“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”.
It 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.
The 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.
I 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.
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.
What 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.
To 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.
Compared 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.
I 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.
The 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.
That 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.
As 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.
In 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.
Anyway, 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.
There 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.
I 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.
Some 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.
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.
And 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.
It 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.
Even 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.
Arguably, 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.
During 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.
Another 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.
With 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.
The 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.
In 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.
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.
It 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.
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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