Saturday, 16 April 2016

Abandoned: Nene Park, Rushden & Diamonds

Sunday 10th April 2016

I had left Sam's at about 18:30 the day after the Northampton match and was about to start on the long road back to Bristol. However I'd done a bit of research on the Northamptonshire football scene before I came up and was intrigued by the short and sorry tale of Rushden & Diamonds from the tiny town of Irthlingborough. I decided that it wasn't every day that I got to check out a fully-standing abandoned ground so I'd better make the brief detour and see what I could find.

The Diamonds were founded in 1992 as a merger between Southern League Midlands Division club Rushden Town and United Counties League club Irthlingborough Diamonds. Never has the phrase 'the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long' been more appropriate than in the case of the Diamonds. The club rose from the Southern League Midlands Division to the Conference Premier in just four years, reaching the semi-final of the FA Trophy along the way in 94/95. During this time Nene Park (originally the home of Irthlingborough Diamonds) was gradually redeveloped. The final sum spent on the ground's redevelopment that I've found quoted in various sources was £30 million, turning it from this in 1992, to this in the club's heyday. This allowed Diamonds to push on for further promotions. They reached their peak in 02/03 when they went up to the Second Division as champions and were able to bring in an average gate of 4,457 the following season.

I haven't been able to ascertain exactly what went wrong for them. Maybe the weight of their own ambition did for the club in the end. Maybe it's the fact that it's in the middle of nowhere; I've heard tales from visiting fans who were bemused to find the home supporters arriving on coaches at their own ground by the bucketload. If I had to guess I'd put it down to the fact that Irthlingborough and Rushden have a combined population of 37,800 and the only football league club I can find with a smaller catchment area than that is Morecambe. Whatever the reason, the club eventually folded in 2011, having been relegated back to the conference and facing debts of £750,000.

A phoenix club, AFC Rushden and Diamonds were founded in 2012 and currently compete in the Southern League Division One Central. AFC play their games at Wellingborough Town's Dog & Duck ground whilst their spiritual home stands disused and decaying slowly, with no apparent plans for anyone to move in (despite a brief and costly stay for local rivals Kettering Town) or for it's demolition. 

As far as I can see there is no way into the ground itself. I did think I'd be able to climb up a floodlight ladder but unfortunately there was a locked hatch in the way. I was so keen to get in that I resorted to checking every door and even ringing a doorbell, at which point I had one of those "what the hell am I doing with my life?" moments and decided to go home.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

#23 Sixfields Stadium, Northampton Town

Northampton Town 2 Bristol Rovers 2
Saturday 9th April, League Two

We were into the last six games of the season. Rovers started the day sat in 3rd place on goal difference but level on points with both Accrington and Plymouth. Northampton had run away with the top spot and needed only a draw from today to clinch automatic promotion if other results went their way. Having missed out on an away ticket, I had been spared attending the beamback at the Mem by my old friend Sam (a Northampton-based Manchester United fan who also follows the Cobblers) who brought us both a home ticket for the big occasion.

I would like, dear reader, for you to forget about Leicester City for one moment and consider what I believe to be the true miracle of the 2015/16 season. Northampton Town have spent the last seven seasons in League Two. They barely escaped relegation to the conference when we went down, confirming their survival on the final day. This season looked almost certain to be the club's last after the Cobblers were issued with a winding-up petition on the 7th of November 2015 to the tune of a missing £10.25 million that the council had lent the club to revamp the stadium's East Stand.

In the five months that followed a bizarre and complicated saga was played out, eventually culminating in the arrest of former chairman David Cardoza, charged with misappropriating funds. It was difficult not to feel sorry for the Cobblers during this period and many football fans from across the country contributed to the supporters club fighting fund. Luckily former Oxford chairman Kelvin Thomas decided to buy the club at the 11th hour, ensuring their survival. Now this in itself isn't the miracle, lower league clubs stagger in and out of financial devastation all the time.

The wonderful part of the story is the fact that despite all this chaos, the team took League Two by storm. It's normal for clubs facing this kind of mortal threat to crumble on the pitch, due to pressure and unpaid wages but Northampton thrived and were top of the league two months after the winding-up petition was delivered, a position they have yet to relinquish. From starting the season looking almost certain to go under, they now look almost certain to be champions. These were the circumstances in which Rovers travelled, hoping to delay that party for one more week.

After a few beers and a short walk Sam and I arrived at Sixfields, resisting the temptations of both the nearby funfair and the offer of a quick £5 sausage polish on the way

Sixfields is a very modern, quite compact all-seater stadium. Much like after my trip to Ashton Gate I'm left struggling a bit for things to write about since the main event, the rebuilt East Stand that nearly killed the whole club remains an unfinished shell of scaffolding and a grim reminder of what almost was. This despite the fans' previous attempts to gussy it up with John-Joe O'Toole flags. However the powers that be had seen fit to install the first row of new seats for the previous match against Notts County in order to deal with the extra crowds, so it wasn't so bad to look at. My favourite part of the whole stadium were the glass-walled concourses, which look like a huge greenhouse has been cut in half and stuck to the side of the stadium. These provide inspiring views of the surrounding car parks and chain restaurants for people to enjoy whilst waiting for their tea.

One thing that really catches the eye is the ground's location at the bottom of a massive hill. I thought it seemed crazy that a sizeable chunk of Coventry City fans were able to watch their team's games from the hill in protest during their tenure at Sixfields but you really can see a lot of the pitch from there. Indeed a cheeky smattering of locals amassed on this occasion to watch the second half for free.

Sam and I took our seats in the front row of the West Stand, right next to the away supporters and the game began. The first twenty minutes were a cagey affair, with only a missed shot from Marquis and a couple of corners to note. First blood was drawn when Leadbitter slipped after getting in front of his man, giving Holmes time and space to lob the ball beautifully into the centre of the box for Adams to nod in. The home team came within inches of doubling their lead in the 42nd minute when a well-taken free kick on the edge of the box rattled the crossbar, bounced on the goal line and was eventually cleared.

Things looked bleaker still for us after Northampton actually did make it two right out of the blocks in the second half. Rose made a dummy run, leaving Hoskins open and Danny Leadbitter wasn't quick enough to stop his flick in near the far post. At this point I'd resigned all hope of getting anything from this game and took to people watching. One person who stuck out was a chap with 90s Bono hair who spent the entire match kissing the badge on his pink Northampton away shirt. Another who was clearly worse for ale, was having a lovely time trying to photobomb my crowd shots but mistiming it badly. He was nice enough to offer me a hand when I made an absolute meal of trying to squirm through the barriers at half time like the ungainly prat I am.

Watching from the home section gives you a rare opportunity to observe your own fans from a third-person perspective. I'd never realised quite how many pudgy, bald, middle-aged blokes that think it's the 70s and they're still strapping, fearsome agro merchants we had. A gaggle of about half-a-dozen of the aforementioned decided to spend their entire afternoon staring unblinkingly at the home fans, occasionally making indecipherable arm gestures. The home fans near us took delight in this with a chant of "Dad's army! Dad's army!"

Geriatric belters aside our fans were superb, bringing numbers, noise, colour and smoke. I was proud to watch the scenes unfold as Rovers clawed one back in the 76th minute when Leadbitter ran a ball from Lockyer into the corner and pinged it across goal for Matty Taylor to slip in with his heel. The momentum of the game had completely turned by this point and it only took Lee Brown and Ellis Harrison 12 minutes to make it evens with pretty much the same move on the other side of the pitch. My poker face was pushed to it's limit at this point as I vice-gripped Sam's arm and emitted a high-pitched humming sound, whilst the players celebrated in front of us and Cristian Montaño shouted "fucking have that then!" at the Cobblers fans.

Great comeback and valuable point though it was, it all proved academic for Northampton as news filtered through about a Wimbledon goal scored by none other than former Cobblers human fridge Akinfenwa, which was enough to mathematically secure them at least 3rd position and automatic promotion. Sam, being Sam, refused to accept this fact even when we were on the pitch with the celebrating home fans, frantically doing the maths on his phone.

Bless 'im.

Tragically I've always wanted to be part of a pitch invasion, so I was preparing myself for an acrobatic vault over the barriers carried by the force of the enthused locals in the seats behind me. Alas it was more of a pleasant stroll when the time came, leaving me to wander around soaking in the atmosphere and finding a cool dog with a scarf.

All in all a pleasant day for both of us and a deserved good ending to what had been a terrifying season for the Cobblers. It may have just been the sentiment of the occasion but I felt genuinely very pleased for them. We on the other hand still had work to do.

Friday, 1 April 2016

#22 County Ground, Swindon Town

Swindon Town 1 Wigan Athletic 4
League One, Friday 25th March 2016

It was the Easter bank holiday and the sun had finally decided to make an appearance in 2016. Rovers had recently moved into third in league two on goal difference, an automatic promotion spot, after thumping Newport County 4-1 away. The stage was set and a sold-out crowd was to descend upon the Memorial Stadium for a crucial game against Cambridge United. However my friend Josh the Bristolian Wigan fan had asked me earlier in the week if I'd like to join him on this excursion, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to tick off another local league ground before I became commited to Rovers for the rest of the run-in.

At this point Wigan were flying high in second place in their efforts to rejoin the Championship at the first time of asking. Swindon (considered one of Rovers' local rivals) were sitting in 14th but had turned around a pretty dire season that saw them in the relegation zone in late October, leading to sensible and proportionate reactions from their fans. I was anticipating a non-flashy, professional win from Wigan and set my prediction at 2-0.

Swindon is notable for having a massive confusing roundabout. In fact the government heard Swindon liked roundabouts so they put some roundabouts in it's roundabout so it could give way while it gave way. It was also once made a twin town to Disney Land. It's a weird place basically.

It's also laid out pretty weirdly, so it took us the best part of an hour to find a cash point after we'd brought our tickets (£19 on the gate, rather than the advertised £21, cheers Swindon!) This could of course be more down to geographic incompetence than anything else. With little over an hour remaining before kick-off, we settled into The Tap & Barrel for a beer that was more out of a sense of having earned it than actually wanting one.

I actually really liked the County Ground. Sure it was quite run down in places; thick layers of brown grime had amassed on the windshields and weeds poke through the cracks in the stands but it has a lot of old-school character. It's an original stadium so it's right in the middle of the actual town rather than one of those in-the-middle-of-nowhere retail park jobbies. As such the surrounding area is coloured by it, every pub has a Swindon flag and the walls are filled with murals to legendary squads of times past. The turnstiles look like they could be museum pieces and the crown jewel is County Hotel pub that stands just yards from the ground and was thick with home supporters and décor. You can't buy this kind of backdrop.

Wigan had laid on free coaches for this match so the away team boasted a bumper crowd of 1,309 which was enough for us pay-on-the-day folk to be situated on the Stratton Bank, a large roofless ex-terrace which now holds 2,000 in very shallow seated rows. It's one of those where it's so shallow and wide that you can't possibly block anyone's view by standing and no one was asked to sit by stewards during the entire 90, again fair play Swindon. This part of the ground has the strange honour of housing the only Rolex clock in a football stadium in the world. Educational this blog.

Aside from this there are two large stands to the sides of the pitch: the Don Rogers stand which was built in 1994 to replace a decaying two-tier one and looks to be the newest part of the stadium. The Arkell stand which is more traditional stands opposite this, it holds 5,800 which includes the majority of the away allocation. Opposite where we were stands the tiny Town End, the choice of the more vocal Swindon fan. It holds 2,000 and is notable for having the ground's floodlight pylons actually pierce through it's roof. The floodlights themselves look awesome and old as the dirt. So all-in-all even though I'm not supposed to I really liked the County Ground. Moving on.

The match began and it was Swindon who looked the more likely in the opening moments of the game. Nathan Thompson went on a heroic run taking the ball from the Swindon half and beating two men only to steer his shot from distance just wide of the post. However it was Wigan that drew first blood in the 15th minute when Chris McCann controlled a long ball from the Wigan end with his chest and delivered a scuffed low cross into the box for William Grigg to sweep into the net.

From then on Swindon were on the back foot. For me they non-committal in a lot of their challenges, seeming to pull out of a lot of decent chances to intercept passes. However they did manage three more shots on goal that half and forced a save from grand old Finn Jussi Jääskeläinen in the 27th minute. It was during this time that Josh started spotting some of the bizarre Swindon sponsors. Aside from their unfortunately named shirt sponsors Imagine Cruising, there was also a large advert in the stands for a company called Divorce Online, perhaps aimed at those who have come to the mid-match conclusion that their marriage is only getting in the way of their love of Swindon Town.

Half time rolled around and I excused myself to the burger hatch in search of a hot bevvy and some meaty sustenance. The queue was unusually large and the second half had started by the time I'd got half way down it but considering myself safe due to the relatively slow first half, I decided to wait it out. Luckily I had a decent line of sight to watch amazingly named midfielder Max Power find himself in acres of space outside the Swindon box and launch an absolute screamer into the side of the net, leaving young Tyrell Belford with zero chance to make a save.

A measly two minutes later Wigan were in again. Taking advantage of Swindon making a series of dodgy passes in their own box, Morsy was able to dispossess a defender and the ball rolled into the path of William Grigg, who's shot deflected off a Swindon player and into the bottom corner. After this it only took Morsy another minute to plough one in himself from a distance. It should be noted that I witnessed this streak of Wigan dominance whilst still waiting in line with actual away supporters. They were great fun though, with one burly bloke jokingly saying to the cashier "this better be the best fucking burger ever".

Swindon regained a little pride towards the end, first by forcing a masterful top-corner save from a free kick and second by finally scoring a consolation goal in the 79th minute when Nicky Ajose slotted a sumptuous through-ball from Michael Doughty past Jääskeläinen. Then something happened that will probably go down as my moment of the season. At 4-1 down Swindon's announcer thought it fit to blast Glad All Over by the Dave Clark Five over the PA system. This was met with rapturous dancing and singing by the entire Wigan entourage, who were now in full party mode, followed by the announcer unenthusiastically mumbling "and the goal scorer is number 10, Nicky Ajoseeeeeeeee." I must admit the Swindon fans were decent. They celebrated their goal heartily (almost as heartily as the Wigan fans) and I heard the Town End singing in patches throughout the game despite it being on the opposite end of the pitch. Fair play for knowing how to take a drubbing. A day to forget for the home side was complete when immediately after being named man of the match, captain Nathan Thompson was shown a straight red for a dangerous tackle.

All in all I enjoyed this ground. I look forward to coming here next season (please Darrell).

Since I'm quite happy with the pictures I took today but I've run out of things to say, I'm just gonna post the leftovers. Happy Easter one and all.

Hi Mum!
Only the 2nd most bizarre advertisement I've seen at a football ground.  

Just about worth the trouble

No percussion for you