Farewell to a football ground. Bootham Crescent in York

IMG_5383After watching the Yorkshire derby between Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United on the Friday night, we head to York for another one derby – between York City and Guiseley in the Vanamara National League North. York City has been at the top of my priority list, as this season is the last chance to attend a match at Bootham Crescent. At the moment, a new ground at Monks Cross is well under way and should be ready for the start of the new season. Bootham Crescent has already been sold for a housing project.IMG_5656

Before the visit, I read up on Simon Inglis’ article on Bootham Crescent in his book on English Football Grounds. When York City moved to the Yorkshire County Cricket Clubs ground in Bootham from Fulfordgate back in 1932, the argument was that Fulfordgate was too far from the center of the city. A football ground should be right at the centre, close to the station, and where most people live. There were ten times more people living within a mile of Bootham Crescent than within Fulfordgate. Even then, though, a couple of former directors spoke strongly against the move, as they foresaw that there wouldn’t be sufficient parking facilities at Bootham Crescent for the rising numbers of cars. Fulfordgate was 2½ miles from the station. Monks Cross is 3½ miles.

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One of the main attractions of Bootham Crescent is definetely the location. So close to the wonderful historical city center of York, named after Bootham Bar in the city wall. And it is hemmed in by housing and a school. It is always a thrill to spot a good old-fashioned floodlight pylon over the rooftops as a beacon showing the way to the ground. Of course, this effect is much stronger for evening matches, where the lights spill out into the streets. That was one of the few things I missed at Hillsborough the previous night.

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At the end of the road, a red sign over a driveway welcomes us to Bootham Crescent. If it wasn’t for the floodlight pylons and the sign, you could be forgiven for overlooking that there is football ground behind the housing in Newborough Street. Yesterday, at Hillsborough, the housing was built after the football ground. Here, the football ground took over from the cricket ground long after the houses were built. Either way, it seems that the ground and the housing has organically grown together to become the heart of a community. The football ground breathes life into the streets, and the housing seems to shield the football ground like an incubator.

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As we enter the driveway we are welcomed by a steward. Nowadays, the stewards at some grounds are so alert to any security risk that you are treated as a trespasser, when you go near the ground. But not here. He is friendly, chatting, telling that there will be a game on in the afternoon. Maybe a small detail. But a detail that enhances the impression of a community club.

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The driveway widens to a parking lot behind the main stand. It oozes atmosphere. To the right, you can see the back gardens of the houses in Newborough Street. To the left the main stand. It may not be huge, in fact, it only runs two thirds of the length of the pitch, but with the red brick walls and the rather unusual white wooden chalets to either side, it is one of the most distinct stands, I have come across. Not like the depressing modern concrete-glass-steel constructions. Nor the older, sinister tin cladden ones. It is not extravagant, but the people who built it, have cared about giving it a warm and welcoming facade.

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Over the past few years, most clubs have put up memorials for their players who lost their lives in wars. A development that seems to have accelerated with the centenary of the outbreak of WW1. At the same time, clubs have offered fans the opportunity to put up memorial stones for their relatives – with some clubs going all the way establishing memorial gardens, where fans can have their ashes scattered. The problem, though, is when clubs move to a new ground. Memorials you can take with you to the new ground. It is more difficult with ashes. Graham Sharpe wrote a book, “The Final Whistle”, back in 2001 about football and death. Among other things, he wrote to all football clubs and asked, if they permitted scattering of ashes on the pitch. York City responded: “The club does not permit scattering of ashes on our ground. We do, however, allow ashes to be deposited in a hole.” I wonder, if they plan to, somehow, bring these ashes to the new ground? The stones certainly seems to only have been fitted in temporarily on a wooden board, rather than in the wall itself. An indicator that they will be taken to Monks Cross?

IMG_5395IMG_5405York City’s head of press, Ian Appleyard, has been so kind as to take some time off from matchday preparations to show us around the ground. He explains that the stadium move is the only sensible thing for the club. The costs of maintenance in the old ground are huge, whereas the facilities for hospitality (and the income it generates) are limited. At the new ground, it will be the other way around. There is no financial risk involved. The new ground is being built and will be owned by the city council, with York City only having to pay a rent. That should make economy of the club a lot stronger.

We take a look at the main stand from the other side. It was built as the football club took over from the cricket club in 1932, and it was extended in 1955 thanks to the revenue from at good cup run. Looking at the stand, it looks pretty harmonious, but when you look carefully, you notice there are two extra gangways to the left of the players tunnel. IMG_5437

Today, the main stand holds 1,757 seats. The 8 rows at the top are good oldfashioned wooden seats, whereas 5 rows of plastic seats have been fitted at the front in the old paddock. At a glance, it looks as though there is slightly more leg room for the wooden seats.

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The roof of the stand has been extended to cover the new plastic seats. But whereas the wooden seats are covered by glass windscreens to the side, the plastic seats do not have the same cover. It would probably interfere with the view from a number of seats.  As it is, three pillars supporting the roof do obstruct the view slightly for some of the wooden seats. But the pillars are so slim, that there will be no problem, as long as you move slightly in your seat.

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Opposite the main stand, is the Popular Stand. It is slightly smaller, holding 1,652 seats. They were installed in the stand in 1974, when York City made it to the second tier of the English league system for the first and – for the time being – only time. At this date, plastic seats had taken over.

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The advertising hoarding of the Popular Stand is fitted to an old-fashioned white picket fence, of the kind that you will find in most photos from football grounds in the 1950’s and 1960’s. According to Simon Inglis, sections of the old terrace cover of Fulfordgate were reerected over the Popular Stand, when York City moved here in 1932. I wonder if it is still the same roof. IMG_5439IMG_5587

To the South of the ground, the Grosvenor Road End is an open standing terrace for up to 1,700 away fans. It is rather basic. According to Simon Inglis, the stand was fenced off at the rear in the 1970’s, as cracks appeared in the retaining wall, which led to the capacity of the ground being reduced from 16,500 to 13,500. If the figures are correct, the capacity was reduced to just over a third of the original, so the reduction was quite considerable.

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Opposite the Grosvenor Road End is the Shipton Street Stand, that was renamed the David Longhurst stand, when it was covered in 1991. Longhust was a 25-year-old York City player, who collapsed and died during a match against Lincoln the previous year. That is where we will standing for the match, so we don’t go down there. But from the Grosvernor Road End, you can see that the old club crest of Bootham Bar flanked by two lions that were put on the roof top, when it was erected, has been removed. Probably when motor racing driver John Batchelor took over the club in 2002. As he was the first to come up with plans for relocating the club, he also played down the club connection to Bootham by replacing the club crest.

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After the tour around the inside of the ground, we decide to take a walk around the outside. We walk along the Grosvenor Road End. From the outside, the fencing off of the rearsection in the 1970’s has made it look a bit of a mess. A social club named the 1922 Bar is built into the old brick wall, shielding off the unused terrace next to the main stand. But from the floodlight pylon near the corner flag, is it a grey 1970’ish concrete wall. IMG_5389IMG_5456.JPG

As we realized that the Popular Stand as well as David Longhurst Stand are hemmed in by housing, we go to the Minster Inn for a drink before the match. One of the locals is surprised that we are going to the match. The team is so bad at the moment. We tell him that we have mainly come to see the ground. He replies that he doesn’t intend to go to Monks Cross. “At Bootham Crescent you can at least leave early, when the match is crab, to go for a drink here”.

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We get back to the ground an hour before kick-off. The gathering crowd only add to the warm, friendly atmosphere. We head for the turnstiles for the David Longhurst Stand, but are stopped just outside by a guy conducting a visitor survey. “What is your postal code?” He looks bewildered as we answer “3460”, and we explain that it is a Danish code.  The survey becomes quite good humoured. “So as for the question about how you got here today, it must be by plane and train, then”. That is right. He becomes slightly apologetic about the next question. “Do you plan to go matches again next season?” “We assure him that we do, and enter, paying at the turnstile. It seems a little late to conduct a survey to find out, if fans will follow the club to the new ground, as Bootham Crescent has already been sold.

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Inside the ground, we have a pie. I always do my best to get the chicken balti pie up the national pie charts. It is not pukka pies – and it is quite spicy. There is no concourse under the stand, but a kiosk has been put up by the wall of the short main stand.

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The guy at the pub had told us, that we the toilet facilities are a must-see. I have read that there are open-air urinals at the away end. I don’t know what to expect here. I follow the signs along a path behind the stand. This is the walk around the ground that you cannot do on the outside. Finally it leads to a small building bordering up to the garden of a neighbouring house, but the facilities are ok.

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It is warm day with bright sunsunshine. Wonderful to stand on a terrace where the crowd is gradually building up. Being seated at a football match is just not quite the same. I read in the programme, that York City hope to have a safe standing section at the new ground. That is certainly a positive, although I doubt it will be quite the same as a standing terrace like this. The intention of safe standing is still that every single fan should be allocated a specific place to stand. But it is the ability to move around and find a good place next to your mates that is making a standing terrace come alive. We find a place with a crush barrier to lean on.

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As the crowd builds up, and the match gets underway, the marked difference between a standing terrace and a seated stand becomes ever more prominent. There is a din of people talking with each other constantly. The atmosphere the previous night at Hillsborough had been good, with plenty of chanting and oohs and ahhs. But when the game slowed down and ebbed, it grew quiet. You don’t chat with your mates in the same way, when you are seated. It becomes even more apparent to us the next day. Before catching our flight back to Denmark, we go and see Manchester United’s Women against Durham. The attendance is exactly the same – and at Leigh sports village we are all packed into the same stand, which is almost full. The match is technically good – but it is quiet as a grave. No atmosphere at all. You can hear the players talking, you can hear every kick of the ball. Nobody says a word. Of course, there are many things to the difference. Leigh Sports Village is a modern, barren, depressing stadium, whereas Bootham Crescent just feels like home after 10 minutes. The crowd composition is different. At Leigh, it is mainly families with small children going as a group. I always do a count of the gender composition in the section of a ground I visit. At Leigh, it is 51% women, here at Bootham Crescent it is 12%. And if I had added the proportion of children, the difference would have been just as stark. The point is that a standing terrace is a place where mates meet for the match and chat. And have a good time. The crowd at Leigh could just as well have been in a cinema, watching a spectacle. I wonder if safe standing will be able to function as a meeting place in the same way.

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Modern football grounds are usually structured as closed bowls, where you are completely cut off from the outside world. As a principle, I quite like that. To be completely absorbed in special world. Earlier this year, I attended a match with Manchester City’s women in their Academy stadium. And it really ruined the match experience that you could see as well as hear the cars driving past the ground. Disturbing. As I look round Bootham Crescent, the open spaces in each corner between the stands make it anything but a bowl. But here, it just adds to the atmosphere.IMG_5508

In the corner to my right, there is stall where you for £1 can transfer from the standing terrace of the David Longhurst stand to the seats of the Popular Stand. IMG_5573

In the corner to my left, there is first aid centre in front of the food stall. And behind the ground is hemmed in by the terraced housing of Newborough Street.IMG_5596

In the far left hand corner, you can see the social club building and another supporters club  building – and behind them the houses of Bootham Crescent.IMG_5597

And finally the far right hand corner is filled with away supporters from Guiseley (over 200) – again with the housing in the background. The football ground and the housing are intertwined. It really feels like the heart of a local community. And the different functions in the corners add to buzz of life around the ground. This is really old school football, rolling back time. To me, it is really nostalgic to see a guy with a radio following the football scores rather than a smart phone. As a teenager, I went every Saturday afternoon to see my local Danish team, Frem play, equipped with a radio so I could listen to the English scores on BBC world service. A lot of people popped around to hear the latest scorelines from me. Well, now I get my scoreflashes on the smartphone just like everybody else.

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The match is quite entertaining. Guiseley take an early lead from the penalty spot and seem to be in complete control for the opening 15 minutes. The local fans vent their frustrations. Apparently, they have had a few disappointments of late. Then a defensive slip let in York City to equalize.

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York City gathers momentum from the equalizer, and are now the more dangerous team. And duly take the lead five minutes before halftime. They still look good at the start of the second half, and come close to scoring when a free-kick from Sean Newton from a tight angle first hit the underside of the crossbar and then bounces out off the far post. I would have expected the spin of the ball would make it go in.

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With less than 15 minutes left, York get a penalty, and Sean Newton converts it. Two minutes later, he pounces on a loose ball in the area to make it 4-1. It looks as though it could well be rout now, and for the first time the crowd start singing. Not that they have been quiet until then. There have been lots of oohs and ahhs and venting of frustration and anxiety. But now they can relax and resort to singing. But perhaps they shouldn’t have. The York City players relax as well, and Guiseley simply walk through the York defence to pull a goal back, and again the tension spread around the terrace.

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But York City hang on for a deserved 4-2 win. A joyous crowd leave the ground and spill out into the streets. IMG_5636IMG_5646

Within a few minutes walk, we are back in the city centre, and we take a walk on the city walls, digesting the match experience as we look at the beautiful cathedral from different angles. IMG_5655

Although Ian’s outline of the financial aspects make it seem the only sensible thing to do, and although Simon Inglis points out that the Bootham Crescent adventure has been a mistake all along, I am not quite convinced. I know that I may be not be the average supporter, revelling in the many different historical layers of a ground. And new grounds will over time probably develop their own layers (although most modern grounds are build from a strict architectural design that doesn’t allow the same piecemeal development that old grounds did). Yesterday we visited Hillsborough, that at the time of building was way outside the city of Sheffield, but within a few years had been swallowed up by it. Who knows, even Leigh Sports Village may one day be swallowed up. The new ground will be part of a leisure complex. Will that generate the life necessary? Is it the intention for all family to go there on a Saturday, with the dad going to the football match, whereas the wife and kids can go swimming or shopping or whatever they want to do? From that point of view, I regret that I haven’t taken my family to York. My daughter would have loved the Harry Potter Shops in the centre, my wife would have loved the city walls and the cathedral; and my son would have loved the football ground as much as me. And then we could all meet again after a few hours. Ideal. Maybe the leisure complex can attract a few families like that.

On the other hand, you might lose fans like our friend from the pub. He didn’t fancy 30 minutes bus ride out of time – and to be a long way away from his pub. For it to work, I think York City have to get two things right. First of all, they have to be successful on the pitch. If results are negative, it may difficult to persuade fans to go to an unfamiliar place outside the centre, breaking old match days routines. And secondly, I hope the architecture is more welcoming than the brutally functional architecture we experienced at Leigh Sports Village. Even though Manchester United’s 17 year old Lauren James was the most amazing talent, I have seen for a long time, I couldn’t follow the team, travelling 45 minutes out of Manchester city centre to this dull place.

I really do wish that York City manage to make the move work. That they manage to make the new ground a welcoming place. One of the few modern grounds, where a relocated club has really managed to make the new ground a special place straight away is Sunderland. Not only bringing some of Archibald Leitch’s criss-cross iron work, but also paying tribute the history of new site. I hope York City manage to do something similar. I will certainly be back some day to see if they succeed.

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For those of you who haven’t visited Bootham Crescent, hurry up! There is less than a season left to see this little gem of a football ground.

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