Thursday 22 August 2019

Lifetime of memories lost as old grounds replaced by soulless out-of-town bowls

The final whistle goes at the end of Arsenal v Wigan on May 7, 2006, the last match played at Highbury
The final whistle goes at the end of Arsenal v Wigan on May 7, 2006, the last match played at Highbury

Daniel Taylor

It is 12 years since Manchester City severed their ties with Maine Road, for so long such a vital, sometimes poignant, part of the city's life, and on the neighbouring streets it is the same theme of change.

The many pubs of the day have just about all gone. Shops and takeaways have disappeared, unable to survive without the takings of match days, and around the country there is inevitably the same lament surrounding our other lost grounds.

Ayresome Park, the Baseball Ground, Roker Park, Highbury, the Dell, the Den, Ninian Park, Gay Meadow and Boothferry Park, plus many others, are housing estates now or apartments. Filbert Street is a halls of residence for Leicester's university students. Eastville, formerly the home of Bristol Rovers, is now an Ikea store. Leeds Road, where Huddersfield Town were once the force of English football, is a retail park, the centre spot marked by a plaque outside B&Q. Brighton's Goldstone Ground has been replaced by a drive-through Burger King and Burnden Park is an Asda. One by one, so many of England's great football grounds are disappearing and sliding into history.

Altogether, more than one out of every three clubs in the top four divisions have upgraded since Middlesbrough began the trend in 1995, five years after the Taylor Report was published into Hillsborough. The Manor Ground in Oxford is now a hospital. Vetch Field was turned into allotments after Swansea City moved out, and just consider what happened to Highfield Road, Coventry City's ground in the days when they managed 34 consecutive years in the top division, and how the old place is commemorated.

The new housing estate, all yellows and oranges, stands out among the surrounding red-brick terraces and there is an element of tragicomedy about the sculpture, the 'City', that was put up to mark 106 years of the club's history. The sculptor clearly wasn't a Coventry fan, getting three of the four dates wrong, one by 24 years. The club's original name, Singers FC, is missing its second 'S'.

For West Ham's supporters, it is their turn now to contemplate what it will be like when the wrecking ball arrives. West Brom are at the Boleyn ground today but, after that, it is strange to think there are only 12 more league fixtures here before they turn the lights off for the last time and start to dismantle the John Lyall Gates.

"Success, failure, heroism, stupidity, talent, skulduggery . . . Upton Park has seen it all," Brian Williams writes in Nearly Reach the Sky, his book bidding farewell to the old place. But the bulldozers will be in soon. West Ham will start next season in the Olympics stadium and Williams, a Hammerholic of 50 years, is one of the fans who doesn't really want to go.

In the Boleyn pub, on the corner of Green Street and Barking Road, they are already preparing for the worst. They reckon this pub has the longest horse-shoe bar in London (as well as possibly the stickiest carpet) and they are asking regulars to pay £120 annual membership to stop the place being boarded up and fund buses to the new stadium. The posters in the windows read like an SOS: "Keep the Boleyn Pub Alive."

The Black Lion in Plaistow, another West Ham stronghold, is also looking at transporting fans to Stratford but at least one of the other pubs in the area is reputedly going to sell up as soon as the season ends. The Doctor Who shop on Barking Road should be all right, but it is easy to understand why the locals are worrying about what will happen to some of the businesses that have come to rely upon West Ham, and why many supporters are feeling slightly raw about shipping a lifetime of memories from London E3 to another postal district.

Those fans will soon be getting their pre-match food from a Westfield shopping centre where the restaurants go by names such as Pho, Umai, Indi-Go, Shake Shack and Lotus Leaf. But what does that mean for Nathan's Pies and Eels, where the queues on match-days snake down Barking Road? Or Ken's Cafe, where there is a china bulldog in the doorway wearing claret and blue and Carole behind the counter was once described by Pete May, author of several West Ham books, as "the best manager we never had"?

The club might be upgrading but it is hard to shake the feeling that many of their supporters would rather be tucking into a plate of bubble and squeak, or "sloppy eggs, chips and beans" at the unpretentious greasy spoon where Carole and Ken have been lifting the shutters at 7am every day for the past 49 years.

Others will argue that football has moved on. West Ham, they would say, have to ditch their image as a family club of long-suffering cockneys and take their first steps into a brave new world, where the next generation of supporters will be the wealthy offspring of pinstriped Canary Wharf executives rather than classic East Enders. They might have a point, too.

Football has become a business where, at its highest end, money seems to be the way we keep the score. Of course it benefits West Ham to move to their shiny new home, with the prospect of a shiny new future.

Equally, if you value tradition in football you will understand those supporters' feelings and, similarly, you might be glad, relieved even, that Liverpool's proposed move to Stanley Park never came off and that other places, among them Stamford Bridge, Craven Cottage and the City Ground, appear to have been spared.

Everton hopefully can do the same. Goodison Park might be cramped, ageing and, yes, a bit tatty round the edges but, in another sense, that is part of its charm. It is almost shoehorned into those tight rows of terraced houses, but it is one of the dwindling number of football grounds that still has atmosphere inside and out.

Take a walk down Goodison Road and you can feel the history. Breathe in the smells - the fish and chips, the beer fumes, sometimes topped off by the piles of dung left by police horses. It doesn't sound pleasant, does it? Yet, somehow, it works. There is a soul here, created over 100 years, that cannot be found, or recreated, at a gleaming out-of-town bowl, with a park-and-ride scheme and a Frankie and Benny's next door.

But this is increasingly the way football is heading. Thirty-six out of the 92 clubs have moved grounds in the past 20 years and soon it will be nearer to one out of every two. White Hart Lane will have been entirely redeveloped by the time Tottenham Hotspur start the 2018-19 season. Scunthorpe, York, Brentford, Carlisle, Gillingham, Bristol Rovers and Southend are all committed to, or have been looking at, new stadiums.

Others will follow and more football people will come to understand, from first-hand experience, why many West Ham supporters are feeling so delicate. Williams puts it rather neatly: "Ever since it was confirmed we are to leave the area that has been the club's home since 1904 I've been chalking off each game in the same way a condemned man scratches the wall of his prison cell to mark the passing of his last days on Earth, knowing the hangman's noose will inevitably be wrapped around his neck by the end of it all. Frankly, it's not a good way to feel."

At the same time, there are butchers, hair salons, clothes and furniture shops and market-stall holders, turning right outside Upton Park underground station, who are clinging to the hope an influx of new residents will actually be better for them than sporadic invasion of football fans.

West Ham's ground is earmarked for more than 800 properties but a local protest movement, the Boleyn Development campaign, have opposed the initial proposals. The campaigners, with a stall on Queen's Market, want more affordable housing and landscaped gardens for one of the English capital's more deprived areas.

At least, however, there is some form of momentum. Stoke City left the Victoria Ground 18 years ago and it is now a monument to neglect, a piece of derelict, fenced-off land branded an "eyesore" by the local residents' association. One man, campaigning to turn it into a park, tried to force the issue a few years back by putting up a tent and squatting for six weeks. The bailiffs kicked him off and there are plans to put up houses at some point. Nobody, however, seems sure about exactly when that will be.

Back in Manchester, meanwhile, the housing estate that will be known as the Maine Place is still only half-finished, even though the football club moved out 12 years ago. Workmen in hard hats are still on site. It has been a grind - so slow that the first intake of kids at Divine Mercy will have moved on to secondary school by the time the blue paint finally goes down - and in the meantime it has been difficult to keep up with the number of businesses that have gone under. That is the thing about these lost grounds: people underestimate sometimes what they meant to the local community.


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