After the stadium disasters in the 1980’s and the Taylor Report, all-seating at stadiums were imposed by law under Margaret Thatcher. Grounds either had to be redeveloped – or replaced.
Bolton Wanderers, one of the founding members of the football league, chose to leave their ground, Burnden Park. A ground made famous by Lowry’s painting, “Going to the match.”
Well, compared to this painting, the new ground, The Reebok Stadium, sums up the transition of English football. In stead of being located in an industrial city with people walking to the ground, The Reebok is located outside the city with sloping hills in the distance – and a highway, huge car parks and a trainline next to it. There are no pubs or chippys next door – but a KFC and a MacDonalds.
From the outside, the stadium looks like something that has landed in the middle of nowhere from outer space. The only thing that breaks the corporate facade is a luxury hotel. And the historic landmark is a plaque declaring that the foundation was laid in 1997 by – not Margaret Thatcher – but John Mayor.
I arrived 80 minutes before kick-off, but you did not really sense a match-day atmosphere outside. Of course, it was an evening kick-off (on a very cold evening) which might have kept people away. But I didn’t see any of the small stalls that you usually see around a football ground.
I went to the ticket office and asked for a ticket. “Which part of the ground?” “The most vocal” I replied. “Right, I will put you in this corner, then, next to the away fans. That is the most vocal”. Equipped with a ticket, I went on to the souvenir shop. There were plenty of signed shirts and photos on offer. From stars from different decades such as Frank Worthington, Henrik Tømrer Pedersen and Chris Eagles!
I had been told that the catering inside the ground was good, and as the alternative seemed to be KFC or MacDonalds, I entered the ground. It was ok – I had a chicken wrap, a chicken pie – and a bovril at halftime. But still, I was not really impressed.
I hadn’t seen that many people outside the ground. And my section was probably not “average”. But the composition of the crowd was far from the corporate image that the ground conveyed. I would say it was a 99% white crowd. In my section 90-95% male (with most of the women being teenage girls in pairs). And – again in my section – 50% teenage boys in groups of 4-8. And everybody was standing throughout the match
The travelling Huddersfield fans filled their section just before the kick-off, so the demarcations had to be moved closer to our section – and the most vocal Huddersfield supporters jumped at the opportunity to get closer at us. And they were quite impressive. They may not have been 1.000 strong, but they were vocal all the way. And particularly in the opening 25 minutes and the last 30, the Bolton fans in my section responded to that.
A few fans from both sides were far more preoccupied with gaining eyecontact with opposing fans, gesticulating, singing – but in an overall goodhumoured way. There was a lot of Lancashire-Yorkshire rivalry in the chanting. “Sheep, sheep, sheepshaggers” were chanted from the Bolton section, with the Huddersfield fans responding, singing: “he s…… all your kids, he s…… all your kids, Jimmy Saville, he s……. all your kids”. That response was greeted by smiles and grins and even applauds from the Bolton fans, before they returned the chant: “he s…… all your sheep, he s……. all your sheep, Jimmy Saville, he s…… your sheep”.
As the game gradually lost a bit of its initial spark, the responses from the Bolton fans peetered out at the end of the half, particularly as Huddersfield carried the greater threat. But it was sparked to live in the second half, particularly after Chris Eagles gave the Wanderers the lead. It added an edge to the chanting – and the most gesticulating Huddersfield fan was one of two away supporters being removed by the police.
The game opened up considerably at the same time with great chances at both ends; so despite the apparently corporate setting, the relatively low crowd of just over 15.000, and the cold night, it became an absorbing and very vocal contest. And on the train back to Bolton, there was quite a lot of singing, chanting, wall-banging as well.
So – despite the modern stadium setting – this was as good oldfashioned English football as it gets. Perhaps not a full house, perhaps not high quality of football – but a lot of passion,