Telling people of my groundhopping project, many have adviced me to go to Boundary Park in Oldham. So being in Manchester on Good Friday, it was the obvious choice. Although some of the gloss was taken off my trip, as I discovered that Boundary Park has been renamed SportsDirect.com Park in a sponsorship deal. SportsDirect.com Park. It just doesn’t sound appealing.
Anyway, I made my way to the ground with my teenage son on a grey, rainy Friday, and seeing a couple of other men get off the MetroLink at Freehold, we correctly guessed that they were on their way to the match too. It turned out that they were groundhoppers as well – two brothers from Switzerland. This was their match number 32 – just as it was my ground number 32 in England.
So we added a bit of international flavor to what (with the exception of a contingent of Bristol City supporters out to enjoy their team’s march towards the Championship) seemed a very local crowd. Or, perhaps, local is a wrong word. On our way to the ground we saw a mosque, and most of the people in the street were Indian/Asian. But as we got to the ground, almost everybody was white. I have started making a statistic on the first 100 people walking past me inside the football grounds. In this case the result was 83% men and 17% women – and 100% white. Looking around the ground, I managed to spot 5 people of other ethnic background among the 4,500 people there. But the percentage was definitely less than one.
As well as being predominantly white and male, the average age was also pretty high – with a group of around 50 youngsters in the ZenOffice stand (what a name!) behind the goal forming a notable exception. These youngsters were also exceptional when it came to their looks, as at least some of them had allowed their hair to grow. As my son remarked, he and I seemed to have more hair than the rest of the men in the main stand put together …
In many ways, I prefer the traditional grounds and the atmosphere. And although I am an outsider myself, I can understand the Manchester United supporters who moan about the daytripping tourists who take up so many seats in Old Trafford, buying half-and-half matchday scarves as a token to prove that they have actually attended a match. No such things at Boundary Park. No selling of souvenirs at all, let alone matchscarves.
But at Old Trafford, my counting has come up with 9 and 8% people of other ethnic background on my past couple of visits. And the number of women is about 25%, higher than in any other ground, where I have done the counting. It is not that I have been in sections full of Asian daytrippers. There are, in fact, quite a few locals of Asian descent inside Old Trafford as well.
The atmosphere at Boundary Park and most other grounds somehow seem excluding. Not that I don’t like it. But I somehow feel embarrassed for the clubs that they have so little contact with the local communities. It is not just Oldham. I saw the same in Luton, among other places. And according to an article on the BBC website, it is the same at Burnley (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-manchester-21893570). These places are like time warps, transferring you back to the 1980’s, before the Premiership and the transformation of the game.
When you walk around Boundary Park (I can’t get myself to use the sponsored name again), it seems hard to believe that Oldham actually played in the premier league in the 1990’s. It is not just that the ground is small, the current capacity being just above 10.000, it is also that it is just not geared for the glittering premier league life.
Take the players entrance. It is barely possible to distinguish it from any other entrance in the ground.
Take the small parking slot for members of the coaching staff in front of the old main stand, the George Hill stand. Nothing star-studded about that, and, in fact, nothing start-studded about the cars that happened to be parked there.
Take the modest size of ticket office and (closed) souvenir shop. This is not a multimillion pound business.
And how many premier league clubs would prioritize a motoring school on their premises? In Oldham’s case, there is the added irony that their kitman bumped into three of the players’ cars outside the ground a couple of years ago. So perhaps, it is a good priority.
But maybe because it is so different to the glass and concrete structures of modern grounds, it looks quite charming. The same can be said about the interior. The corridors with catering and toilets are small and narrow, with brick walls, wooden doors, and small notices to the fans.
Season ticket holders of Oldham can get to see neighbouring Rochdale and Bury for just £ 5.00 – and vice versa. You can host a birthday party at the ground with a player attending and autographed footballs at prices from £80!
There is still a small, unused area of standing terrace on the right side of the stand, and on the left side, a small building with corporate seats have been added – looking very oldfashioned.
A far cry from the parking house architecture of modern grounds, where fans are mainly seen as customers. But it is a bit narrow inside. And even worse in the stands. My son and I had to twist into our seats – and twist ourselves out again. The seats in front of us really cut into our shins. A Ryan Air-experience. Never mind the partly obstructed view. It was the seating that made me consider, whether I would prefer the new stand on my next visit.
For Oldham are in the process of building a new stand, 7 years after the old north stand was closed. It is not huge, and it seems that it will fit in well with the rest of the ground, once it is ready next season. It will also upgrade the facilities for the coaching staff, a retail sale etc. But having a building site on the opposite side of the pitch rather than a stand full of supporters, perhaps, contribute to a rather flat atmosphere in the first half.
Bristol City have brought quite a few away supporters, placed to our right in the relatively new Rochdale Road stand. But they are surprisingly quiet as well. It is just the small group of teenagers in the Chadderton Road End (or ZenOffice) at the opposite side of the ground making a bit of noise with a drum to direct their chanting.
During the break, I make my way downstairs for a coffee. It is surprisingly easy to get, but that is probably due to Oldham having separated beer from the rest of the catering. And strictly speaking, there is no need for something warm this dat, as Boundary Park fails to live up to its reputation as being cold and windy, located on the edge of the Pennines. Despite the rain, it is relatively warm.
In the second half, things liven up on as well as off the pitch. Bristol City take the lead, but out of nowhere, Oldham’s Carl Winchester belts in a long range effort for the equalizer. Oldham seems to be in the ascendancy, tempers flare on and off the field – but when Oldham are reduced to 10 men because of injury (having used all substitutes), momentum swings back to Bristol, and Oldham are happy to see out a draw.
We exit the ground and make our way back towards Freehold. A couple of Bristol City supporters have told us that there is a station closer by (we have put our trust in the Football Ground Guide), so maybe that could explain that there are hardly anybody heading the same way. But when we enter the metro, it is nowhere near full. In that sense, Oldham is a local club – even though the local community is not reflected very well in the crowd.
All in all, a nice day out. I wouldn’t mind going back one day.