Saturday, 17 October 2020

The Saturday List #283 - My top ten football grounds of all time

 I can't really believe it has taken a previous 282 lists to get here. I've spent the best part of my life watching football. Along with music, it is something that keeps me sane and happy. Today, I should have been going to Brickfield Lane to watch Hadley FC, but a team member has tested positive for corona virus, so the game was cancelled. I had to think long and hard about this list. My team is Manchester City FC, so clearly I have a bias, but we all have grounds we love, grounds that you get a little pang of excitement when you go there. Here's my grounds and why.

1. Maine Road, Manchester City FC.

I first went to Maine Road in 1975, with my best mate Brian. He was a Spurs fan and we'd agreed to get a football special to Manchester to watch City play Spurs. We sat in the main Stand. At the time hooliganism and violence was part of the football experience. I'd only ever seen Maine Road on the TV and it seemed glamourous, especially under the floodlights. I was initially shocked at how run down and ramshackle it seemed. However once the football started, I really started to appreciate the ground. Unlike just about every other stadium, the main standing area was not behind the goal, but in the huge Kippax Street terrace. When I started going out with Clare, who was at Manchester Uni and lived in Platt Lane, adjacent to the ground, I started to attend just about every home game for a couple of years. I then started playing football regularly on a Saturday, so I rarely got a chance to go. To me, the ground was the most atmospheric of all football stadiums. It always seemed to be raining and bathed in a glow of gallows humour. If you are not a football fan, it is probably hard to explain, but it just felt right to watch football in such a place. 

2. Brickfield Lane, Hadley FC.

Over the last three years, I've adopted Hadley FC as my local team. I've had a long standing love of non league football, since the 1960's when my Dad was a sponsor of Edgware Town. Although Hadley get crowds of around 100, it is a proper football club and the atmosphere is second to none. In these strange time, it is one of the things that has kept me sane, going to matches there. There is a great clubhouse and a good selection of beers. Many fans were formerly Barnet FC fans, who changed allegiance when Underhill closed and the club moved out. There is always great banter and much terrace wit, which for me is what makes football so special.

3. The Old Wembley stadium.

As an England fan, for most of the 1970's I'd never miss a home match. My Dad had a mate who worked at the FA, so we'd get tickets for hard to see games, such as England v Scotland and England v Brazil. The Old Wembley, where you could stand on the terraces was a very special place. Sadly for me, my fanatical support of England coincided with their worst period. They failed to qualify for world cups and seemed unable to string two passes together. I was devastated when Wembley was redeveloped. I find the new stadium to be rather soulless. I've seen some of Man CIty's  greatest moments there, but it never quite feels the same. 

4. Craven Cottage, Fulham FC.

Back in the 1970's, Bobby Moore, Rodney Marsh and George Best were playing for Fulham. They were in what was then the second division. I decided to nip along to see these legends and loved it. I never felt at home in Highbury or White Hart Lane. To me, there was a lack of humour and a sense of arrogance at these grounds. At Fulham, it was a different cup of tea. It is probably the only ground with a little house in the corner. It is also the coldest ground in the UK. I well remember watching Fulham play Swindon in the FA Cup. A 3-3 draw, which started in brilliant sunshine and ended with a blizzard, an evil wind blowing snow off the River Thames. I've never been so cold in my life. I loved it and would get down there as often as I could.

5. Underhill, Barnet FC.

I used to love Underhill. It was a ramshackle ground, but it was friendly and watching Barnet in the Barry Fry era was a hoot. We'd nip up the hill after for a pint in the Mitre, then a curry. You'd see the same faces at all three. Often I'd bump into old school mates etc in the ground. It was a great way to while away a Saturday.

6. Loftus Road, QPR FC.

QPR's Loftus Road is a brilliant ground to watch football in. You are close to the pitch and although small, it is a very enclosed space, so it is noisy and there is great banter. In the 1970's QPR had an amazing, stylish team. There home game against Manchester City was one of the best games of football I can remember. I dug out the program and remembered every player in both teams. In recent years, we'd have an annual pilgrimage to the Loft for a mates Birthday day out. A few years ago, we watched them play Reading. It was the worst game I've ever seen. Neither side had a shot on goal and passed to the opposition more than they passed to each other. What non footballing fans don't understand is that it simply meant the banter was better. My best memory was a few years ago, when I was queueing for the beers and pies for our group at half time. The queue took ages, and when I got to the front, the guy behind me said "Well at least I'll get a pie now". When I ordered fourteen, which was for our group and was every single one, I've never seem such misery on anyone's face. The match was against Mansfield Town, it was pretty dire. That was the highlight. 

7. The Old White Lion Ground, Edgware Town.

As I mentioned above, my Dad's firm sponsored Edgware Town. He hated football, but a couple of the guys who worked for him played for the team. He'd take me up, I'd stand on the terraces with the kids of his friends and he'd go and have a drink in the bar. I used to love the ground in the middle of winter, watching the football by floodlight, watching people abusing their mates who were playing. At the time, I didn't really think it was 'proper football' in the way that watching Fulham or Man City was, but in hindsight, it was brilliant. It seemed like everyone in the crowd was a mate, mum, dad, brother or sister of a player. After the game they'd all end up in the bar, ribbing and riling each other. I was always amused by my Dad asking me at the end "who won?". I was never quite sure what he was up to in the clubhouse, but I got a lemonade and a bag of Smiths cheese and onion crisps, or a Bovril when it was cold, and it seemed like heaven. 

8. Upton Park, West Ham.

The first time I went to see Man City play on my own was at Upton Park in 1975. I was thirteen. I hooked up with a bunch of Mancunian dockers, who took me under their wing and bought me several pints of bitter. I thought it was great. Upton Park was quite a claustrophobic ground for me. The stands seemed to be far lower then other grounds. But the team was cultured, played good football and the East Enders who packed the stadium were worth the admission fee to watch. For reasons I couldn't quite fathom at the time, they were always well disposed towards City and their fans. I have always liked to think it was because they thought Manchester United were a team like Arsenal or Spurs, a bit arrogant, whereas City were not cut from the same cloth. I've seen City play West Ham a couple of times at the new stadium and there is no atmosphere at all. It really is the worst place to watch football and my heat goes out to the Hammers fans. Now City are an elite club, the welcome is not as warm either. I can't say I blame them.

9. Vicarage Road, Watford.

When my son was born, he soon developed a love of football. Watford seemed the easiest ground to get to and to get tickets for, so I would regularly take him. At one point he seriously considered becoming a  Watford fan. The ground has been noticably improved over the years. It is a great place to watch football and quite a friendly atmosphere. I've quite a few friends who are Watford fans, so I'll often go along with them. The banter is never quite as harsh or as cruel as most of the equally ranked clubs, but it is always fun. The pies are rather good.

10. The Etihad Stadium, Manchester City.

The first time I went to the Etihad, I hated it. It seemed cavernous and soulless compared to Maine Road. At the time, the team was not great and I simply didn't enjoy the experience. They'd just been promoted the season before. I didn't go back for a few years, until my son nagged me to take him. City were laying Wolves, Carlos Teves scored a winner, the match finished 4-3 to City. Unlike the previous trip, it seemed like the team had grown into the stadium. I realised that the stadium is actually a great place to watch football. It is funny, I've been to the Emirates a few times to watch Arsenal and it is a horrible place to watch football, compared to Highbury. But the Etihad feels different. The club has put a huge amount of effort into making the ground feel like home. City and their owners come in for a lot of stick, but they really do care about their support. A couple of years ago, I went to Old Trafford with a mate, and sat amongst the United fans to watch the Derby. The seats were cramped and uncomfortable and I realised just how good the Etihad really is. I know I'm rather biased, but to me, it is the only new ground I enjoy visiting. I went to Anfield a few years ago to watch City play Liverpool and Anfield has a certain soul that to me Old Trafford was completely devoid of. If I'd allowed myself twelve choices, Anfield and Brisbane Road, the home of Leyton Orient would be in there. Both are well worth a trip.

Sadly though, all of these palaces will be closed to the people who really matter today. It is beyond my comprehension how much contempt the rich owners of most clubs have for their supporters. I do not include City's owners in this, as I genuinely believe they have demonstrated that they care. The proposals from United and Liverpools owners this week were diabolical. My recent support of Hadley has restored a degree of love in football. I can only applaud the fans of clubs like Arsenal who persist in going, despite the fact that they are being charged an arm and a leg for an experience that is far inferior to standing on the terraces at Highbury, watching a George Graham team grind out a 1-0. Us football fans are a funny lot. 

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