For me, listing has usually involved football, although if the mood takes me I can encompass cricket, music, A-roads….well, anyway. It’s usually football. And the daddy of all football lists is the “92” – every Football League and Premier League ground.
About eighteen months ago, I realised that I could list them and re-list them as much as I liked, and it wouldn’t get me any closer to visiting them before they were all knocked down and replaced with identical flat-pack ones. The problem is, I do like watching Middlesbrough whenever possible, and they don’t play at a new ground every week. Most weeks at the moment, they don’t even play at the ones where the bus drops them off.
So given the time constraints, it seemed to me that the sensible thing to do was to find out which clubs were moving ground shortly, and concentrate on them. Last season, that meant Chesterfield and Morecambe. I duly made a list of both clubs’ home fixtures, and pretty rapidly realised that Morecambe probably wasn’t going to happen.
Chesterfield was a different story though. It’s an hour and a bit up the road. I drive twice as far as that for a home game. So the first weekend of February 2010 found me in freezing north Derbyshire, watching a reasonably routine 2-1 win over Lincoln City.
Now Saltergate was a proper old football ground. A hulking Main Stand, single tier Kop with big steps up to the back of it, open terrace at the away end, a quaint side stand with grass on the roof, and a five minute walk from the town centre. It was a beautifully decrepit reminder of how going to football used to be for those of us who follow clubs which have been swept along by the Sky revolution.
And by strange coincidence, I ran into BBC Tees personalities Bob Fischer and Michael Shackleton, in one of those weird and slightly uncomfortable encounters with people you know much better on the Internet than in real life. They were ticking grounds off lists as well.
This season, only Brighton and Hove Albion are vacating their current accommodation. The construction of the new ground at Falmer seems to have been going on for about a decade, but all the signs are that it will actually be hosting actual football come August, so the Withdean Stadium needed ticking off in the next few months.
It occurred to me quite late that as Brighton are leading League One their games might be quite popular. Fortunately I was able to get a South Stand ticket for the Carlisle United game at reasonably short notice, and by a strange set of circumstances involving a Network Card, a bit of pre-planning and a petrol price that would make a Texan march on Washington, it actually worked out cheaper to take the train than to drive.
A lot of travel writing is concerned with amusing anecdotes about train/car/plane journeys, leading to incisive comment about the destination. I can only assume that the authors either note everything down in the hope something will seem mirthful afterwards, or just make stuff up to hide the fact that Watford and Willesden are no more or less inspiring than Catford and Crawley. I travelled through all of these places, but remember nothing about anything that happened in or out of the train. Well, except the rather surreal sight of a London-bound Mancunian hen party trying to recreate the British Rail tea trolley, by charging up and down the carriages unsuccessfully trying to dispose of unwanted Danish pastries.
I had included a London Travelcard in my ticket, but had plenty of time to spare before I needed to be at London Bridge, so decided to see how long it would take to walk. Apart from anything else, the views are somewhat better on foot above ground, than on a train in a train-sized tunnel.
It turned out that the answer was “about an hour”, including time to take a few photos and have a cryptic discussion with raidovermoscow about my intended destination. Even the walk didn’t yield anything surprising, but it did give me chance to put the new Shard building into proper perspective. Which, it has to be said, it isn’t.
I said earlier that Saltergate was a proper old ground. Well, the Withdean isn’t. I knew the history before I got there: it was an athletics stadium press-ganged into hosting professional football when the Goldstone Ground became a retail park and groundsharing 50 miles away at Gillingham proved tedious. What I didn’t realise was quite how ad hoc the whole set-up was. Considering that Brighton have played there for twelve years, I had somehow expected more than the sort of temporary seating and green mesh screens that you would expect for a classical concert in Thetford Forest.
It’s not close to the town centre, either. The nearest station is Preston Park, which is a 15-minute walk to the south. Brighton itself – the bit with the pier and the shops and the starlings – is another two miles further on. The new ground is even further out, getting on for four miles from the town centre and designed more for the bypass traffic than the Saturday shopper.
The temporary feeling carries on once inside the ground. While football grounds have built-in tea bars (lower divisions) or McDonald’s-style food counters (Premier League), the Withdean has a ‘food court’ consisting of burger vans of the type that line the perimeter of one-off events like Grands Prix and those concerts again.
And the thing about temporary stands is that they very rarely come with a roof. I had dressed for January, but was still apprehensive when a large black cloud rolled over the South Downs early in the first half. Fortunately it held on to its payload until it had cleared the area, meaning I could refocus on the frankly poor fare being served up on the pitch. The two teams seemed determined to demonstrate why they were in the third tier of English football, and the visitors opened the scoring when Brighton simply refused to clear a corner from Carlisle’s right. The ball fell invitingly to a Carlisle forward about fifteen yards out, but he obligingly fell over. His team-mate Tom Taiwo took over and hammered a shot into the roof of the net from the edge of the penalty area.
As I may have mentioned, I’m used to watching Middlesbrough, and an early goal of this nature at the Riverside would have resulted in a snarl of disgust and quite possibly a little light booing. Brighton fans appear to be more phlegmatic by nature, as the response never elevated itself beyond a gentle grumble.
An exception to the general plodding was provided by Craig Noone. The winger was previously only familiar to me thanks to my brother’s eye for a pun, which resulted in the headline “Exeter sign Noone from Plymouth” landing in my inbox during the course of last season. In the flesh rather than on the page, he reminded me greatly of Adam Johnson in style of play and general attitude. Not short of pace or confidence, he regularly gave the Carlisle defenders all sorts of problems, and for a period in the first half the Seagulls seemed to channel most of their play through his left wing position, although he was ably assisted by Calderon who seemed to have free reign to be as far up or down the right-hand touchline as he felt appropriate. Noone did fade quite quickly though, and was substituted after about an hour.
Brighton nearly equalised with another moment which belied the generally uninspiring first half. A free kick in a central position would normally result in a depressing shot over the bar, but this one was chipped beautifully over the massed ranks to an unmarked Glenn Murray whose lobbed volley beat the Carlisle keeper but came back off the crossbar. When the equaliser DID arrive it was slightly more prosaic, Murray beating the defence to a through ball from his strike partner Ashley Barnes and scoring with a low shot.
Barnes didn’t appear to be a popular figure with the home support. Boro fans reading this may wish to think of the general level of comment reserved for such legends as Brian Deane, Lee Dong Gook and Kris Boyd, and they will get the picture. One foul on the number 9 that could have attracted a yellow card was met with the shout “come on ref, I know it’s only fucking Barnes but still….”
Half-time gave me chance to consider whether the Withdean reminded me of any other ground I’d ever seen. The obvious comparison is with the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, as they both have a running track. More seriously, the only away end I can remember that was a similar distance from the pitch was at Stamford Bridge, and that was only to give the chaps from the Shed End further to run before they could get to you.
The second half was distinctly more engaging than the first. The problem with this is that, as I am not a professional writer, I had much less time to think about what I was going to write about it, because I was too busy watching. What I do remember were the ever-increasing histrionics from both managers with every passing decision made by the referee. These decisions weren’t particularly controversial, I should add, but that didn’t stop Messrs Abbott and Poyet doing their respective pieces.
Brighton took the lead not long after half time when the much-maligned Barnes broke through and poked the ball past Collin in the Carlisle goal. At the other end, Casper Ankegren was having a nightmare. I have no idea whether this was his normal performance or an unwelcome blip, but the phrase “lacking presence” has never been more appropriate, culminating in a pointless punch when a catch would have been easier, which led to three corners in succession. His favoured timewasting ploy of dribbling to a corner of his penalty area and waiting for an opponent to arrive resulted in a mild shoulder charge which had him rolling on the floor holding his face. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, but the referee was suitably conned and booked the attacker rather than the play-acting ‘keeper.
Ankegren should also have done much better with Carlisle’s equaliser on the hour, beaten low at his near post. He could legitimately point to the fact that about four defenders had the chance to stop Carlisle’s Marshall before he got anywhere near having a shot, mind.
Barnes was clearly unimpressed that his starring moment had been cancelled out, so he repeated it, this time from the inside left position instead of inside right, but with the same right-footed jab to finish, wrapping up the Man of the Match award and silencing the grumbling for another week. And all Brighton had to do was hang on for 25 minutes – or so they thought.
I should add at this point that neither side’s physio entered the field of play once. Literally. There was only one booking per side. The open nature of the Withdean means that every ball boy has a ball to chuck straight back into play. The only stoppages were for free kicks, and the odd moment where whichever goalkeeper was winning decided the goal kick would be much better taken from the other side of his goal area.
I tell you all this to give you an idea of the general outrage when the fourth official “indicated a minimum” of five whole minutes stoppage time. The mild-mannered lady next to me shouted. The excitable fat man at the end of the row screamed. Gus Poyet exploded. And then, predictably, Carlisle equalised. Brighton’s defence reverted to their “non-clearing” policy used to such devastating effect in the early minutes, and substitute Harry Arter took full advantage from twelve yards or so.
The Brighton fans’ phlegmatic nature completely deserted them. Because the away fans were some miles away, Arter decided to uproot the corner flag just in front of us, and for thirty seconds it was like Millwall-on-Sea, with people leaning over temporary barriers to spit and scream abuse at anyone who would listen. Nobody thought to put the corner flag back, until a helpful ball boy decided the celebrating Carlisle players were far enough away to risk it.
You are, of course, at your most vulnerable when you’ve just scored. Especially if you’re away from home, it’s deep into stoppage time and the entire population of Sussex has just gone as mental as it ever does. A ridiculous scramble in the Carlisle box resulted in the ball falling to Liam Bridcutt on the edge of the box, and he absolutely leathered the winner home. Even I cheered.
The ref still managed to play another four minutes before he finally blew to confirm the breathless victory. Poyet made a late bid for the Uruguayan Speed Walking team, heading off to the dressing room before the players had had chance to exchange pleasantries, and presumably avoiding an FA charge in the process.
And the rest of us headed off to the station, or wherever, under the bottleneck arched bridge which was never designed to cope with five thousand people all trying to use it at once. The conversation was all referee-related, as is usual on the way out of football grounds, but had I hung around for another ten minutes I’d like to think it would have turned to impending promotion, and inhabiting a stadium that was at least intended to have football played in it.
As it was, I mentally ticked the list of grounds, and started wondering who would move in 2012.