Thirty-three football grounds in seven days – Day 3, 10th September 2022: Yorkshire

7. The Shay, Halifax

8. Oakwell, Barnsley

9. New York Stadium, Rotherham

10. Millmoor, Rotherham

11. Keepmoat, Doncaster

The main event of my tour should have been Barnsley FC against Portsmouth at Oakwell – with three tickets already bought for the Archibald Leitch stand and an appointment with Barnsley club historian David Wood. But the match is called off because of the Queen’s death. David calls me the evening before. He lives 100 miles from the ground, and with no match on, he won’t be going to Barnsley. He has tried to find out, if there would be somebody there to allow me a look inside, but he hasn’t succeeded. There will probably be nobody there to help us.

Still, that doesn’t deter us. Dale, his son Aarran and I set off from Irlam in the morning with first stop on the way Halifax – the match we had chosen as replacement for Barnsley before that as well along with all other non-league matches had been cancelled.

We drive up in front of the main entrance. There is a delivery man waiting at the door. When a staff member comes to let him in, I tell him that I am travelling from Denmark to visit football grounds and had planned to see Halifax, but, alas, the match had been cancelled. Would it be possible to have a look around the ground? He tells us to wait, while he takes care of the delivery man.

Main entrance to the Shay, Halifax 2022. Photo © Hans Henrik Appel

Some people may wonder, why Halifax and not some of the Premier league or Championship grounds of Yorkshire? Well, I want to visit some of the grounds, I haven’t been to before – and I have done Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Huddersfield, Leeds, Chesterfield, and Bradford City previously. And there are quite a few reasons why Halifax is particularly interesting.

Following up on the visit to the site of Manchester City’s Maine Road, it is often claimed that the main stand at the Shay was bought by Halifax from Manchester City, when City left Hyde Road for Maine Road in 1923. For instance, Simon Inglis in his Football Grounds of Great Britain (1987 edition) claims that Halifax “spent £1000 on preparing the ground, much of it going towards buying a stand from Manchester City” and the Manchester City historian Gary James writes in ‘Manchester. A Football History’ that “another section of roof still survives today as a football stand at Halifax Town’s Shay Stadium. City sold the stand and a few turnstiles to Halifax for £1,000”. In fact, most sites mentioning the purchase from Hyde Road single out the roof of the stand.

The 1921 main stand at the Shay in 2022. Photo © Hans Henrik Appel

Indeed, an advert in the Manchester Evening News on 23rd August 1923 does inform that City have “bricks, slates, all timbers, steel and wood principals, girders, columns, iron and wood doors and frames, windows, shop fronts, football stands, barriers, firewood etc.” for sale at Hyde Road. It could well be that a club like Halifax has made a move for the stand.

I have gone through the local papers of Halifax to find confirmation. It is certainly not the entire stand that was bought from Manchester City. Halifax had to get a new football ground ready for September 1921 to become members of the new third division of the football league. They worked all winter and spring 1921 to convert the former rubbish tip into a football ground. And on 27th August 1921, the Halifax Evening Courier could inform its readers that “work is being commenced on the covered stand on the Skircoat-road side, and I have been led to believe that the covering at any rate will be ready by the end of next month”. Three days later, work has commenced, and still the stand is expected to be completed within four weeks.

On a photo from the opening league match at the Shay a couple of days later, 3rd September 1921, you can see a roof in the foreground http://www.halifaxpeople.com/The-Shay.html. This, however, is not the stand, but the office and dressing rooms, which are still there. The girders to carry the roof were not erected until the end of September. In fact, on the photo from 3rd September 1921 you can see excavations for them around the halfway line. On the 15th October 1921, the Halifax Evening Courier brings another photo, showing the girders, and tells that work will be completed in three weeks. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0003295/19211015/128/0007?browse=true And so it proves. On 4th November 1921, Halifax Town can promise spectators shelter, if the weather should be wet for the match against Hartlepool.

The former club office and dressing room in the corner of the Shay, now used by the groundsman. Photo 2022 © Hans Henrik Appel

So, what happened in 1923, when the Hyde Road stand was put up for sale? The Halifax Evening Courier is following the goings on at the club closely. In July a loss of more than £2,000 is reported, making it hard to believe that Halifax Town would invest £1,000 in a stand shortly afterwards. On 31st August 1923 it is reported that there has been some rearrangements at the ground. “Spectators may transfer to the enclosure for an additional sixpence, to the wing stands from the enclosure for a further sixpence, and to the centre stand for 1s 6d”. Could the wing stands be an extension bought from Manchester City? I doubt it, especially considering the economic problems the club were in at the time.

Ironically, Halifax Town faced Manchester City in the FA Cup in February 1924 – with Manchester City demanding that they put the prices up. The tie generated so much revenue that Halifax came out of the season more than £2,000 to the good. It could be that they bought the stand from City with some of the money, but still the papers do not mention changes to the ground. It is possible that the story of Halifax Town being saved by the revenue from the City tie, has been mixed up with the story of their struggle to get the ground ready for the league in 1921.

In 1925, supporters were so dissatisfied by the lack of shelter in appalling conditions that they started a collection, and in the close season 1927, the Social Section helped the club finance a £1,000 extension of the stand, so it could hold 5,000 rather than 2,000 spectators. That is exactly the amount that Halifax is supposed to have paid Manchester City for the Hyde Road stand/roof. But would Manchester City have kept the stand/roof from Hyde Road for four years? I doubt it.

Anyway, I am really curious to have a look at the old Skircoat Road stand at the Shay. Today, it is an all-(plastic)seater stand, but I have seen old photos showing that the extension to the north was a standing enclosure, with wooden seats to the south (previously benches). It could, of course, be that the standing enclosure is “the wing stand” mentioned in 1923 – and that it was a new construction purchased from Manchester City. But I doubt it.

Not only is it hard to believe that City put it up for sale on 23rd August 1923, and that the rearrangements to enter it had already been made by Halifax Town eight days later. The extension in 1927, on the other hand, is said to have more than doubled the capacity of the stand, and the extension is said to have been 140 feet compared to the original stands 120 feet. The old part of the stand has currently 66 seats in each row, the new one 75 seats.

The 1927 extension follows the design of the main stand, but the pillars are slightly different and further apart, the roof extends an additional foot toward the pitch, the wall at the back of the stand is slightly different, and so is the construction of the girders. The work was undertaken by Messrs John Booth & Sons of Bolton, who had previously erected stands at Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley, Oldham, and Nelson (as late as in 1971, they supplied the steel for the new main stand at Goodison Park). As mentioned, the entire cost of purchasing and erecting the stand with forty tons of steel was £1,000. The newspaper articles describing the project do not mention that the roof (or anything else) had been purchased from Manchester City. But of course, it could be that John Booth & Sons have bought up building materials from Hyde Road and used them in later projects.

The £1,000 did not include the terracing of the extension. That had to wait till Halifax Town had raised additional funding – in 1934. Maybe it was seated in 1989, when Halifax Town bought some of the seats from Scunthorpe United’s old ground.

We are quite overwhelmed that our guide spends half an hour showing us around the ground. He shows us a tunnel behind the former dressing room next to the Skircoat stand. The Shay used to be part of an estate, but once the mansion had been demolished around 1900, there had been several plans for it. The Midland Railway Company had plans for a goods depot on the site, and a railway tunnel was constructed. The company apparently gave up their plans in 1909, but the tunnel remained. Apparently, boys had used it to sneak into the ground.

The Skircoat main stand is very basic. No concourse, no stalls, nor kiosks (although the newspapers do mention a large refreshment buffet along the back of the stand as part of the plan for the extension in 1927). It is now where the away support is located, with the home supporters enjoying the bars in the South and East stands. Realizing how interested we are, our guide takes us to see the old turnstiles, but, alas, they are locked, and he hasn’t got the key.

As basic, though, as the main stand may seem, it was just about the only part of the ground to stand up to new safety requirements after the Popplewell Report in 1985 (after the Valley Parade fire). A small stand – just 60 feet long – was built opposite the main stand in 1953. It soon became the main stand called “the patrons’ stand” with dressing rooms and a director’s box. But part of it was closed due to safety issues as a temporary measure on 17th June 1985.  All the standing areas were closed as well, and the capacity reduced from 16,000 to 1,777. There were just banks at the two ends with no proper terraces with crush barriers.

No wonder Halifax Town soon were heading for an economic collapse. Somehow, the club survived but was relegated to the conference league in 1993. The club did so well in the 1997-8 season that promotion to the league looked a distinct possibility. However, the ground did not comply with the minimum standards for a league ground. So in January 1998, the bank at the north end of the ground was terraced with concrete, enabling Halifax to return to the league in the summer. After two seasons back in the league, the old “Patrons’ stand” was demolished to make way for a new, modern East Stand. The building, however, was halted for a lack of funding, and then Halifax was relegated in 2002 and went into administration, leaving the stand as building site for the following six years. Before that, they had managed to terrace the South end of the ground and add a bar, making this the preferred end of the home supporters.

Although Halifax Town managed to survive in 2002, they were still struggling financially, and ended back in administration in 2007, before being liquidated in the summer 2008. During these turbulent years, the future of the ground was just as uncertain as the future of the football club. Back in 1995, a plan was launched to build a new super stadium for the Rugby and Football clubs of the town at Thrum Hall, but in the end the council turned it down. Instead, the council handed the management of the ground to the Halfiax Stadium Development Company in 1998, but they were liquidated in 2003. A new Shay Stadium Trust was set up to manage the ground.

A new phoenix football club, FC Halifax Town, was formed in 2008, and a new chief executive at the council backed the Shay Stadium Trust to restart work on the East Stand the same year, and it was soon completed. Our guide takes us inside to see the dressing-rooms.

I really like the Shay. It is central in the town, but at the same time has a rural feeling, surrounded by trees, and in the distance, you can see the hillsides. The main stand with its extension tells the story of the expansion of the league with two third divisions in 1920-1 – and the race to join it. The other three stands not only tell the story of the repercussions of the new stadium regulations in the second half of the 1980’s for smaller clubs; but also how automatic relegation has made those clubs walk a tightrope. At the time of writing, AFC Halifax Town is at the bottom of the National League, so their situation could easily get perilous again. But as we stand in the North Stand, overlooking the ground, leaning against the crush barriers, the club seems to be too big for that to happen.

View from the North Stand, the Shay. Photo 2022 © Hans Henrik Appel

We promise to return for a match on my next visit.

We get back to the car and head towards Barnsley, our main destination. Rugby was still the dominating sport in most of Yorkshire in the 1880’s, when association football turned into a real business in Lancashire. That was the case in Barnsley too, but in 1887, the reverend T. Preedy at the St. Peter’s church set about forming a football club. Barnsley St. Peters Football Club, they were therefore called for the first ten years of its existence.

Having become the centre of football in Barnsley, the club hit the national footballing scene in 1895, when they were drawn to face Liverpool in the FA Cup. Liverpool’s secretary send a protest to the FA, arguing that 1) the Barnsley ground was not enclosed, making it almost impossible to check the gate, 2) the ground was situated on the slope of a hill with a dangerous dip from side to side, 3) “the touchlines are cut in the turf, and would be dangerous to players unused to them”, and 4) there is absolutely no shelter at the ground.

The Liverpool secretary was too late handing in the protest, so Liverpool had to turn up. They were forced into extratime before scoring a late winner in front of a crowd of 4-5,000. It was two years after this, that the club was renamed Barnsley Football Club – to signal that it was ready to represent the town at a national level. And because the name had become available because a former Barnsley Football Club had folded. Maybe somebody else would lay claim to the name. The following year, the club for the first time applied for admission to the second division of the football league, and already the following year, 1899, Barnsley F.C. was admitted.

The car park outside Oakwell is completely empty when we arrive at about 12.30. As I take a photo of the South Stand from 1995, I notice the sloping ground. The Liverpool secretary had a point back in 1895, before the field had been levelled out. I also wonder if the church-like windows in the stand is a tribute to the founding reverend of St. Peters Church.

Once the club had been admitted to the league, ground improvement became a top priority. Not just levelling out the pitch, but also erecting stands that would attract bigger crowds. In 1900, the club was registered as a limited company with a capital of £1,000 to pay for ground improvements. Two years later, in 1902, the local paper concluded that “having been placed on a good basis the Barnsley Football Club is now going strong; it has a capital ground enclosed with stands, not architecturally beautiful perhaps, but suitable for the purpose…” The following year, the club started talking about “paving the way for a first division club”. Still, however, the club had to sell their top players or give up home-advantage against the top crowd-pulling teams to make ends meet (Barnsley, conceding home advantage to the likes of Aston Villa and Liverpool, however, also persuaded Nelson to concede home advantage to Barnsley).

The 1910 Archibald Leitch stand behind the 1908 walls and turnstiles. Photo 2022 © Hans Henrik Appel

Improving the ground was a way of breaking this vicious circle. In 1904, the club accepted a £600 plan for a new grand stand by the architect mr. Clegg, enlarging the capacity at Oakwell to 10,000. This resulted in an improvement of club finance, and in 1907 the club was able to purchase the ground (at £1,325), and the following year the ground was fenced in with new turnstiles, dressing rooms and refreshement booths at a cost of £305. “The long-needed modern dressing-rooms have been highly appreciated, and the refreshment rooms, improved entrances and exits, have contributed to the comfort of spectators”, the board announces at the next annual meeting. This makes the board announce a new policy. They will now retain their best players, even if they get offers from the first division clubs. And in 1910, Barnsley succeed in making it to the FA Cup final, before loosing to Newcastle in a replay. But Barnsley make a £5,380 alone from the FA Cup semifinal and finals, leaving the club with a turnover of £10,320 and a net profit of £4,943.

The board decide to invest the profit in the ground. The mortgage is paid off – and the football architect Archibald Leitch, who has just completed Old Trafford, is invited to build a modern grand stand, just six years after the erection of the previous. It will hold 1,400 seats, and 50 feet of terracing. And despite being much bigger than its predecessor, there will be a margin of 15 feet between the touchline and the barricade all round the ground. The cost is estimated at £2,500, that is half the profit from the FACup – and four times as much as the old grand stand. The plans are approved, the stand is built. But the cost raises to £5,000. At the same time, Barnsley have an awful season and have to apply for reelection to the second division. It seems that the gamble has failed. But next season, Barnsley again makes it all the way to the FA Cup final, and this time they do win it. The gamble has paid off after all. Hopes of making it into the first division are high. They finish just outside automatic promotion the following three seasons, before the league is suspended in 1915 because of the Great War, two places and four points ahead of Arsenal. When league football is resumed in 1919, the first division is extended from 20 to 22 teams. Surely, this is the chance for Barnsley to finally make it into the first division. But Arsenal are chosen ahead of Barnsley. Barnsley have to wait another 78 years before playing in the top tier of English football.

We walk down Grove Street along the 1908 wall with the old turnstiles. Barnsley club historian David Wood has been so kind as to send me his scans of the architectural plans for the new facilities from 1908, and I compare the present turnstile gates with the drawings. Not much, if anything has changed.

With John outside the players entrance at the North Stand, Oakwell. Photo 2022 @ Dale Tinsley.

We try to peek through the gaps around the exit-gates to get a glimpse of the stand and other buildings around it. The old dressing room from 1908 should still be there. But it is difficult to get a proper look. Suddenly a car appears from the academy car park behind the North Stand. Shortly after followed by another one. The drivers are in their twenties – they could very well be footballers. Although a sign on the gate tells that no unautorized personnel is allowed beyond this point, we enter the car park. I can see another couple of footballers inside the stand. As one of them exits the stand to get to his car, I tell him that I have travelled from Denmark to see the match – and ask if it would be possible to get a look at the old main stand. He tells us to wait for a minute and goes back inside. Shortly after, he reappears and tells us that the security officer, John, will take care of us. He is there within a minute.

In hindsight, perhaps it was a good thing that the match was called off. Otherwise we wouldn’t have met John, and the tour he takes us around the Archibald Leitch stand is definetely THE highlight of my trip. He takes us inside – first stop the 1908 dressing room and turnstile gate, the latter complete with an Ellison rushpreventive turnstile. W.T. Ellison patented his mechanic turnstile, that allowed for up to 4,000 entrants per hour in 1892. This one has been repainted so many times that the serial number at the bottom of the inscription plate cannot be dechiffered. But I am quite sure the turnstile must be the original one. Maybe the ones at The Shay that we didn’t get the chance to see were from Ellison too? It is quite fitting that we should see one. After all, we have set off from Irlam this morning, and Ellison had his workshop in “Irlams-o-th-height. Manchester”, although this is only barely discernible because the many layers of painting.

John takes us to the main stand. The brickwork, some of it painted red, and the wooden entrance and exit doors, also painted red with the door frames black – to me this what a real football ground should look like. It is oozing history and tradition.

First, John takes us to the boardroom. Whereas the furniture is modern, the wooden panelling on the walls are the original Archibald Leitch work. There is a list of guests left behind from the last home match, most of the guests visiting directors. In the corner, there is a display of trophies and memorabilia, among them the ball from the 1912 FA Cup final victory.

The corridors of the stand have been completely modernized. The white walls, the lights, and the grey carpet make me think of an average hotel, but some memorabilia along the walls make you remember where you are.

Finally, we enter the stands. Wauw. This is the real thing. Steel, bricks, and wood. Wooden floors covered by a gable roof of currogated steel plates. The acoustics inside such a stand are just so special. I have to find an expert one day, who can explain to me why. I wish there had been a match on. John, however, tells us that the most vocal Barnsley supporters sit in the uncovered former standing enclosure in front of the stand. Still, the sound in the main stand is special.

And then, of course, there are still wooden seats. In fact, in the back row, there is a wooden bench. Here, there is even enough leg room for me (I must try to get a ticket for the back row, when I finally get to a match here. Maybe a plastic seat is slightly more comfortable, but it just looks and feel so much cheaper. You can just feel that so much more work has been put into these.

John takes us to the televison gantry, from where we have a spectacular view of the ground. In a way, it is heresy to have put the gantry right in the middle of the iconic Archibald Leitch gable. I wonder why they haven’t put it in the new, tall East Stand opposit from 1995, enabling the gable to be restored to its original form – and for the Archibald Leitch stand to be the iconic background for television footage from the ground. Maybe the board back in 1995 preferred to show their new stand – complete with executive boxes – to the rest of the world. But today, the east stand could be just about any other ground.

From the gantry, you get a good impression of how much leg room you would have, if you were to choose to sit in the enclosure rather than the stand. But I guess that I would always go for the covered seating, nevertheless – and especially if I can have wooden seats and wooden floor.

We climb down the gantry, and John takes us pitch-side. The old players entrance is sloping downwards, following the natural slope of the ground. But you also had the players running unto the pitch before the days of modern football, where the television cameras are to have plenty of time to dwell on the “entrance of the gladiators”. As we are standing by the substitutes’ benches, I have a look at the top of the floodlight – and I am made aware of the peculiar soundscape down here. At least a hundred birds must be sitting there chirping, with no other sounds audible. There is no traffic nearby, in fact, despite being very near the city centre, you almost feel like in the countryside.

John says that he cannot show us the dressing rooms, unless all the players have left the ground. He will have to go to the ground control room to check. According to Simon Inglis’ Football grounds of Britain, this was built in 1986, predating the stands on the other three sides. From here, you have a stunning view of the ground in general, and the Archibald Leitch stand in particular.

It turns out that all the players have left, and John takes us through the players’ area with gym and dining room to the dressing room. All smart and modern. I guess the players must have been overjoyed, when they got these facilities. I remember visiting the dressing rooms at Craven Cottage, where a new minimum standard for the size of dressing room facilities for away teams means that Fulham players have had to cram into the much smaller away team dressing room. Well, I guess that the dressing rooms have been moved to Fulham’s new stand now.

On the phone, club historian David Wood told me the previous night that I ought to see he heritage timeline in the East Stand concourse. But John has already spend an hour and a half showing us around the ground – we are still processing the many impressions of the Archibald Leitch stand. So the East Stand must wait till my next visit. Because I am definetely coming back. Oakwell is definetely one of my top 10 English grounds – probably top 5.

Heading towards Barnsley city centre. Photo 2022 © Hans Henrik Appel

In fact, leaving John and the ground, we realize how hungry we are. So rather than do my usual walk around the ground, we head for the city centre to find something to eat. It is almost 3.30 – we would almost have been approaching half time, if the match had been played.

We grap a meal deal in a Greggs and then head for Rotherham, where it is still possible to see the old ground, Millmoor, just down the road from the new one, The New York Stadium. I hadn’t planned on going to Rotherham – it is the cancellation of the match that has given me the opportunity. So I have not really studied the history of the ground.

The name of the ground has nothing to do with New York City. In fact, the ground is named after the part of Rotherham, where it is situated, New York, although Wikipedia mentions that it is hoped that the name will attracts sponsorships from New York City. And right now, a sponsorship deal has changed the name to the AESSEAL New York Stadium.

The AESSEAL New York stadium, Rotherham. Photo 2022 © Hans Henrik Appel

Wikipedia also informs that the new ground came about because of a dispute with former club owner – and still owner of the old ground, Millmoor, – Ken Booth, back in 2008. By 2012, the club had built it’s new ground, less than half a mile from the old one.

New York Stadium with he floodlight pylons of Millmoor in the background. Photo 2022 © Hans Henrik Appel

First, we take a walk around the new ground. There is nobody to be seen – and probably nobody is there late Saturday afternoon with no matches on. The new ground seems to be slightly closer to the city centre. Behind some derelict industrial building, you can see the tower of the minster in the distance. So Rotherham can’t have had their match day routines ruined too much. Although you feel strangely cut-off from the town by the river, the railway and the noisy A630. You could walk through a residential area to Oakwell; here the only way is through industrial dereliction.

It is most unfair to Rotherham United that we come straight from such a brillant experience at Barnsley. But there just doesn’t seem to be much character to the ground, as we make our way around it. In fact, in some places, it doesn’t really feel like a football ground. Even though the ground still has floodlight pylons, they look strangely impotent, compared to the signature rising pylons at Barnsley. But at least the turnstiles are classic in their design. And peeking through the gaps of an exit-gate, I can see that the tower of the minster is visible above the stands from this side of the ground – giving you some sense of the space around it.

From the New York Stadium, we head to Millmoor. It is somehow scary to see a ghost ground. I had recently read that the ground is still used for youth matches, but it must have been some time since the pitch was last used for a football match.

As mentioned, Rotherham United moved because of a fall-out with former club owner, Ken Booth. He still owns the ground, as well as the scrapyard that borders up to it. A few football grounds have been built on former rubbish tips, but I can’t recall any other bordering up to a scrapyard. I remember when my children were small and watched Thomas the Tank Engine. In one episode, one of the engines is sent to the scrapyard – I don’t think any other film has ever made such an impression on them.

In fact, there is a train waiting for demolishment in the scrapyard; and it seems that the scrapyard is slowly encroaching on the derelict ground. But even when the ground was still in use, it must have been scaring for away supporters to walk down the narrow Millmoor lane. I certainly wouldn’t fancy walking down this on a cold, dark, wet night.

Adding to the feeling of a ghost ground is the fact that the new main stand has never been completed. Work started in 2005, but was delayed – among other things by the discovery of japanese knotweed in the foundation and a shortage of funding. I guess that the fallout leading to the club leaving the ground derives from this, but I have to research that one day.

I like the quirkiness of Millmoor. When I recently went to the ground of my childhood team (BK Frem Copenhagen), I noticed that apart from a new astroturf and an electronick scoreboard, hadly anything had changed in the ground. It is extremely basic – with exactly the same main stand that you will find in any Copenhagen ground more than 50 years old. Opposite it concrete terracing, with scaffolded wooden terraces behind the two goals. As a child, I always went to the concrete terracing with my dad. As a youth, I went with my mates to one of the end terraces. When I brought my son – and when I am going there to meet old friends – we take a seat in the stand. Last time, though, I met one of my old mates on the end terrace, where we used to go – despite all the rest of the home supporters had gathered behind the other goal. Completely different experiences, different memories. It was the same with the old national stadium in Copenhagen – in fact the differences between the different stands were even bigger here. But modern grounds are very much about giving everybody the same experience. The same (unrestricted) view of the pitch, the same plastic seat, the same space, the same catering. And when you walk around the ground, the stands look all the same. In that sense, I guess that I would miss Millmoor terribly, had I been a Rotherham United supporter. But perhaps Millmoor in its later days was already so derelict that the prospect of the relative comforts of the new ground would seem more attractive. And at least, from one of the stands, you will have the added experience of seeing the tower of the minster in the distance.

It is getting late, but I ask Dale if there is time for a detour to Doncaster. As always, Dale bears with my crazy suggestions – what would I have done without him? It is not that I have prepared anything. But some five years ago, I wrote an article of the scattering of ashes and the development of memorial gardens at football grounds. I have traced the scattering of ashes at football grounds back to the 1920’s. But around 1990 it became so widespread that it became a problem – the FA even making regulations for it. At a club like Manchester United, they had ashes of up to a hundred supporters scattered on the pitch yearly, until the players said that it was too much. At other grounds, it was the groundsman who was worried about the effect on the grass..

I haven’t been able to establish which garden was the first. It seems that South and East London were first movers, with Millwall, Crystal Palace, Charlton and West Ham all among the first between 1994 and 2000. The only other claim to being the first is in Yorkshire, at Hillsborough – probably in 1996, as the ground was prepared for the Euros. Sheffield United got one at Bramall Lane in 2009- and then Doncaster got one in 2012. It is one of the few gardens I haven’t visited myself – I have only seen some old photos.

So we head to the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster, or the Eco-Power stadium as it is now called. The car park is empty, it is after all after 6. There doesn’t seem to be anybody around. I must confess that I am a romantic who prefer football grounds surrounded by the life of residential areas. But the Keepmoat is surrounded by a shopping outlet, sports facilities, and the Lakeside Lake.

We are about to walk around the ground, looking for the memorial garden, when a man leaves the ground. I run over to him and ask about the memorial garden. His uniform like clothes indicate he is a security guard. He points me to a wall, where fans can have bricks inserted, but I tell him that I am looking for a garden, where supporters have their ashes scattered. I suddenly eye what could be the memorial garden – I point to it. And he just nods. Whereas John had been at Barnley for 18 years and knew all about the place, I doubt that this guard is a hardcore Doncaster Rovers fan.

It is the memorial garden. The security guard makes a gesture, indicating that he all the time knew I was looking for this. It is one of those gardens, where you can have a inscription on a standardized plate. Usually featuring the name, date of birth and death – along with a personal message. It is always very emotional to read them. “A loving son, brother and uncle. He asked for a little but gave a lot. A local Rovers fan”. “Always wanted a pint with King Alick. Now I have my wish”.

I count just under 90 plates. A couple have passed away in 2010 and 2011, before the date I have got for the inauguration of the garden. Is it older – or have they just kept the ashes, waiting for the opportunity to have them inferred here? Below the plates, there are wreaths and flowers with messages all around the garden. I wonder if the ashes are scattered along the wall or over the pebbles around the roses. Or are they buried underneath?

We take a quick walk around the ground. The memorial garden and a statue of Nike and Hephaestus on the lake side of the ground does give it a bit more character than the New York Stadium. Also, the floodlight pylons are more classic, rising abouve the stadium roof.

The green color on some of the corrogated steel along with the Eco-Power name and the green surroundings all add to the special character of the ground. Still, I don’t get the same feeling like I did at the Shay and at Oakwell that I just HAVE to watch a football match here. In Rotherham, you could at least see the minster from one part of the ground. I guess the view must be exactly the same all around the ground here.

Well, we have spent almost nine hours on the road, doing five football grounds. Maybe I am just getting tired. In fact, I get a little concerned if my plan for eleven grounds in Lancashire on the same day is too ambitious. That is in two days. Perhaps we should take it a bit easy on our Midland trip tomorrow before Lancashire is coming up.

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