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.

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