Delights and perils of groundhopping

End of February means that I am off to my annual meeting up with the Sports and Leisure History network at Manchester Metropolitan University in Crewe. And, as usual, I throw in a handful of football matches before and after. This year is something special. Only matches scheduled for Wednesday before our meeting up on the Thursday are in Scotland. As I only make slow progress in visiting all the English football grounds, it is a bit hazardous to put the Scottish grounds into the project. Nevertheless, I decide to do so as this is probably the last chance to see Archibald Leitch’s main stand at Tynecastle, which is to replaced by a modern one this summer. At the same time, it will serve as preparation for a trip with my old boys’ Dynamo Birkerød exactly a month later. Hearts are also at home in that weekend, but they are playing Celtic in a category A match, which means that you have to have a buying a history to even apply for a single ticket. So without a previous visit, there is no chance of getting to see that one.

That has an impact on my choice for match Tuesday night. I have Grimsby Town high on my list, but train connections from there to Edinburgh are not very good. So I decide to go for Rochdale’s Spotland, which allows me to stay in Manchester and meet up with friends.

I land at the Manchester Airport at 9.30 as planned. But the airport is in a state of panic, and we have to wait for 40 minutes on the runway, before we arrive at gate. I am mildly irritated, as I have promised the guys at the Manchester United Museum to come around with some freshly imported Danish pastry for a morning brew. But I really ought to have been mildly relieved, as it turns out that for the previous 40 minutes, planes had been directed to Birmingham or Liverpool because of the snow – and we were just feeling the after effects as they started sending off the delayed flights still occupying the gates.

Being short of time, I take a cab to the ground. I am a bit anxious about bringing my suitcase with laptop and all. They have gone very strict on security at the ground, as proved when the ground was evacuated for the last game of the previous season, as somebody discovered a dummy bomb left from a security exercise the previous day. I contemplate what to do, if they turn me away. I hope that it is one of the security guys from my stint with the museum some 4 years ago, so I may be able to talk me out of any problems.

It turns out that it is guy, I have never met before, but he quickly makes up his mind that I am no terrorist, when I show him the pastry I have brought from Denmark. He wishes he could join, and after a quick look into my suitcase, he puts it in a locker.

It is great to be back at the Manchester United Museum, scene of arguably the most adventurous month of my life, when I volunteered as a researcher there for a month, started my groundhopping project with 17 matches in a month, and followed United’s route to Alex Ferguson’s lasts title. The rooms, the objects, the sounds, the smells – it feels like home. Tom, who had just started at the museum, when I was there hurries past me – “hey, I remember you!” – and Mark comes up to greet me and take me down to the office.

We update each other on museums and football. The United museum can really feel the Mourinho-Zlatan effect. Visitor figures, use of audioguides, tours etc. things are better than ever before. And busier. After the League Cup win against Southampton, the club currently holds three of the four top trophies in English football, and everybody wants to set up events with them

We also talk about Zlatan. Mark admits that he never really rated him, so I also admit that I found him overrated. Afterwards, I have a walk around the museum. A bit of nostalgia – and I am also curious to see the current special exhibition – on the FA cup final triumph in 1977. And that is even more nostalgia! It is not just the final – it is the Doc’s Red Army years that they have put in there. And brilliantly put the fan culture just as much in focus as the actual games.p1260229

My heart really starts pounding when I see the special belt for the final, consisting of 14 small plastic frames, 12 of them with signed photos of the expected line-up, the last two rolls of titles. In order to stick the plastic belt into your jeans, you had to first remove the frames – which meant that you could rearrange  them in whichever order, you liked, thus personalizing your belt. Working in museums, I know that this is really the dream of a modern curator. User-generated content or co-creation being some of the buzz-words. Well, we did that as supporters in the 70’s. Actually, I think I can recall feeling a bit silly doing it, especially as the first plastic frames were torn after a couple of times wearing them. So after a few months, I gave up the belt, and cut out the small photos with autographs and put them on a sheet of paper instead. Maybe that was what got me into chasing autographs….


The satin scarves and bar scarves, the satin banner, the replica shirt. And in the background 70’s music to a video showing goals and the crowd at the Stretford End swaying down to celebrate them. It is like a little time pocket taking me back to my teenage years.

With less than an hour before meeting my friend Dale and his son Aarran, I leave the ground. Memories, passion – everything has been stirred up. I try to take it all in, and look closely at the buildings along the way. I have never before noticed the motto on the Trafford Town Hall: “HOLD FAST THAT WHICH IS GOOD”. I can only agree.


Just as I feel that things can’t get any better, they do. As I pass the cricket ground, I see an elderly lady crossing the railroad. She wears a black´nred-scarf with an inscription and a picture. I wonder if it is an old Alex Ferguson scarf and try to judge from the distance. “Are you looking at my shirt?” she shouts, as we approach each other. I notice that her hoodie is in keeping with the scarf, a Marlon Brando Godfather hoodie. “No, I am looking at your scarf”, I say as we meet  Her face lightens up in a big smile. “Oh Zlatan! He is just fantastic” and she adds in her half pleading, half frightened voice “He must’n leave, he must stay. I just love him”.  She looks up at me. Now that we are standing so close to each other, we both realize that I am least two foot higher than her. “Oh my God, you are just as tall as him!” she adds. I feel flattered. Just the other day I was reminded by facebook that I some four years ago typed in my height and weight in a “which-footballer-do-you-resemble-app” and the app came up with Zlatan as the answer. A split second I think of telling her, but as the weight no longer holds true, I decide to limit myself to “yeah, we are exactly the same height.”

Anyway, she is already on to raving about Zlatan’s two goals this Sunday. She had been out celebrating till 3 AM, but for some reason I didn’t’ really get, she had not gone till bed till 7 AM. Whatever the reason, she looks very remorseful as she tells me. We say our goodbyes and continue our separate ways. But after a few strides I stop, turn around and look after her, as I pull my camera out of my pocket. At the same time, she also stops and turn around. We both smile, she spreads out her arms and poses, as I take a picture of her and her Zlatan scarf. “Bye luv”


Somehow this is the icing on the cake. It is not just about nostalgia. This really is home.

I am to meet Dale and his son Aarran at the National Football Museum at the Urbis. Dale and I met back in 1982 hunting autographs at United’s training ground the Cliff, and the following year I stayed with him and his family on my trip to Manchester. We lost contact a couple of years after, but Dale found me on Facebook just over a month ago, as I had a 1979-photo of me and Lou Macari as a profile photo. We had been reunited at Old Trafford two weeks previously as I went over with my son Thomas, and MUTV had arranged for Lou Macari and Bryan Robson to join in.

I am bit anxious that Dale and Aarran  may not be as fond of the football museum as me, especially as Dale ask me how long it will take. I know that he is the one in charge of getting us to Rochdale in time for the match, and that it therefore is only a natural question to ask. But I start to point out some of my favourite objects rather than allowing them to discover for themselves.


Any doubts that they will not enjoy the visit as much as I are, however, dispelled by Alan. Alan Maul, working at the museum. As we struggle to identify Roger Hunt on the team photo of the England team, he decides that we need guidance. And it turns into a 40 minute tour of anecdotes and remembrance. Alan tells that he has actually been a footballer at Shrewsbury Town back in the 70’s. The ground was located by the river, and any ball hit over the stands therefore landed in the water. Therefore a ballboy was equipped with a tiny rowing boat each matchday to retrieve the costly balls. “I kept him busy” Alan tells. The highlight is the hot iron of the Maul family from 1966, on display with the original box. It is on exhibit in the Cup final timeline, just before the German equalizer to 2-2. Alan’s mum had not been the slightest interested in the game, so with ten minutes to go, she had demonstrably put up her iron board in front of the television. Naturally, it had generated the most heated discussion ever in the Maul family. No wonder the German’s managed to grab a late equalizer in such pandemonium.


We take a bus to a stop near Dale’s work in Cheetham, where his car is parked. It has started raining, but not as heavily as predicted by the weather forecast yesterday. And as we start making our way out of Manchester, it stops. Dale tells me that we are near United’s former training ground, the Cliff , where we went autograph hunting some 35 years ago. “Will you have a look?” Of course, I will.

We pull up outside the ground. It is now used for training of small kids by the Manchester United Foundation. Two security men stop everybody who tries to get in. There was no security back then when it was ‘only’ the Bryan Robsons and George Bests of this world who used the facilities. The only security we saw down there, was when Julio Iglesias joined our little group of autograph hunters before the Manchester derby in 1982. He arrived in a limo with 6 security men all dressed in black. I was sitting on the stairway watching the players, and hadn’t noticed his arrival. Suddenly the press photographers down pitchside hurried towards the place. For a brief second, I thought that they had heard that I had come all the way from Denmark to watch the match, when I suddenly became aware of a strong scent of perfume. I turned around – and saw Iglesias on the stairway behind me.p1260266

However, when the security guys hear the story of us having just reunited via Facebook some 34 years since we met hunting autographs down here, one of them takes us inside for a look. In many ways, the place looks the same. But the main building with dressing rooms and gymnasium is standing empty, with a couple of trophies left in a window. The manager also used to have an office here – and according to Andy Mitten’s books, Ron Atkinson who was manager then, had a sunbed installed. Down from the pitch, the players could see the light from it, when Big Ron was ‘busy’ in his office.


The security guy listen to our stories. We tell about the corner drill before the match against QPR, with Big Ron pointing out that QPR would be without their strong centre back Steve Wicks. We could, in theory, have been QPR fans, spying on United’s preparations. Dale recalls that Frank Stapleton as the only player was reluctant to sign autographs. I don’t have any recollections of that, on the contrary. But as he in other ways was very unimpressed with the lack of professionalism in those days, he may have annoyed by our presence.


Whereas the main building now looks like a condemned house just before being boarded up, the pitch that used to be muddy now looks in top state. Our new friend tell that this is no coincidence. The first team now train on a pitch with exactly the same measures and the same mixture of real and artificial grass as Old Trafford. He admits that he is not a United but a Wigan supporter. So when he recently had a turn out for a photoshoot event with the FA Cup, he made sure that it was turned so the inscription of Wigan as winners in 2013 could be seen on the photos. The only teams that he really didn’t like, though, were Liverpool and Manchester City.

The five minute stop by the Cliff turns into a 30 minute stop, so by the time that we finally head towards Rochdale, we hit the heavy traffic. Dale had read that parking facilities near the ground were limited, so he had online booked parking on a private address next to the ground for a fiver. Rochdale has announced that for this fixture, all tickets are only £1, so maybe this stunt will attract a really big crowd. So nice to have our parking sorted out.


We only get there as it starts to get dark. Strangely, the floodlights are not on yet, but maybe Rochdale are trying to compensate for the lost gate revenue by cutting the electricity bill. We are all hungry by now, and spot the local fisn ‘n chips, but I want to walk around the ground to take some photos before darkness is full. As we pass the ticket office, I decide to ask if we can buy a ticket in advance or have to pay at turnstiles. We don’t want expected hordes of fans attracted by the stunning offer to fill the ground before we have had our fish ‘n chips.


And that was when I experienced one of those nightmarish moments in life where you just want to rewind and hope something else will happen next time. “The match is called off” the girl at the counter said. I heard the words but did not comprehend them. “They have called of the match half an hour ago after a pitch inspection” she elaborated.


I was stunned. This was a first for me. I had been at White Hart Lane for a January fixture in heavy with a pitch inspection just an hour before kick-off – for a match where I had spent £300 on a ticket. But that had gone ahead. I had been behind the scenes at Leicester, when they battled to get a match on despite heavy snow, so several players had to abandon their cars and walk to the ground. And that match also went ahead. So why was this one postponed? It can’t possibly have been that little rain in the afternoon?!


My first thought was that Rochdale must have been hit by a very local and very heavy shower. But my second thought is that I have jinxed it. When I filled Turf Moor in on my groundhopping map a couple of weeks ago, I did the thing that you mustn’t do. I filled in the grounds I had planned for this trip as well. The first of which being Rochdale. Of course, that was tempting fate. The prospect is frightening. How many more of the scheduled matches will I miss? In fact, this prospect is too frightening, so my thoughts go for a conspiracy theory instead. An accountant has figured out that even if Rochdale managed to attract 8.000 by lowering the price, the revenue would only be £ 8.000, compared to £ 36.000 if the normal 2.000 supporters paid their full £ 18. A staggering loss of £ 28.000. He must have told a director, who had stopped the match from going ahead.


While was still feeling cheated and smarting at the thought of having to erase Spotlands from my map, Dale kept his cool. “that’s what happens when you share your pitch with a rugby team”, he reasoned. And then he asked Aarran to find an alternative match. Fortunately, nearby Bury also had a match. Also in league one. Although it is only 15 miles away, it appears to be unaffected by the weather. The prospect of getting to see a match after all makes me catch my breath again. Although it won’t really count in my groundhopping, as I have been to Gigg Lane in Bury twice before. That, however, was to watch FC United before they build their own stadium, so at least it is a first in the sense that I have never seen Bury play there before.

And in many ways this is  a more interesting match. Bury play Coventry City, a relegation battle with a lot at stake. And I always have had a soft spot for Coventry. On my first visit to England in 1976, we went to Coventry Cathedral. On our way from there, I saw the floodlight pylons of a football ground, and from the backseat craved that we went there. So we did. It was in the middle of July, and everything was shut down. But a groundsman was so flattered that we had come from Denmark to see it, that he not only allowed us pitch side but opened the souvenir shop for us.

And then I have a good footballing friend back in Denmark, who is Coventry City supporter. I never met anyone better at remembering scorelines, goalscorers etc. When our common Danish team, Frem, play a non-league team in the cup, he can always tell when the teams last met, what the scoreline was and who scored in what minute of the match. He is having a hard time with Coventry’s present bad spell. Most Saturday’s he sent me an update on how their position might turn out at the end of the day depending on the results of the matches. And at the end of the day, I get a report on what it now will take Coventry to get out of the relegation area. In that sense, it is easier to be a Manchester United supporter this season. Whatever the results, we have been locked in sixth place ever since November. But then again, of course, Coventry have been rooted to the bottom of the league for just as long. It is the hope that kills you, as they say.

So, we are on our way to Gigg Lane. We haven’t sorted out carparking for this one, obviously, but once again Dale is a man of action. He works in a bus company and calls the local depo and ask, how long it will take to get to the ground from there. 20 minutes they say. But one of the guys there says, he can give us a lift from the depo to the ground.  So we head for the bus depo rather than the ground.

At the depo we ask about the way back to the depo from the ground. The guy tells us that he wouldn’t walk the distance himself. There had been some stabbings. But another guy thinks that we should be all right, as we are a group. Technically, I suppose he is right. Two may not be a group, but three definitely are. But still we decide that we have better sort out a cab for the way back.


Gigg Lane is a nice little ground. We are in the old main stand, which has the feel of a proper football ground. Brickwalls and pylons that obstruct the view with an old ceiling that gives it a real intimate feeling. We are right next to the press and the VIP area, although I do not spot any VIPs that I know of. Also, we are close to the Coventry supporters. We have bet on scoreline, crowd and number of Coventry supporters.  That is the only bet I win. I go for 100 – and having counted the number of supporters in half the section at half time (73), I put the unofficial number at 146, making we the winner.


We never got our fish ‘n chips at Rochdale. So we are quite hungry by now. Whereas FC United always had at least a burger stand outside the ground, there is nothing today. We walk into the Shakers lounge after declaring ourselves home fans, but they only serve drink. We ask for food, and they say that there is a burger stand in the forecourt, so we go and have a second look around. Nothing to be found.


So we have to wait till they open the turnstiles to buy a snack from the bar inside. Dale and Aarran go for a burger, I go for a Balti pie. I read a pie study recently describing the amazing rise of the Balti pie at football grounds, and I have decided to do my best to help it challenge the meat-and-potato and steak pies at the top of British football’s pielist. It is a standard Pukka pie that is being served in many a ground, so no real surprises here.


We make our way into the stand. Our tickets are not numbered, so we find three good seats at the back. An elderly chap takes up the seat next to me. He looks at me, so I smile, nod and say hello. Some 10 minutes later, he is joined by another guy, who point out that they always have our seats. Feeling like intruders, we apologize and go to some other seats a couple of rows below. When I pass the first chap at half time, he smiles. We got away with that one. I make sure that I do my mandatory crowd survey – and Bury’s is very much like any other crowd. 98% white, 85% male. I have not yet found a quick method for estimating age composition. But once again the 40-65 segment is well represented. People who like me grew up with the football of the 70’s and 80’s.


In the first half, Bury plays some good football. They have quite a few good attacks with particularly a fast right wing-back overlapping, but also some good movement and one-touches. One brilliant touch inside the area ends with Bury taking the lead. The Coventry supporters takes it in good spirit. “We are **** and we know we are”, they sing, followed by “you are nothing special, we lose every week”. When they go two 2-0 down, a couple of them get a bit agitated, claiming the Bury striker was off-side, but, in fact, he isn’t as one of the Coventry full-backs has failed to push up. Coventry look completely disjointed. And all Henrik’s efforts to calculate a way results can lead to safety for Coventry seem to have little to do with real life. They look a doomed side, and I regret that I hadn’t gone for 4-0 final score rather than 3-1.


Credit, though to the Coventry manager. In the second half, he puts on a winger to prevent Bury’s right back from overlapping. Bury are playing a 3-5-2 formation, but as their wingbacks are suddenly pushed back in a 5-3-2, all the good moves in midfield and upfront from the first half evaporates. And Coventry do begin to put a couple of decent attacks together and have one or two shots at goal. That generates a little excitement among the Coventry faithfulls. And then the unthinkable happens. A nice move and a cross by the new Coventry winger – and a beautiful headed Coventry goal. Strangely enough, after the initial excitement has died down, the Coventry fans seem to be more quiet now. They have gone from putting up a brave face in defeat to the tension of sensing that there may be a way back after all.

It really is the hope that kills you. Coventry don’t get the equalizer their second half display probably merited. And from singing their way through yet another defeat, the Coventry supporters have gone completely quiet, as they don’t get their reward. They have won 5 matches all season. And they need 5 wins while the four teams above them all lose to get to safety. But still, for some 20 minutes, they had a glimmer of hope today.

At the final whistle, Dale calls for a cab. It will be there in 10 minutes they say. But within 30 seconds the driver calls and says that he is waiting. We get into the cab, and I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more safe to walk after all. The driver speeds his way through the crowd – a miracle that nobody steps into his way. Full speed around corners, over pedestrian areas etc. He probably wants to get back to pick up some more supporters wanting to leave the ground.

So at 10.30 we get back to Dale’s house, where his wife Natalie has prepared some nice chicken sticks for us. A bit exhausted. One flight, two football museums, three football grounds, braving the winter weather. Maybe I didn’t get a new ground on the list, but plenty of good memories in the bag.




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