The Ghosts of Stadiums Past

 

I moved to Manchester in 2007. It was not long after Man City fled from the old Maine Road in Moss Side to the wastelands east of Piccadilly, to take up residence at what we used to call The City of Manchester Stadium, before oil struck the town.

Getting the 111 to uni in 2011, you could see where Maine Road used to be from the top deck. There was a big pile of dirt, a large empty space where I suppose you could still kick a ball without twisting an ankle, and in the distance lay the first sparkling new homes to be built on the site of the old stadium. It was only later I learned that it was there that the Wembley of the North used to stand.

Man City play Portsmouth at Maine Road in January 1936

The Wembley of the North: Man City v Portsmouth at Maine Road in January 1936. Source: Wikipedia

There seems a particular sadness riding around football these days as West Ham, once said to be David Cameron’s favourite club, say goodbye to the wild and rusty venue known by some as the Boleyn Ground, and by others as Upton Park. West Ham fans have been busy in the press sharing their memories. East end emigré Mark Joyce told the Guardian that “going to the football was part of a wider routine of visiting family and going to the area.” Fellow fan Billy Bowring also contributed to the newspaper’s remembrance, with fond recollections of the old place.

My favourite memory is a pervasive feeling of collective support, a fevered passion and atmosphere. It was invariably in the face of impending defeat, but an important principle of support was enacted in every game; regardless of the score you stay to hear the final whistle. When I picture that atmosphere, I see a night game under the lights with thousands of Hammers huddled against the cold but in loud voice.

It was a fitting send-off, broken bottles aside, as the Hammers came from behind to defeat a tardy Man United 3-2.

An old stadium harbours so much more than goalposts and fossilised pasties. The pitch holds the echoes of great moments, crafted by players that Hammers fans lauded and made shrines of them in their bedrooms, their names ironed into the backs of their shirts. The seats in the stand become your seats. Year after year, returning to the same spot, seeing the same old faces, sitting through rain, snow, wind and Stuart Downing. The ashes of loved ones, indebted to the club for the memories, the friendship and the camaraderie, are scattered on the field every year. The place where you release someone’s ashes, that is where they remain. You say hello every time you pass. It’s reasons like this that explain why when Moseley RUFC left their old Reddings Road haunts in Brum, the fans came down and queued so they could take a square of the old turf home with them. In the same spirit, Hammers fans are now buying up the old seats at the Boleyn, which I’m sure will fit right in with their other furniture.

Highbury-now

Highbury, now providing luxury homes to fans of Jeremy Corbyn

West Ham’s decision to up sticks puts Upton Park at the head of a long list of old grounds abandoned in recent years. There was the Dell, Southampton’s courageous old stadium that looked as if it had been designed without a ruler. Now, as Oliver Gara tells us, it’s “a large set of apartment blocks and in keeping with the old ground, space in many of the flats is extremely limited.” Then there was gloriously mismatched stands that overlooked Leicester’s Filbert Street, before everybody’s favourite champions relocated to the ferociously-named King Power Stadium. Wimbledon’s Plough Lane is now fittingly an allotment. Highbury was a bit different, nestled behind some Islington homes like some magical back garden. You went down somebody’s alleyway, and there was Thierry Henry. Best of all was Barnet’s Underhill stadium, surrounded by seven stands, and where if you were defending the north end, you had to beware as your backpasses might have trickled back toward you. The bees’ new ground, “The Hive,” is disappointingly flat.

filbert st

Filbert Street. The most striking stadium of all time. Source: Leicester Mercury

The ground formerly known as the Olympic Stadium will be West Ham’s new home, to the dismay of Leyton Orient. As an ever-present at the Paralympics, I have incredibly fond memories of the place – Jonny Peacock defeating Oscar Pistorious, the howl of the Weirwolf, and nearly being run down outside by Dame Tanni Grey, who was clearly very late for something. I tell you now in moments like that it can reach stranger-hugging levels of excitement in there – so I’m sure Hammers fans will he able to quickly fill the new place with echoes of a glorious past, especially if Dimitri Payet sticks around. But I think it will take more than that to recapture the soul of the Boleyn Ground.

Surrounded by luxury flats that sprung up in the ‘redevelopment’ of Newham, and a cavernous park dedicated to the Queen (as it was high time something was named after her), there is something dissociated about the Hammers’ new place. Old grounds sit in the heart of a community – while Upton Park rested between shops, pubs and houses, the new stadium has a gigantic Westfields in which you can soak up all the pre-game atmosphere you can buy. Nothing says Matchday like a Vanilla Latte and a morning of sock-shopping.

That is fuel enough for this week’s outburst of nostalgia (although that’s no excuse for bringing Marlon Harewood on the pitch last night). Mark Joyce believes “things will move on but for me and hundreds and thousands of others for whom West Ham is synonymous with Upton Park, something irreplaceable is being lost.”

For Hammers fans, the place that made them unique, their home, is being left behind and replaced by the heartless symmetry of yet another modern stadium. Unless they rename it Football McGroundface, it’s not going to be a place that easily harbours affection. But in many ways big clubs outgrow their old shells and need to move on. The old terrace-turned-all-seater can be a cramped, uncomfortable experience for today’s fan, and you can’t beat paying £40 to watch James Milner kick a ball from behind a load-bearing iron bar. The corporate boxes are not cavernous enough for today’s portly billionaire.

The Boleyn Pub

The Boleyn Pub, in front of the Boleyn Ground. Source: Mapio.net

But it’s more than that. Inner-city stadia can prop up a local community – matchdays can inject cash into the neighbourhood through Saturday afternoon trade provide an injection of cash, and put entire areas on the map. After City left Moss Side, many of the shops began to struggle, and the comfort of being spared the occasional old-fashioned football riot was little compensation. The pubs slowly boarded themselves up as the wasteland watched on. The demolition of Maine Road left a gaping hole in the community, and it took nearly a decade before any recovery came, brought with the opening of the first houses. Newham Council hope the new homes built in Upton Park will herald a new start for the area, but local traders are wary. Local publican Ron Bolwell said to BBC that “our rates are very high and our rents are high,” and the loss of matchday boozers marks trouble ahead. Osman Mustafa in Queen’s Fish Bar hopes the construction workers will prop things up, but said, with resilience and resignation, “after that, I don’t know. It will affect us terribly.”

There is optimism among the West Ham faithful, who feel the move into their grand new stadium could help foster good times ahead for the club. Bowring is hopeful, but hopes “that this move isn’t at the expense of the people and the history that have made this club something I’ve always been proud to support.”

I’m not one for sentimental nostalgia – I’m the first to throw a shady look at the ‘football was better in the old days’ crowd – but the closure of an old ground can be a loss of a community asset, replaced by something that offers far less to fans and neighbours of a club, and you get the impression that Sullivan, Gold and Brady would rather play the robber baron and cash in on the Boleyn’s assets than spend any worry on pondering that which will be left behind. It’s the corollary of the factory town whose factory has been boarded up, or the coal mining community who have no other option but to turn to the Sports Direct Depot for work. When a Hipster Burger Co. opens on your street, and your rent starts creeping upwards. When Herman Tillke designs a racing circuit. When anything moves to Milton Keynes. When a language dies. It’s the acceleration of things beyond your control, things you used to rely on, that are replaced with precarity and mediocrity. It’s the half-finished, snail-paced, shiny apartments built on the rubble of the Wembley of the North.

In a few years, some new students will sit the top deck of the 111 will look left at Claremont Road (before Crownchy Fried Chicken – the True Crowning Glory), and they might wonder why the houses look a bit different here, and why there’s a blue road here named after an American craft beer.

 

(Title Image – The Kippax Stand, Maine Road, being demolished, sourced from Urbanghostsmedia.com)

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