For a county with such proud football traditions as Yorkshire, it must be frustrating to be so poorly represented in the Premier League. A couple of seasons ago, Huddersfield Town took over from Hull as the only representative, and at the moment they are struggling at the foot of the table. It is time for either Leeds United or one of the Sheffield clubs to step up. So I have decided to head to Yorkshire for my first England trip of the season. To Sheffield, the city of steel. A derby between Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds at the top of the Championship on the Friday, followed by another Yorkshire derby between York City and Guiseley in the Vanamara National League North. I am travelling with two of my Dynamo Birkerod teammates, Jon and Alex.
It may not be a coincidence that the Yorkshire clubs have had a hard time during the Premiership years. In the wake of the 1980’s and Thatcherism, Yorkshire clubs were probably not geared to compete financially; and when Leeds United tried to do so on the expectancy of increased revenue, the gamble failed miserably. But maybe because Yorkshire clubs were not at the front of the Premiership bandwagon, they seem to have preserved the nerve that has gone missing at some of the big premiership clubs, as the number of corporate spectators and footballing tourists increase at the expense of local fans. In fact, in many ways the Championship has more appeal than the Premiership. It is a highly competetive league, where almost all the teams are competing fiercely, either for promotion or against relegation. The quality of football is good, and crowds are mainly local – and more vocal. There seems to be more old-fashioned football grounds, and it is usually fairly easy to get a ticket for the match.
To me, Hillsborough along with Goodison Park is probably the most archetypical English ground, ahead of Fratton Park and Craven Cottage. But, of course, it is impossible to mention or think of the ground without thinking of the horrible tragedy of 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives. As the crowd outside the ground built up in the hour before kick-off, the police chose to allow entrance through an exit gate, rather than delay kick-off. But fences penned the arriving fans inside the two sections closest to the entrance tunnel, resulting in a horrendous crush. So our first destinations are the three memorials for the disaster near the ground. We get off the tram outside The Rawson Spring and walk along the Middlewood Road to see them. Alas, the Walled garden in Hillsborough Park has closed early, as it is a Friday, so we cannot see the memorial garden inside, but we can see the memorial Bill Shankly gates from the outside. It was opened in 1992 and funded by local residents. A little further down the road is the headstone put up by the local shopkeepers in the center of a junction, shortly after the disaster.
It was not until the tenth anniversary of the disaster that Sheffield Wednesday put up a memorial at the ground, a fact which over the years let to heavy criticism. The memorial is to the left of a bridge over the river Don to the main entrance of the South Stand. The bridge was part of the ground improvements for the Euro ’96-tournament, but you cannot help wondering why the memorial for the 96 victims was not put up at the same time. Especially as the memorial site, where Sheffield Wednesday fans can have their ashes scattered, on the opposite side of the bridge was part of the 1996 project. As far as I have been able to establish, this is, in fact, one of the very first memorial gardens at an English football ground, with only the gardens at Millwall and, possibly, Crystal Palace older.
We leave the memorials and cross the bridge. There is something special about stadiums located by a river – like The City Ground in Nottingham and Craven Cottage in London. In this case, the quiet and sound of the water form a passage from the memorial area of contemplation to the stadium. Hillsborough is one of five English stadiums opened in the same week early September 1899: Fratton Park, Selhurst Park, Hillsborough, Highfield Road and Blundell Park – and you can add Aberdeen’s Pittodrie to that number.
We take a walk around the ground, first heading towards the Spion Kop, from where we will watch the match some three hours later. The Kop End is what I like the most about Hillsborough. To my knowledge, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday are the only league clubs who have preserved the original embankment behind the goal and covered it – first with a roof, then with seats. Other clubs have replaced the embankment with a modern stand containing facilities like toilets and catering.
Kop Ends are named after the Spion Kop hilltop, the site of a bloody battle in the Boer War 1900. This is the stronghold of the hardcore fans. The Hillsborough Spion Kop was opened in 1914, at the time when the stadium was renamed from Owlerton to Hillsborough. In the early days, the embankment sloped from left to right, looking at the pitch. So when it was decided to cover the terrace with a roof in 1986, it was decided to raise the embankment to the right to the same level.
A gangway cuts across the stand from the left hand top corner to the right, indicating the slope of the original stand. After the Taylor Report, the crush barriers of the terrace were taken down and replaced by seats. There is not much leg room, as the seats had to fit the standing terrace. But then, you could argue, there is generally not much leg room in old stands built for seating.
But it is when you climb the stairs to get inside that you really feel the difference. In stead of a dull, concrete and often narrow stairway inside the stand – not any different from a parking house – you climb the stairs up the hillside. Of course, it may not be that ‘romantic’ on a rainy and windy winter night. But we are here on bright autumn evening. When you stand at the foot of the stairs and see the entrance to the ground at the top, it sends shivers down your spine. You realize that you are about to enter an entirely different setting.
The anticipation grows as you get closer and closer to the entrance – you can see the light beaming out from there.
And there it is. Bathed in floodlights. The ground in all it’s splendor. This is how millions and millions of supporters have experienced entering the sacred world of their football ground for more than a century. Just like the bridge across the Don from the memorials functions as a route of passage, the climb up the Kop has the same aura.
In his encyclopedia of British football grounds, Simon Inglis expresses his surprise that the Kop is still popular, despite not offering the same catering and toilet facilities indoor like all modern stands. Well, I don’t miss a concourse here. Most concourses are so congested during halftime, whether you queue for the catering or the toilets. And even at the most spacious, like the Etihad, you long to get back to your seat inside the ground. It is not a nice place to be. But there is something magical about being out in the open here at Hillsborough. Walking down to the foot of the hill. Although I do admit that it would probably have felt differently, if the rain had been pouring down!
Those preferring modern stadiums to old grounds will also argue that the columns supporting the roof restrict the view. I have seen – and partly experienced – stadiums where it has been difficult to get a proper view. But unless you are seated right behind one of them, it is no problem at Hillsborough, Of course, you may have to move your body to be able to follow the action; but that only adds to the feeling of being ‘on location’ rather than being seated at home in front of the television. In the museum business, there is an increasing awareness of the bodily experience. That visitors are alerted if they have to bend down or lean forward to see a thing properly; instead of just seeing things as though they were displayed on a two-dimensional screen. When I can’t have the movement and swaying of a standing terrace, at least the columns make me move inside my seat.
Apart from the traditional setup, the sheer size of the Hillsborough Kop is impressive. Although seating has halved the capacity to just over 11.000, the fact that it is single tiered make it look more impressive than the two biggest end stands in England, the Stretford End at Old Trafford and the Holte End at Villa Park. Only the Kop at Anfield is bigger single tiered end stand with about a thousand more seats. It feels bigger, and the slightly gabled steel roof enhance the noise of the crowd.
Whereas Simon Inglis is highly critical about the Kop, the North Stand of Hillsborough seems to be one his favorite stands in English football. He calls it a “sign of modernity”, “the space-age E-Type: a sleek instantly recognisable icon for the 1960’s”. Built in 1961, it was only the second cantilevered stand in English football, and as the first one at Scunthorpe has since been demolished, it is the oldest existing cantilever stand in the game.
I have not been inside the stand, but looking at the rather slim profile of the stand from the outside, the concourse can’t be that big. This is my first third visit to Hillsborough, and I have thought that I ought to try out the other stands as well. But when it comes down to the day of buying my ticket, the lure of the Kop is too strong to resist. But still, I admit, compared to many other stands, there is something light and elegant about it. Something very 60’ish, indicating that Hillsborough in that decade was the most modern ground in English football.
To add to the charm, it is partly hedged in by terraced housing. I know that some residents may not relish having a football ground as neighbours. But it adds something special to the stadium experience. A modern ground outside the town centre, surrounded by car parks and open space often feels like a non-place. Whereas old grounds that have shaped or been shaped by the surrounding community has a vibrant feel. In Sheffield Wednesday’s case, the club moved outside the city to open land; but within a few years, the ground had been swallowed up by the expansion of the city. The tram came already in 1901, just two years after the opening of the ground.
From Vere Road we come to Leppings Lane, the end where the disaster happened. The entrances were rebuilt afterwards, and so, too, the tunnel leading into the stand inside. But basically, the stand is the same. In his book, Simon Inglis suggests the stand should have been demolished as a mark of respect. He may have a point, but on the other hand, with the stand remaining, you are constantly reminded of the disaster and send your thoughts to the victims and their relatives.
Apart from its tragic history, Simon Inglis thinks the Leppings Lane End was a disappointing step backwards in stadium architecture after the bold North Stand. “A numbingly dull , upright, post-and-beam stand which might well have benn designed ten years earlier”. It was built just in time for 1966 world cup, with fans donating money to make it happen. Maybe they couldn’t afford to raise money for another space-age stand; maybe they preferred something a bit more traditonal.
Looking at the Leppings Lane from the Kop, it appears as a typically oldfashioned end stand, with two tiers and columns. The roof is at the same level as the North and South Stands, giving the four very different stands some coherence. The tunnel, through which the Liverpool supporters entered, is clearly visible. Seats had been installed by the time the stand reopened in 1991. The 96 seats at the very front in the two sections, where the tragedy occurred, are white as a mark of respect. I can just about make out the thin white line from here.
The South Stand was built by Archibald Leitch, and opened in 1914, the same year as the Kop. A second tier and a completely new roof structure, however, were added as part of the preparations for Euro ’96, giving the stand a completely new look. The second tier extends right to the river, so rather than walk around it, you have to walk through the tunnel between the tiers underneath it.
I had hoped that there would be a guided tour around the ground earlier in the day, giving me the chance to look for any visible Archibald Leitch traces in the old first tier. Wednedsday do that kind of tours on matchdays for Saturday kick-offs. But apparently not for Fridays. To its huge credit, though, the club has made a replica of the original Archibald Leitch gable, adorning the roof of the stand. That is the icing on the cake. An Archibald Leitch stand, a traditional Kop end, the space-age 60-ish stand, new stands for the 1966 World Cup and 1996 Euro’s. Four layers of stadium history, reminding visitors that football didn’t start with the Premier League.
The number of grounds from the pre-Premier League age is dwindling fast. And some of the remaining grounds have been completely rebuilt. Hillsborough was arguably the top ground in England from the 1950’s till the 1980’s, hosting more than 30 FA cup semifinals, a League Cup Final replay, World Cup and Euro matches as well as a couple of international matches. It was branded the Wembley of the North. That all changed in 1989.
We go to the Rawson Spring for a pint before the match – followed by fish ‘n chips from the chippy just opposite the pub. And then an hour before kick-off, we head for the ground. The crowd is just under 27.000. Not a capacity crowd, but pretty vocal. There doesn’t seem to be as many tourists and corporate guests as you find in a premier league ground. I do my normal sample of 100 fans seated in my section. 76% male, 24% female.
We are seated almost at the very top of the Kop, and as the players enter the field and the crowd starts singing, I realize that we are seated right in front of a drummer and tuba player. I cringe. I am not very fond of drums and ‘ultra’ sections, trying to orchestra the crowd, rather than allowing it to follow the ebbs and flows of the game. But, credit to the two guys. They were quite good, more accompanying the crowd, rather than trying to enforce their repertoire on it. And, in fact, the tuba player was so discreet that one of my mates didn’t notice him!
For the opening twenty minutes, the atmosphere is brillant. I love the way the sound echoes around the Kop. We can see from their gestures, that the Leeds United fans down the other end are singing, but we cannot hear them, as the Kop tries to outsing and outchant them. It is, though, an impressive sight to see an almost full away section, standing, waving, clapping, jumping.
But as a pattern of Leeds dominance develops on the pitch, the crowd quietens down. Leeds’ players just seem stronger and more composed on the ball. When a Sheffield Wednesday player does manage to beat his man, he seems bewildered what to do next, partly because his team mates seem equally surprised and haven’t made a run for him. Leeds, on the hand, are getting a lot of joy down the wings and manage to put in quite a few dangerous crosses. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, Sheffield Wednesday’s Adam Reach rifles in a spectacular half volley from more than 30 yards after a throw-in. A truly unbelievable strike, but it is no fluke. Last year, he won goal of the month in December with another long-range effort.
Fireworks go off down the other end in front of the Leeds United fans. The crowd is buzzing. But, alas, the whistle is blown for half-time shortly afterwards. And when the match restart, the buzz has disappeared. And soon it is replaced by anxiety, as Leeds United have been inspired to try a few shots from the distance themselves, and get an equalizer from one of them some 10 minutes into the half. In his “Saturday, 3 PM”, Daniel Gray has described “Watching an away end erupt” as one of the fifty delights of modern football. “What makes it so good to watch is the anarchy of movement. Berserk limbs convulse. It is drunken night-club dancing but on tightly-tiered rows.” Leeds United reestablish their dominance. But Wednesday manage to hang on for a draw.
We climb down the hill again. From the foot of the Kop, you can see fans making their way down the hillside from the main gangways. At that moment, I promise myself that I will go the Kop again for my next visit – even though I still have to do the other stands. There is not much romance of descending a concrete staircase inside a modern ground. But in the lights under the open sky, you are gradually released from the intense atmosphere of the ground.
The only small complaint, I could have, is that the stadium floodlights are attached to roof and not to high floodlight pylons. Once we have left the Kop End, there is no light from ground spilling into the streets. The trams are not running at the moment – because of “vandalism”. I guess it is as much a precaution. So we end the evening back at the Rawson Spring for a drink or two, before the trams resume service. A long day, leaving Denmark early in the morning to get here. But definitely worth it. With all of the layers of football history inscribed in the ground, this is without question one of the top five grounds for getting a proper taste of English football.