Pittodrie – from gallow hill and dung yard to cemetery and football ground

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It is almost surreal. It is February, the sun is beaming down, it is hot – and I am sweating on my way up the sloping Park Road in Aberdeen. A green bus stop marks the summit. Standing out against the blue sky. As I approach, the landscape on the other side gradually unfolds. The sea, the coastline, a cemetery – and the giant eastern stand of Aberdeen’s ground, Pittodrie! Like a scenery from the movie “Bagdad Café”. An strange but awesome sight.

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The basic no-nonsense of the scenery is captivating. I love football grounds surrounded by terraced housing and small gardens. The day before, I visited Tannadice with allotments in the back yard. Grounds where the neighborhood over a century has evolved around the ground –  football ground and neighborhood growing together organically. But this is somehow raw. As though the cold winds from the sea have prevented nice little gardens and terraced housing from growing.

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I check a map of the area from 1879. This area was very much out of town. There were two hospitals – an epidemic and a boys’ hospital. A militia depot with a rifle shooting range right on the edge of the current football ground – and there used to be a police dunghill. There was no cemetery yet in 1879, but a gallow hill at what is now the western corner of the cemetery. A map from 1883 shows that the western half of the cemetery had been established by then – and the gallow hill had been converted to a powder magazine. In 1894, a huge gasholder was built between the cemetery and the shooting range. According to Simon Inglis, Pittodrie football ground was established in 1899 – and in the 1902 map, you can see how the football ground has taken over part of the rifle range and all of the dung hill. The golf club has also set up its club house, although the golf course itself is not marked on the map yet.

Aberdeen 1879Aberdeen 1897Aberdeen 1902

Simon Inglis suggests that the name Pittodrie might derive from a celtic word for “place of manure”, but point out that it could also refer to a village 20 miles north-west of Aberdeen. Looking at the maps, the latter seems to be the most likely explanation. Pittodrie Street might lead to the site of the old dung hill, but a map of 1897 shows Pittodrie Place slightly to the north, whereas the road leading to the dunghill has been named Merkland Road East – and in fact continues around the dunghill where you now find Pittodrie Street. It seems as though Pittodrie doesn’t originate from the dunghill. Whatever the origin of the name, it adds to the magic of the place. Pittodrie. It is just as captivating as “Tannadice”.

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Maybe it is the setting with a cemetery and the sea – and the history with a gallow hill, a rifle range and a dunghill –  but as I walk around the ground, I feel that there is certain rawness to it. The towering Eastern (or Richard Donald’s) Stand, for instance, is so overwhelmingly huge. It has the appearance of a giant bulwark against the cold winds and floodings from the sea. It absolutely dwarfs the rest of the ground – or shelters it.

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The Richard Donald Stand is the only stand at Pittodrie built after the Taylor Report. It was opened in 1993. Most clubs have built one or more stands since 1990, trying to comply with new ground regulations including all-seaters. But Aberdeen were not really forced into building a new stand. Pittodrie had been an all-seater stadium since 1978 – the first all-seater ground in Britain. So the Richard Donald Stand was mainly a statement, a testimony to the club’s status as the challenger to Celtic and Rangers during the 1980’s under Alex Ferguson.

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Continuing around the ground down Pittodrie Street, I find the oldest stand – the main stand from 1925. It is the age of Archibald Leitch, although the great man wasn’t behind this one. But it does have the appearance – just a little more raw. There are no fancy sandstone ornaments in the bricks like at Craven Cottage; no club crests; no elegant doorways or window openings like at Ibrox. Just plain red bricks with raw steel framework, factory-like leaded windows, and very basic entrance gates.

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The eastern end of the stand was ravaged by a fire in 1971, and had to be rebuilt. It is quite visible from the outside. The rebuilt section has the same bricks and windows, but does not feature the same steel framework. Also, it is slightly higher, because – as can be seen from the inside – the roof construction is slightly different. The main stand entrance also stands out. It may just be that they have rebuilt the original main entrance – but I would have thought it would have featured right in the middle of the stand like at Ibrox or Dens Park – and not at the eastern end of it.

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The overall impression of the original main stand has thankfully been preserved, but nevertheless the old part has a little bit more character. It seems more authentic. Especially at the end of it. I think it is mainly due to the steel framework which seems more ornamental than functional here.

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The stand-out ornamental feature of Pittodrie, though, is the granite entrance gate at the Western (Merkland Road) End of the ground. I curse the beaming sunshine as it casts a shadow of the neighboring house down the middle of it. But with no clouds in the sky, I figure out I will have to wait quite a long time for the chance of taking a decent photo of it. So I have to settle for this.

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The gate is almost just as old as the main stand – it is from 1928. The terraced embankment behind the wall was roofed as early as 1934 – another proof that Aberdeen was well ahead of the rest when it came to cater for their crowd. Probably a reflection of the rough weather conditions with Pittodrie not only next to the North Sea but also one of the most northern grounds on the British Isles.

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To my knowledge, it is still the original embankment, but in the early 1970’s Aberdeen put benches on to it, making it a seated area. During the 1980’s the roof was replaced by a new one, and the benches replaced by plastic seats.

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In comparison to the other stands, the South Side looks rather dull. Like the Merkland Road End, it used to be a terraced embankment. But whereas the Merkland had a roof long before the seats, seats were installed here in 1978, completing Pittodrie as an all-seater stadium – before a roof had been put up. The untenable in this was quickly realized, and two years later the current cantilever roof was built. But it doesn’t extent all the way to the corners of the stand. You still have the possibility of enjoying a seat in the rain.

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As I walk back around the ground, there is a gate open, and I take the opportunity to have a look inside. Seen from the South Side, there is a marked difference between the roof at the western and eastern end of the main stand. And oddly enough, it is the roof over the original western end that looks new and bright. I find the explanation when I am allowed a walk around the ground in the evening before the match.

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The main stand was – like almost any main stand of the time – divided into roofed seats at the back, and an uncovered standing paddock at the front. As seats were installed in the paddock in 1968, it became necessary to extend the original roof to cover the paddocks. An extension was added on top of the original roof, probably in connection with the rebuilding after the fire 1971.

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The difference is even more apparent, when I take my seat at the back of the stand for the match. But it also strikes me that just as the outside is devoid of ornamental features, the roof construction and pillars look basic and raw compared to Archibald Leitch’s work at the time. The functional structure, though, is basically the same. But without the little extras. It may be that they have disappeared. I have seen photos showing that the roof used to have a Leitch style gable. And the Craven Cottage-like pavillon that used to be in the north eastern corner of the ground next to the main stand, also had one. As though the cold winds from the sea have swept any ornaments away.

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Whereas the front of the main stand was upgraded from standing paddock to seating in 1968, the back of it was upgraded from seats to executive boxes in the early 1980’s. I guess the visitors must be celebrities guarding their privacy, as all of them have white curtains drawn down right until kick-off.

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Apart from being the first all-seater stadium in Britain, Pittodrie was the first ground to erect a dugout for their trainer, so he could keep his notebook dry. That was in the late 1920’s. But with no substitutes in those days, he would probably only have needed one or two chairs. Not a bench long enough for 8 or 9 men. So I guess the current dugouts are modern constructions.

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Another kind of dugout has been constructed for wheel-chair users on the South Side of the ground to shelter them. But there are no such comfort for people visiting the Y-section in the south-western corner of the ground (background of the photo).

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Nor to a section of the visiting supporters. If you as a home supporter chose to go in the uncovered Y-section, you can save £2 on your ticket. I wonder if the away fans getting an uncovered seat get a similar reduction. Or whether it makes much of a difference, because I can imagine that quite a few of the away supporters under the roof get soaked as well during bad weather, as the wind from the sea is likely to sweep under the cantilevered roof of the stand, as it has no wind shield at the end.

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I take another look at the ground from Broad Hill before going back to my hotel to get some rest before the evening’s match – the Dons against the Academicals. Whereas Hamilton’s Academical is a link to the club’s roots as a school team, I guess Aberdeen’s nickname refers to the river Don, though – and not to the university. Anyway, my expectations are high. When I saw Aberdeen play less than two years ago, they won 7-0 away to Dundee FC, with their away support in full voice. I know they have had a few disappointing home results of late, but Hamilton seems to be in an even worse state than Dundee FC were – and they have a fresh 5-0 defeat against Rangers from the weekend.

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Approaching the ground in the dark is quite spectacular. There is always something special about a floodlit football ground. Two things make this more spectacular than most. Seagulls keep flying around in the floodlight over the ground. They glow in the air from afar. It is almost like the 1978 World Cup confetti in Argentina.

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And the floodlit cemetery is also a spectacular if not a spooky sight.

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But the ground is also an enjoyable sight. Especially the main stand, where the glassed windows glow and the floodlights beam from the pylon in the corner.

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And the granite gate of the Merkland stand looks impressive in the lights.

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Inside the ground, the Richard Donald stand looks even bigger with the lights on along the roof.

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From my seat in the eastern end of the main stand, I can look right across to the away support. A yellow fence and yellow stairs separate them from the home fans. I wonder if the away fans section is extended to the yellow gangway when Celtic or Rangers visit with their massive away support. Hamilton have only brought 32 fans. Even though the weather is dry, none of them opt for the open-air seats in the away section. Usually, away support gather as one single group, however few they are. But the Hamilton fans scatter out in 4 or 5 groups.

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After my visit, I regret that I didn’t try to map out the concourse – to find out why the ceiling is sunk in part of it. I almost bang my head into it. Again, it is not like Archibald Leitch at his best, but I love it. With lots of redpainted doors and staircases, and at the same time pretty spacious.

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For some reason the queues at the kiosks are not that long, not even at halftime. One explanation, of course, could be poor quality – but that is not the case. I have a good pie as well as a nice cup of coffee. I can only assume that the ratio of kiosk per spectator is higher than usual. Especially because the concourse of Pittodrie is much more appealing than the stands before kick-off.

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Not really for keeping warm, as I had expected going to a match in Aberdeen in February. It is 6 or 7 degrees in the evening. It is more the loudness of the music played over the tannoy in the stands. It is absolutely deafening. I try to have a conversation with the season ticket holder in the seat next to me – but it is next to impossible because of the loud music.

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When the music finally is turned off at kick-off, the crowd respond with – silence! At last, they seem to think. Or is it just that I have been deafened by the music? I don’t think so. When I visited Tannadice the previous day, fans grouped in the stand irrespective of seat numbers. There was a constant din of talking – with ooohhhss and aaaahhhs rising from the crowd whenever a promising seemed to be under way. But everything seems so quiet inside Pittodrie, despite the crowd being 3 times bigger than at Tannadice. I can hear some talking in the distance – it sounds almost like whispering from one or two people. And it takes a very big chance for Aberdeen to raise the crowd to an oooohhhhh. Most of the time, you only hear some groans over poor control and misplaced passes.

At the same time, the Aberdeen players look like a team short of confidence – and the groaning and moaning seem to get under their skin. Aberdeen have the majority of possession, and they do create some decent chances. But, somehow, lowly Hamilton with their 32 supporters look the more likely team right from the start. Especially the wee Miller up front seems to give Aberdeen all sorts of problems with his movement. And suddenly, Hamilton’s Oakley fires in a stunning volley from the tightest of angles – with shades of Marco van Basten in the 1990’s. Although Aberdeen still create a number of chances, they seem to lack belief, whereas Hamilton grow in confidence.

For the second half, someone has taken out a drum in the Family Stand at the Merkland end. I didn’t hear it in the first half. Normally, I hate drumming at matches, but in this case, I can understand the need to do something break the silence that hangs thick in the air. Even though the drumming is not particularly good, and nobody joins in to clap, sing or chant.

It is not really a surprise, when Hamilton go two up in the second half. Silence. The 32 Hamilton supporters don’t make much nice – even though they dance around wildly. The season ticket holder next to me gets up. “For f***’s sake, take a good look at yourself, Aberdeen!” he yells. It rings out loudly amidst the silence. There is still the odd Aberdeen chance, but a comeback doesn’t seem to be on. Not even some unsporting behavior by Hamilton’s Oakley, as he wins a very soft free-kick and laughs in the face of the penalized Aberdeen player sparks a reaction from the crowd.

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By the end of the match, security gathers by the gangway in the away section to prevent a pitch invention. The 32 Hamilton supporters, seeing that they are outnumbered, abstain.

The difference between the Aberdeen performance against Dundee two years ago and tonight is beyound belief. Not just the performance of the team – which oozed confidence and belief – but also the supporters, who were having a carnival time, singing and chanting. It may be that it is just the lack of belief and confidence after five home games without a win. Or maybe there is more to it. Maybe more than 40 years as an all-seater stadium has created a more restrained fan culture. Or is it the noisy pre-match music that makes the fans long for some silence. Or the usually cold weather, which makes fans want to wrap up in some warm clothers over a cup of hot coffee? Or have I just witnessed one of those off-days that every experiences?

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I ask the season ticket holder next to me and a couple of other fans about their thoughs on the new ground. One of them is quite convinced that this is, what the club needs. It is embarrassing that they don’t have proper training facilities – and you need a modern ground in the modern game. The season ticket holder is not sure. He can see the point of improving training facilities, but it is a big step to leave behind all the heritage at Pittodrie. The last fan is negative. At the end of the day, it doesn’t make any difference if a football match is played in a modern or an old ground. But moving away from the city will spoil the match day of having a drink in the pub before walking to the ground.

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From a groundhopper’s perspective, I identify with the latter views. It is the heritage of Pittodrie and the place that have made me make the trip to visit the ground. And will make me attempt to throw in another match at Pittodrie on my next trip to Scotland. Whereas the new Kingsford Stadium will find itself way down the list of football grounds, I wish to visit. But, of course, Aberdeen have to cater for their own fans, not groundhoppers.

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