Top 24 English Football Grounds Advent Countdown 2018: 3th December

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Day 3 – Ground no. 22: The County Ground, Swindon Town

A proper old school ground! The County Ground pub right in front of the ground is a must! The four stands are oh so different, adding character to the ground. The floodlight pylon going up through the roof of The Town End is brillant. With a cricket ground to one side and terraced streets to the others, it is very much a community stadium. And then there is the magic roundabout – formed by five small ones! Surreal! So surreal that my camera broke down and I failed to capture the magic of a floodlit match there.

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22. The County Ground, Swindon Town

23. St. Andrew’s, Birmingham City

24. St. James’ Park, Exeter City

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Top 24 English Football Grounds Advent Countdown 2018: 2nd December

21 Birmingham (1)

Day 2 – Ground no. 23: St. Andrew’s, Birmingham City

It nestles on a hill top above the terraced streets, almost like a medieval castle – just a short walk from the city centre. Bathed in floodlights at night, the effect is stunning.

The two-tiered main stand with its pillars is a proper old school stand, yet the single-tiered L-shaped Kop and Tilton Road stands from the 1990’s match it impressively well. The concourse is not the usual modern parking house concrete, it is warm, open, spacious with good views of the pitch. No wonder, the atmosphere is good.

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23. St. Andrew’s, Birmingham City

24. St. James’ Park, Exeter City

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Top 24 English Football Ground Advent Countdown 2018: 1st December

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Day 1 – Ground no. 24: St. James’ Park, Exeter City

Sadly, the old Stagecoach stand has been replaced by a modern stand this year. I loved it. It looked like a robber’s castle, irregularly shaped, only covering two thirds of the field. At least the new one has the same size. I hope a little of the magic is preserved. Still, there is the impressive standing terrace, the strange integration of the neighbouring school building for office, hospitality and community facilities. And the houses opposite St. James’ Street overlooking the pitch-

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24. St. James’ Park, Exeter City

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Top 24 English Football Grounds Advent Calendar 2018

From Saturday 1st December, I will start my countdown of my top 24 current English football grounds. Six photos, six lines of text.

Grounds like Highbury, Boleyn Ground, White Hart Lane won’t feature, as they have been demolished. Old Trafford won’t feature either, as I could be accused of being biased as a Manchester United fan.

But here it is as a sample – or a preview of the concept.

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Day 0 – ground no. ? – Old Trafford, Manchester United

The sheer size of the current Old Trafford is impressive. And it glows magicly in the floodlights for evening kick-offs. Yet, I must admit, I prefer the old one. With standing terraces and the factory/fortress like look.

Maybe that is why, it is the walk up Warwick Road – or Sir Matt Busby Way, the Red Legends Souvenir shop, Lou Macari’s Fish ‘n chips and the streets behind the stadium that really makes me feel at home, when I go.

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Top 24 English Football Ground Advent Calendar coming up!

09 Peterborough (1)

From 1st December, I will run down my top 24 of current English football grounds as an advent calendar for all fans of English football and football grounds. And especially those who like to argue, which ground is the best!

Each ground will be presented in six photos and six lines of text. Find out if you agree with my listing by following the blog – or clicking in every day! And feel free to comment!

It is only Christmas once a year!

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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 been earmarked 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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The Historical Layers of Hillsborough

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.IMG_5115 - Kopi

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.IMG_5218

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.IMG_5162IMG_5167

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.IMG_5172 (2)IMG_5181

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.

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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.IMG_5209

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.

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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.

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The anticipation grows as you get closer and closer to the entrance – you can see the light beaming out from there.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. IMG_5248

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.

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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. P1250733

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.  IMG_5198.JPG

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. IMG_5226

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.

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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!IMG_5327

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.

 

IMG_5339 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. IMG_5342 (2)

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.

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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. IMG_5365.JPG

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.

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