A trip to Swansea the other week evoked memories of a trip to the Vetch Field on the day football changed forever. I remember clambering on the fences of the away end celebrating a 2-1 away win on 15.04.89 with very little knowledge or understanding of the tragedy that was unfolding elsewhere.
The Vetch is gone now to be replaced with a surprisingly welcome and hospitable Liberty Stadium, complete with built in hairdressers and beauticians and whether teams have moved grounds or not, football is generally a much more welcoming and sanitized place these days.
I recall one of my first away days in 1987, travelling to Ewood Park on a foggy August night (yes – August – was Simon Garner concealing a cheeky fag up his sleeve?) watching Wigan Athletic play our more illustrious neighbours in the Lancashire Cup in a thrilling 2-2 draw only for us to lose on penalties. I recall a poky, smoky Darwen End where the bright red fence nearly touched the roof of the stand and offered a truly awful view, incomparable with now.
It is a feature of the game which has long since rendered metal workers redundant thankfully but now that the theme is set, I thought I’d take a quick run through the TEN WORST AWAY ENDS in my football time…..
At ten, we have Swindon Town. The County Ground was never been a happy hunting ground for my team, and had huge steel spiked fencing on all sides which were more of a requirement to keep the Swindon fans out of our end in our disappointing play off defeat of 1987 than to stop our own fans rampaging through.
And at nine, we go from one County Ground to another as Northampton Town’s former abode, which was also shared with NCCC, offered a pretty dismal view from the back of their tiny main stand. Sometimes we got a bit behind the goal as well, but even that was a poor vantage point set below the goals
My recollections may be tainted by getting some serious abuse off some young scallies ridiculing my footwear on the other side
At eight, we head west to Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Ground. I sympathise a great deal with the Pirates’ plight to find a home in some ways they are kindred spirits with my own Wigan Athletic as they’ve often had to be treated as second best compared to the red half of their city. Yet I’ve attempted to view the game down the side of the main stand twice now to no avail and in that marquee behind the goal. I find the best way to console yourself is to spend the entire game chomping on one of their unquestionably wonderfully Cornish pasties.
In seventh place, I find myself on the Wirral sopping wet on a cold open air end surrounded by fences in a windswept Prenton Park. My recollections may be tainted by getting some serious abuse off some young scallies ridiculing my footwear on the other side mind you.
At six, the Priestfield Stadium of Gillingham used to be a regular pilgrimage during my early Latics watching days but they were another advocate of finding the most restricted view in the ground, putting a whacking great big metal fence in front, behind and either side of you and bring on the torrential conditions. On my most recent visit, we were afforded some seating of the Gene Kelly variety but it felt just like being at the 18th hole at Wentworth rather than at a football match.
As we hit the illustrious top five, we head down to Edgar Street, Hereford, a strong entrant by virtue of the fact that I have sat or stood in three separate places and still never managed to get anything like a decent view of the game: Behind the goal is set back so far you could re-route the M6 through it, the lower tier of the main stand has massive concrete pillars so that you feel you are watching a game in a multi storey car park and the upper tier instills vertigo in all but the strongest hearts.
A real fencing enthusiasts’ delight and also one of the coldest places in Earth where polar bears still roam freely.
And at four, the sharp apex of Chesterfield’s Spire was once echoed in the surrounds of Saltergate, where they kind of gave you a little corner of a covered end or a wide open away end but every part of the ground was covered in sharply tipped, garish yellow fencing that invitingly curled towards the spectators in an attempt to impale any intruders.
Oldham’s Boundary Park just about makes the top three due to it’s complicated network of mesh steel split into three or four sections in it’s prime, a real fencing enthusiasts’ delight and also one of the coldest places in Earth where polar bears still roam freely.
Brighton & Hove Albion find themselves in second due to a double nomination. The generosity of the Goldstone Ground knew no bounds as the away spectators were given a tiny corner covered in fences topped with the most evil looking chicken wire known to man. And as Seagulls fans finally move into their new home, a more miserable day you would struggle to find than at Withdean Stadium craning your neck to all angles to desperately catch a glimpse of action.
Finally at number one, we have Doncaster’s Belle Vue. If you ever wondered what life was like in a top security prison, you have obviously never spent time in the pig pen that used to pass for the away end at Donny: No cover (obviously), ten feet high straight fencing on all sides, followed by another couple of feet going inwards, all accentuated by the fact that it only covered half the away end and needless to say it always threw it down.
There are so many more I could throw in: the supermarket adjoined Boothferry Park in Hull or Burnden Park at Bolton, the below sea level view at Luton Town and the previously open air Fratton Park and the aghast reaction of some of my younger fellow Wigan Athletic fans upon realization that they would have to stand in the open air – it used to be like that every week!
Nevertheless I look back upon it now and treasure the memory of watching the game through not just rose tinted glasses but steel mesh netting, a large concrete pillar, a fat copper and numerous badly drawn Union Jacks.
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