats, plastic seats have been installed in the former paddock at the front. The old discoloured blue seats are from Leicester City’s Filbert Street – and a small section of yellow seats from The Old Den at Millwall. As these stadiums were demolished, Peterborough managed to get hold of some of the seats. And when White Hart Lane was demolished only last year, they tried to get hold of some of the blue seats to replace the yellow ones. But, alas, the size didn’t fit.

IMG_2824Compared to the new stand at Moy’s End, where all the plastic seats are brand new and shiny, the variety of seats add life and soul to the Main Stand. As I stand in the London Road Terrace during the match in the Evening, I look at the corner, where the two stands – 57 years apart – come together. The  modern stand looks anonymous, cold and unwelcoming. The old stand looks warmer and mystically alluring.

IMG_2672I don’t get inside to see the concourse of the main stand. And at the London Road Terrace, there is no concourse. There is a small stall outside the sheltered terrace, that is all. But who needs a concourse when standing on a terrace, especially a covered one? The rows of crush barriers are just fascinating. It is, of course, a far cry from the huge terraces of bygone days – the capacity is 2.667, that is just over 10% of the Kop at Hillsborough in its prime. It is almost exactly the same capacity as the brand new all-seater stand at the opposite end of the ground. But the number of fans preferring the  standing terrace that night must be at least 3 or 4 times as high at the seated fans.

IMG_2643The family stand pitch side opposite the main stand, has more character than the other new stand at the Moy’s End. It is probably the line of executive boxes cutting it into an upper and a lower section. But it also has a very slight asymmetrical look. In order to fit in behind the housing in Glebe Road, it is a bit narrower by the London Road End with space for less rows of seats.

IMG_2731That is another feature making London Road Stadium an “Old School” ground, It is located in the town center, fitted in behind the housing. Many modern ground are built outside the center, in areas where land is cheap, and space for stadium as well as parking is plenty. These stadiums often look soulless or lifeless, whereas old school grounds have been shaped by the living community around them.

IMG_2641As I walk round the pitch with Joe, I tell him about my research into memorial gardens at football grounds. It turns out that Peterborough are contemplating a garden just outside the main stand. Six months ago, they erected a statue of former player and manager, Chris Turner, who passed away in 2015. Not that statues and memorial gardens are features of ‘old school’ grounds, rather the contrary. But it is way of strengthening the historical identity of the club.

IMG_2748In this sense, the new stand at Moy’s End, incorporating the “Allia Business Centre” is in stark contrast to everything else about the ground. Particularly from the outside, the sterile look of glass and blue coding make it look exactly like a business centre  – and not a football ground.

IMG_2698Anyway, the main stand with the multitude of different seats and restricted view as well as the terraced London Road End have won me over – as well as the hospitality. I go back to my hotel to get some warmth before the match – and spot an Indian restaurant on the way to have a hot meal as well to prepare me. As I am about to pay, the waiter asks me if I would like a brandy or a whisky. I decline, but I adds “it is on the house”. On second thought, I decide to take anything in that can help keep me warm.

IMG_2768There are not many making their way to the ground. In fact, only about 2.500 brave the weather to see if Peterborough can change fortunes to the better after six straight defeats and the sacking of their manager. Some eighty are away supporters from Walsall.

IMG_2785I am delighted that I opted for the standing terrace rather than the main stand with the wooden seats. It must be absolutely freezing there. On the terrace, I keep moving around. To the left side, to the right side, next to the pitch, in back row. And I am not standing still. I stamp my feet – and join into some of the Peterborough chants – especially in the second half. A several minutes long rendition of the “blue army” chant makes everybody join in, stamp their feet, clap their hands – keep warm.

During the warm-up I see a stadium-first. The groundsmen are painting the lines blue. There has been a little snow on the pitch – which had just had its cover removed when I visited in the afternoon. And the idea is obviously to make the lines stand out from the white snow. But blue lines on basically green pitches do not really stand out.

IMG_2854Some 10 minutes into the game, however, it starts to snow properly. But the blue lines do not stand out, they are just covered by the snow like the white lines would have been. Just before the snow starts to fall, Walsall score on a break.

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Daniel Gray has in his book on 50 delights of modern football put “seeing an away end erupt” on the list. But he stresses, it has to be full. Otherwise, they look forlorn, like shipwrecked waving for help. That is precisely what the few Blackpool supporters look like. And the orange jackets of security personel remind me of life-jackets.

Within two minutes of Walsall’s goal, Peterborough miss a penalty. So when then snow starts to fall, it seems like a welcome distraction for the home fans. The mood on the terrace certainly get lighter.

IMG_2831.JPGAnd that is the thing you get in a standing terrace that you will never get in a stand, seated or with safe standing. Mates are standing in small groups, chatting, laughing, making ironic cheers. This is very much male territory. I do my customary count of 100 spectators next to me. It is only 9% women – compared to 26% at Portsmouth three days previously. There is a din of talking and laughing – with the odd ooh and ahh or chant going up. There is a guy with a drum – and I must admit that I think that the constant drumming of ultra-like fans to generate an atmosphere that is out of sync with events on the pitch really annoys me. But this is not bad. It is not constant – and most of the time, the drum seems to accompany chants already started, rather than trying to hype up an atmosphere. And in the cold, it invites you to stamp some warmth into your feet to the beat.

IMG_2789It may sound academic to state, that little plastic seats were installed to isolate the fans, to take the sometimes uncontrollable group dynamic out of crowds. But it is certainly what happens. There may be grounds, where the game generates oohs and ahhs in the stands. Some, where they even join into some chanting. But most of the time, it is generally so quiet, that you clearly can hear the moaner 20 seats away, who will never stop yelling out his complaints. But you hardly ever get this light mood of comraderie. And with safe standing, you still have a fixed place. You cannot move around and join up.

IMG_2865Even though conditions get increasingly difficult, the match is not bad. The pace and aggressiveness of Posh striker Jack Marriatt causes the Walsall defence all sorts of problems. And shortly before the interval, Peterborough get the equalizer, they deserve. It raises the spirits even more just in time for halftime.

IMG_2873Arguably, a warm concourse would have been nice. But there is something fascinating about queuing up in the floodlit snow behind the stand for a cup of hot bovril. And it does help keep warm.

IMG_2876During halftime, the groundsmen are busy shovelling snow off the lines. The two most eager set about clearing a penalty area each – but only about the third closest to the main stand is cleared before the players reappear.

IMG_2912Another first, is Peterborough keeper Bond bringing a hot water bottle, having to warm his fingers on it every 10 minutes. Peterborough takes the lead some 10 minutes into the second half – and with the need to keep warm at the same time becoming more and more urgent, the singing and shouting picks up. So does the snow after a brief pause. It is difficult to see the goal down the other end, and the keeper Bond scrapes marks in the snow to help him in his positioning.

IMG_2890With less than 10 minutes to go, the referee stops the game. It will not be continued till the lines have been cleared of snow. The groundsmen slowly start to clear the lines, when Peterborough – and former Newcastle – defensive stalwart Steven Taylor grabs a broom from a groundsman. Half running, he ploughs his way through the snow covering the lines of the penalty box. In doing so, he overtakes a groundsman with a snow shovel, which he takes out of his hand.

IMG_2902The fans cheer loudly. How many premier league players would put in a shift like that? He is also one of a handful players only wearing sleeveless shirt. Suddenly, it is Steven Taylor’s name being chanted.

IMG_2914In the final ten minutes, Peterborough have to withstand severe pressure from Walsall. Taylor flings himself down into the snow to block a shot. The ball bounces in front of his head as he is lying in the snow. So he throws himself forward through the snow to head it away, still lying down. The crowd is ecstatic. If he didn’t have cult status among Peterborough fans before, he has now.

IMG_2917 (2)There are 8 minutes of added time, before Peterborough can breath a sigh of relief. And Steven Taylor is the first to run to the crowd with clenched fists, screaming triumphantly. He has earned it.

IMG_2923It is kind of surreal to walk from the ground. There are not many supporters walking back towards the town centre. And in the snow, with no cars, it is completely silent. Not the usual huzzle and buzzle on leaving.

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Peterborough really lives up to the “Old School” billing. It is not just the wooden seats and standing terrace. It is the entire place that give an organic “going to the match” feel

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Posted in Football grounds

Looking for Archie part 3 – Tynecastle

IMG_0033.JPGThe third and final day of Dynamo Birkerod´s trip of Scottish football grounds is, arguably, the big one. It will probably be the title-decider. And it will be our last chance ever to get a look at Archibald Leitch’s main stand – in a month from now, bulldozers will move in and tear it down. And – it is a category A match.

IMG_0034.JPGTo prevent trouble, the police restrict ticket sales for category A matches. Only fans with a documented buying history as fans of the club are allowed to buy tickets – and only one ticket each. I had established a buying history a month previously – but that was not enough for me to apply for a ticket.

In fact, I had given up on getting 11 tickets, and instead made plans for seeing the build-up to the game, watching the match in a pub, and then paying a visit to rivals Hibernian’s ground Easter Road. But just a few days before the match, I contacted my old conference acquaintance Siobhan to ask her for some advice – and her husband, Chris, managed to pull some strings.

P1270367Not only that. He has also arranged that Hearts marketing officer Dylan will show us around the new memorial garden and museum at Tynecastle, which is otherwise closed on matchdays. I am particularly delighted with that, as I am working on an article about football memorial gardens. Depending on where you draw the line between a memorial garden and memorial monument, there are somewhere between 20 and 30 at British football grounds now.

P1270373.JPGI have told our party about the special story about Hearts and WW1 – and the Archibald Leitch stand. Hearts were building a really good team, and in 1913 asked Archie to build them a new grand stand to match – for £6000. That was the maximum limit for the club – and it meant that they could not afford to have one of Archie’s signature gables put on the top. But by New Year 1914, the cost had risen to £8000 and Hearts had to sell top striker Percy Dawson to Blackburn Rovers for a record fee of £2500.

P1270397.JPGStill, Hearts got off to a flying start to the new league season in 1914 – beating Celtic 2-0 in the opening fixture and winning the first eight matches, 19 out of the opening 21. But as rugby and cricket players (amateurs) suspended their leagues to join the army, criticism of the professional footballers carrying on with their trade increased. And at the end of November 1914, almost the entire Hearts team signed up for the army. They were joined by a number of players from Hibernian, Raith Rovers and Dunfermeline.

P1270400.JPGHearts suffered their first two defeats of the season, when the team had been out all night for military training and had to get straight on the train for matches the next morning without sleeping. Hearts won only 8 out of the last 17 matches after signing up, with Celtic overtaking them for the title at the end of the season – with none of the prolific Glasgow players having signed up.

P1270444.JPGSeven of the Hearts players lost their lives in the war. Several supporters – who signed up with the players for McRae’s battalion – also lost their lives. Attendances dropped – and so the club revenue. A new entertainment tax to finance the war effort added to Hearts’ financial woes.The cost of the new stand, however, went the other way. Completed in October 1915, the total cost was double the original estimate, £12.178. Along the way, the relations between the club and Archie had soured, and on the plaque mounted on the stand to commemorate the erection, all board members were named, but not the architect – Archie – as was customary.

P1270476.JPGSo in the light of history, today’s match could tie up a few loose ends. As well as bidding Archie’s stand goodbye at a time, when Hearts have just been saved from deep financial troubles, Hearts have the chance to dent Celtic’s unbeaten march towards the title. Celtic, who without contributing to the war effort a hundred years ago, benefited from Hearts’ sacrifice and took the title out of Hearts’ grasp.

We call three cabs to take us to the ground. Originally, I had planned for us to walk there, so we could stop by the memorial for the fallen Hearts players along the way, but the walk through Glasgow yesterday had taken its toll on some of the Dynamos who crave a cab for the 4 mile distance. I point out the memorial for the guys in my cab. It is very noticeable with the many wreaths of red poppies around it. In fact, next morning I take a walk past it, and notice that among the wreaths from many Hearts supporters branches, there is also one from Hibernian.

We are dropped by the Tynecastle Arms pub – it is glorious sunshine. We have a first quick look of Archie’s stand, which already forms part of a building site preparing the new stand. I point out the characteristic angling of the stand – another trace of the time, when football stadiums were designed to fit into the space available, rather than just buying up adjacent land.

IMG_0062.JPGWe make our way around the Gorgie Road end to the Wheatfield Street entrance, and meet Dylan in the club shop. He shows us a playing kit designed two years ago to thank the 8000 supporters who gave more than £120 to save the club.  So far, the foundation has contributed five million pounds! Amazing. Obviously, it is a shirt, I have to buy.

P1270306From the shop, we walk around to the Memorial Garden – “Forever in our Hearts”, opened in 2015. It is very different to most of the memorial gardens, I have visited so far. It is not intended to be a place, where you can scatter the ashes or bury the urn of your relatives, although Dylan guess that there are fans who sneak in to scatter the ashes of relatives among the plants.

P1270309.JPGThat is one major difference. Another major difference is that it is strictly designed. Other gardens are a jumble of individual expressions of identity and grief – but here, the only way of expression is to put a text within a metal Heart plaque. There is space for 8000 Hearts – the same number as the number of names on the shirt. At the price of £215.

P1270393.JPGIt is not only supporters featured here, though. There are also deceased former players, mixed among the fans in no particular order. They are important, but not more important than the fans. As a sign puts it: “The fans – the one true constant. Thank you”. It is no coincidence that the statue erected by the garden is an anonymous representative of McCrae’s battalion which had players as well as supporters signing up.

P1270324.JPGAlthough all individual statements have to be expressed within the same narrow frame of the steel heart, there is still room for individuals to stand out. Dylan points out his favourite plaque: “In memory of Dave. He loved the pub. He loved Heart of Midlothian. He tolerated his family”.

P1270308Jes asks Kelly about the values of Hearts – compared to what we saw at Rangers the other day. He doesn’t want to be drawn into discussing Rangers, but focuses on the community work and sponsorship policy of Hearts – they have “Save the children” as shirt sponsors. Of course, you could argue that Hearts are the protestant club of Edinburgh, just as Rangers are in Glasgow, both of them with catholic rivals. And at least some years ago, the “Billy Boys” song could be heard from sections of the Hearts crowd. But the religious element seems to have disappeared from the Edinburgh rivalry, and Hearts have worked deliberately on stamping out that element of the crowd.

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I purchase a Hearts WW1 scarf to supplement the Rangers scarf I bought the other day. Whereas Glasgow Rangers did not contribute in any particular way to the war, still they sell “Battle of the Somme” scarves dedicated to the Ulster Division, stressing militant protestancy. Hearts sell McCrae Battalion scarves with the names of the Hearts players who fought. This seems to commemorate historic roots, rather than signalling sectarian partisanship. I wear my new Hearts scarf for the rest of the day.

IMG_0052You could argue that it is strange that the memorial garden of a club,  emphazising the importance of the fans so much, should be so strictly regulated. All messages put on the standardized plaques. The space is carefully designed around a bronze and steel sculpture of the club crest wit a football in the centre – that brings you could luck, if you touch it.  It is surrounded by three steel benches.

One of the benches is dedicated to Hearts greatest player, Dave McKay. Curiously, it is adorned by a George Best quotation “The hardest man I have ever played against and certainly the bravest”. Curiously, because “bravery” is not usually the main virtue ascribed a footballer in a memorial, and also because George Best had a spell with Hearts rivals Hibernian. To balance the bench dedicated a player, the second bench is dedicated to “The Hearts Family … the Hearts supporters all over the world who helped save their club in it’s hour of need”. And the third and final bench link players and supporters through the 1914-story:

P1270334.JPG“Do not ask where Hearts are playing and then look at me askance. If it’s football that you are wanting, you must come with us to France”.

Over the past few years the WW1 commemorations seem to have sparked a new wave of football memorials and memorial gardens. The story of Hearts and the Sporting Battalion – and the timing with the commemorations – are probably the main reasons, why this garden have more resemblance with an official war memorial than a private garden, where ashes are scattered among personalized objects.

The garden also has a small room, where you can have a quiet service. It contains an impressive artwork, based on a map of the Somme region.

P1270335.JPGFrom the garden, we walk to the other end of the ground to the Gorgie Stand to have a look around the museum. David, the assistant curator, is in to greet us. It is a really nice little museum, set up last year in a room originally build as club shop on the initiative of Ann Budge.

17761174_1719933554689639_352034340900300125_o.jpgAnn Budge formed a consortium to buy the shareholding majority of the club during the 2014 turmoil, to allow the fans’ Foundation of Hearts time to raise the money to take over the ownership officially. When she one day saw the club archive and the objects gathered there, she wanted a museum established to show it to the fans. And it is really made for the fans. For one thing, entrance is free of charge, whereas you have to pay around £ 10 in other club museums, as they mainly target footballing tourists who are prepared to spend to get the entire package.

17760853_1719933728022955_4674173200258208005_oThe Hearts museum is – just like the memorial garden – atypical as a football club museum. They often tend to be designed as branding platforms, reflecting just how much success the club has had, often as part of an argument for being the best, the greatest, the most popular or the first to achieve something. And this argument is accompanied with a hall of fame element. They seem to be designed primarily to win over neutral visitors to become supporters through their claim to greatness.

The Hearts museum seem to be more a room for reflection on the club’s history for its fans. Objects – and relics – tell about the McCrae Battalion, and about Hearts travels to other countries. A map tells about every ground in Edinburgh where Hearts have played. The historical timetable element contain lows as well as the highs as part of the club identity. Visitors be warned! Becoming a Hearts supporter may cause you considerable grief and despair along the way!

P1270339But, of course, there is also a special place for Hearts’ greatest team that won the title in 1958 with a record number of points, goals scored and goal difference. 132 goals in 34 matches! Impressive. But what intrigues me most in the museum are the souvenirs taken back from Denmark, when Hearts visited Copenhagen in 1912 and 1914. A china polar bear, and a swastika needle from the Carlsberg breweries.

As a bonus, Dylan wants to show us the pitch. We enter the ground in the Gorgie Stand, as security staff are walking in lines around the ground, flipping all the seats. Jens asks me, what they are doing it for. “Checking for bombs” I say. He doesn’t really believe me, so he asks Dylan – who confirms.

I am so absorbed with looking at Archie’s condemned stand, that I hardly appreciate the fact that we are allowed to walk pitch side all the way to the players’ tunnel in the middle of the stand.

I have a last look at the pillars and elaborate ceiling. Dylan, though, doesn’t seem to be sentimental about. “As you can see, it needs replacing”. I cannot see it.

We are allowed into the players tunnel. It is really narrow, a far cry from modern tunnels that are made to accommodate television crews and have areas for post-match interviews with players. There is hardly room for two rows of players lined up here before entering the ground.

Over the entrance to the field, there is first a customary “This is Tynecastle” – and then a quatation from Heart legend John Cumming: “Blood doesn’t show on a maroon jersey”.

P1270363.JPGIt is fairly crowded in the tiny tunnel – and noisy. Electronic music is blasting out from somewhere. A camera man from Sky Sports block the tunnel – he is waiting for the Celtic players to arrive – and we have to stand behind him and wait for them to pass. I can see on Dylan that he didn’t plan this – and wants us to get out of there as quickly as possible. When apparently all the Celtic players have passed, he tells us to follow him as quickly as we can out of there.

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As we enter entrance hall, another couple of Celtic players appear – and I make the ultimate sacrifice to avoid causing Dylan too much trouble for taking us through. I don’t stop to take photos of Archie’s Hearts mosaic crest. A sacrifice that keeps me awake late that night. It was the last chance to see it … although Dylan claims that that is the only thing that will be preserved.

17758551_1719934794689515_4389288795540633141_o.jpgAs we gather outside the main stand, everybody seems a bit starstruck and realize that this was a bit extraordinary. Jonas, one of Ib’s son, is excited that he shook the hand of Kolo Toure, as he arrived as one of the last Celtic players.

P1270368.JPGDylan points out where the new stand will be. They will build it in stages, so it will be ready for matches already by September. And then the rest with offices etc. will be completed afterwards. I have a long last look at Archie’s stand …

17545546_1719933881356273_5607249700310073257_o.jpgWe thank for an amazing tour, and take the short walk to the pub “The Athletic Arms”, called “the Diggers” as it is situated between to cemeteries. Most of us have a pint and a pie – and they are really good. It is a really great place. The atmosphere is good, there are plenty of old football photos on the wall – and the television show the Sky Sports build-up to the match, so we get a deja-vu of the Celtic players arriving in the tunnel.

Back to the ground. It is an early 12.30 kick-off. Our seats are in the Roseburn stand, above the Memorial Garden. Half the stand is allocated the Celtic fans – who enter from McLeod Street, the other half home fans, who have to enter through the Wheatfield stand. As much as I love old Archie’s stand, I have to admit that the concourse on the new stands at Tynecastle are nice and spacey. Fans can meet here, no matter where they are seated, and the facilities are ok. In fact, there is even a curry shed – but having just had a pie at the pub, I have room for no more at the moment.

Again, you glimpse the fans commitment of the club with a listing of 500 financial contributors.

P1270395.JPGInside the ground, I send long looks to Archie’s stand. It may look a bit dated between the two larger cantilevered stands, and it is somehow dwarfed by the big white steel gantry in place for its successor.

The crowd is – in terms of gender and etnicity – almost identical to the ones at Dundee and Glasgow, and, in fact, most English grounds. 100% white and 85% male. Unusually, there are a few suits around, but there are also, despite the attractiveness of the fixture, a few empty seats around us.

P1270413.JPGThe players enter the field to the tune of the 1950’s “Glorious Hearts” recording. It goes well with Archie’s stand. I wonder if they will – like Glasgow Rangers – persevere with it, when the new stand takes over, or they will go all ‘modern’ like Glasgow Rangers and play “Simply the best”.

P1270402.JPGOf course, Celtic have a massive turnout for the match – and they are in pretty good voice, although, I must admit, I had expected a bit more from them. They are not as vocal as many other travelling supports, even though they are on the verge of winning the title.

P1270424.JPGThe Hearts crowd, though, are in good voice, as Hearts make a good, highpressing start to the game, unsettling Celtic. Ooohhhs and ahhrsss accompany tackles and passes – and you really get the match under your skin. A stark contrast to the ultra-element at Ibrox the previous day. This is what British football is about. I love every second of it.

Hearts have a few half chances. Niels next to me suggests that the pressure of possibly winning the title today is too much for Celtic, but I reply that they are just waiting to counter and will probably nick a couple of goals – because they do look sharp upfront once they get the ball to Scott Sinclair.

P1270422.JPGWhereas I was way off the mark with my 4-0 prediction for Rangers the previous day, I am proved right. Just after the halfway point of the first half, two Sinclair goals within the space of 4 minutes, put Celtic firmly in the driving seat.

P1270460.JPGJust before the second goal, Celtic’s Swedish full back Mikael Lustig had gone down injured, calling for a foul and probably a card to a Hearts player. But as Sinclair races through to score, he jumps up and runs over to celebrate. The Hearts fans are angered by this miraculous resurrection. When Lustig goes to the touchline for to retrive the ball from the crowd for a throw-in – he gets it full force in the groin. As he turns and squares up towards the fans, they hurl abuse at him. On of them seems to spit at him, as he shouts him right in the face. But he just manages to keep his cool.

A little reminder that despite Fans Foundation, Memorial Gardens etc. not all Hearts fans are charity angles – for instance, the boy at the corner of the Main Stand, waving a Union Jack towards the Celtic supporters seems to have been inspired by Rangers. There are, of course, also quite a few vocal supporters around us, swearing and cursing. A guy in front of me can’t decide whether to call on “f..ing hell” or “Jesus” – maybe his appeals to two competing spheres make things go from bad to worse.

At half time, Niels and I go down to the concourse for a stadium pie. I have completely forgotten about the curry shed. There is hardly any queue, which either illustrates that the stadium have got plenty of catering facilities or that fans are not really up for early kick-offs.

P1270451.JPGThe atmosphere has lost the incredible edge of the opening 23 minutes. Nobody really believes that there is way back into this for Hearts. But still, the crowd tries to get behind the team at the start of the second half. But after 10 minutes, Celtic add a third goal. And that is it. Just like at Dundee on the Friday, the third goal sparks an exodus.

The Celtic supporters, of course, are celebrating – but whereas some of my fellow travellers are impressed by them, I had expected a bit more. Perhaps they have just been too superior this season to really be up for it.

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For the past 20 minutes, it is an almost surreal atmosphere. Half the Hearts supporters have left, as they can’t bear to see their rivals celebrating a title at their ground. And the Hearts players have lost all belief. Celtic players go through the motions and win 5-0 – but in the end, it could have been more. I can’t help thinking what would have happened, if Hearts had managed to take an early lead, when they took the game to Celtic.

P1270472.JPGAt the end of the match, the Celtic players run over to celebrate with their supporters. The players also seem a bit subdued in their celebrations. All the Hearts supporters have left – we are almost all alone with the Celtic supporters, players – and the security.

IMG_0045.JPGBy the time we leave the ground, there is no crowd outside. We head for the Royal Ettrick Hotel’s Beer garden to meet up with Siobhan and Chris, and their daughter Daisy. The sun is shining, the beer is good, just like the company. After a pretty tight schedule for three days with a lot of tense build-up, it is almost meditative to sit here and talk in the sun.

17795919_1901693926710889_2880698806067551357_n.jpgBack to the city centre, where we have dinner at The Devil’s Advocate, next to the filming for the Avengers: Infinity War. Afterwards, we head to the 500 year old White Hart pub. I ask each of my fellow travellers if they have taken one particular Scottish team to Heart after seeing four of the top six clubs in action over three matches.

The two young ones go for Celtic. A 5-0 win, a title, and celebrating supporters. One goes for Motherwell for their spirited performance at Ibrox. But the rest all go for Hearts. A few of them add “because of the history and values”. I feel exactly the same, and I am delighted that the tour around the ground, the memorial garden and museum has made such an impact.

17758321_1719933714689623_2775497408754347824_o.jpgFootball, after all, comes from the heart. It is about identity and values. Of course, winning is nice, and loosing is painful. But despite the ever growing media focus on success, and television fans switching their loyalties as quickly as switching channels, there is something beautiful about the material culture of a club seducing a group of grown-up men actually being there and sensing it – despite the club loosing 5-0 at home.

The only slight grudge I hold against Hearts is that they are bulldozing Archie’s stand. Maybe that is why, there is also room for some sympathy for Dundee F.C. in my heart. 17390523_1719934324689562_3995071751066168390_o.jpg

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