Opened in 1871, one of the oldest football grounds still in use will shut at the end of the season. While grumbles about the football will always endure, some things will never be the same again, says Roger Titford
The first Taylor Report into ground safety appeared in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall was breached. Just like the Berlin Wall, there’s precious little left standing today of our traditional Football League stadiums. One of these terraced grounds really ought to have been preserved in its entirety for the nation by English Heritage but instead I pay homage to Saltergate, while a few fixtures remain.
Chesterfield’s home for over a century looks as if it was set in a 1960s aspic; more the flavour of Alan Sillitoe than Mary Quant it must be said. It has steadfastly refused the full demands of the Taylor Report which had expected, if not proclaimed, that all Chesterfield fans should have already been seated for the past ten years.
The Spireites’ laggardliness in stadium development finds an ancient echo in the floodlighting department. Chesterfield were the last of the then current League clubs to install permanent floodlights (in 1967), an absolutely killer fact I have known for decades without ever finding the opportunity to drop into polite conversation. Moreover the name Saltergate has a pleasingly medieval ring to it; out of the town-gate by where the salter salts your meat presumably. But in six home games’ time the Spireites will be finally kicking off in their very 21st century, Taylor-compliant B2Net stadium, a name as modern as it is opaque.
Chesterfield have made a late surge up the League Two table into the promotion play-off places but were whipped 5-0 by Port Vale in their last home match. I spent my apprenticeship as a football supporter in the old Fourth Division, seven seasons between the ages of 16 and 24, a long time ago but I feel I still know the territory.
Basically at this level there are three types of opponent: promotion rivals, local rivals and routine visitors. They don’t come much more routine than Hereford, safely becalmed in the lower mid-table with just two wins and four draws from 18 away games. Just around the corner from the famous, almost Disney-ish, crooked spire of the town centre church I stride into Coral and confidently put £20 on a home win. Minutes later, in the Barley Mow, a local tells me that betting on Chesterfield is a kiss of death. I ask him what the Vale match was like. He replies, to his satisfaction if not mine, with a single rude word.
Inside the pub and on the ten-minute walk down to the ground, past statues of worthy Labour MPs erected by subscription of the Derbyshire Mineworkers Association, all the talk is about the stadium move (“only 200 tickets left for the last game”) and the word Hereford is not to be heard. There’s a perverse pride in the spectacular decrepitude of the back of the main stand (“I’ve been coming here since 1958 and I can’t ever remember it being painted”).
An elderly couple are talking to an equally elderly gentleman – “are you getting ready to go down the new ground?” – in a tone that suggests a change of rest home. They don’t look the sort to be excited by the “exciting facilities” promised in the match-day programme, but then again they are satisfied old supporters not “potential customers”. The people most likely to be excited are the residents of St Margaret’s Drive whose back gardens have been closely overshadowed by this peeling hulk since 1936.
Behind the Kop terrace squats the Saltergate Social Club, a sprawling set of rooms, comfortable in a tatty way, and I sit down and scan the programme. There’s a feature on the equivalent fixture in 1975 and a few names from those line-ups to conjure with – Barry Silkman, Dixie McNeil, Rodney Fern, even a World Cup winner, Terry Paine. By contrast there’s not much conjuring material for today. Jack Lester’s out injured, the only other Chesterfield names I recognise are Mark Crossley, a pre-Taylor Report goalie, and Barry Conlon, an archetypal “have boots will travel” lower-division striker. Both are on the bench. Mark Allott is making his 500th League appearance but I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of him.
At ten to three I’m standing on the Kop with the teenage folk at the back. The crackly, blarey PA system is whipping up a bit of atmosphere, trumpets and drums in the background. It’s over a decade since I stood on a covered terrace for a League match and two things stand out straightaway. Firstly, there’s a real buzz of lively conversational noise which you simply don’t get in seated areas where people are further away from one another. Secondly, this isn’t authentic terracing but the modern high-stepped variety that encourages fans to remain static and not swap positions with their neighbours.
To my right the Main Stand looks quite respectable from the inside, painted in a pleasing rich green more redolent of summer sports. To my left is the low-roofed, seated Compton Street Stand and straight up the pitch, the unused, open Cross Street terrace.
Within five minutes it’s clear this game is not happening as envisaged either by Coral (Chesterfield 15-8 on to win) or by my preconceptions. Hereford are impostors. The No 27 is everywhere, first skinning Phil Picken at right-back then finding some space to miss from six yards. In the programme he’s down as Jake Jervis. It sounds like he might be a ruddy-faced farm boy but no, he looks like and plays like Kanu and he’s on loan from Birmingham City.
On the other wing is Lewis Young, Ashley’s young brother, also on loan, from Watford. I feel like I’m watching the footballing equivalent of Life on Mars in which Jervis has been sent back to the 1970s to see how a tall, lithe, modern forward would get on against the traditional, balding, slow defence of that era. Rather well, as it transpires. I’m perfectly safe standing on this terrace but for the shots raining in at me from Hereford’s forwards. Chesterfield are creating virtually nothing. Mark Allott loops a shot out into Cross Street and Drew Talbot falls over the advertising hoardings keeping a long ball in. There is moaning. As Matthieu Manset hits the Chesterfield bar the moans turn to widespread cries of “fucking wake up”.
I’m suddenly conscious I’ve walked into Act Two of a drama that’s had a fortnight’s interval. Act One was Port Vale – destitution. Act Two will be Hereford – restitution, or destruction? The modern response to sporting catastrophe is to draw a line and move on. Chesterfield haven’t. They’re tired, sluggish, at each other’s throats and exit right to a chorus of boos.
At half time, while the regulars get a “pass-out” to go back to the Social Club for another pint, I take a wander around the back of the Kop. There are many mysterious little booths and huts, some pebble-dashed and others boarded-up, and the good old open-air men’s bogs. And in each corner, beneath the traditional floodlight pylon, there is a cordoned-off area of genuine old-time terracing with its shallow three inch steps. Now it looks like a material from a distant age, like a great-great grandmother’s face, wrinkled, brown, spotted, decayed, homely. Maybe, if they can’t preserve a whole ground, they should try to keep just one of these sections – a small corner that is forever Division Three (North).
For the second half Chesterfield have the wind, the slope and are kicking towards their own supporters. Yet on 48 minutes Marc Pugh latches on to a low through ball, Picken brings him down in a scuffling tackle and Jervis, of all people, picks up the ball for the resulting Hereford penalty. He’s 18, on his full League debut, on loan, wearing lemon-coloured boots – and he still gets to take the penalty? That’s surely taking deference to the Premier League a bit far. He duly puts it in the bottom corner.
The ageing maestro Conlon bristles on from the bench and collects a sore head instantly. But the mood is changed and the Kop is galvanised. Ishmael Demontagnac, on loan from Walsall, skilfully gets to the byline and then, with two team-mates waiting in the six-yard box, greedily shoots into the side-netting. Unforgiveable, with the game in the balance. Hereford drive forward through the middle and Pugh shoots into the same corner for a 2-0 lead. Some people think it’s all over and leave.
Another substitution enlivens the Spireites and finally, on 75 minutes, Adam Bartlett in the Hereford goal has to make his first real save from a chance created by Conlon. Hereford are now in retreat and young Young foolishly brings down Adam Rundle just inside the box. Conlon coolly chips the penalty into the roof of the net, Panenka-style. Game back on, at 1-2 with ten minutes to go. Demontagnac shows some more brilliance down the wing and this time does the right thing and crosses low for the unmarked Conlon at the far post to sidefoot the equaliser from five yards.
Only he doesn’t. He ends up in the net but the ball is repelled by an unidentifiable force. No one nearby quite knows what has happened right in front of them. (TV replays reveal Conlon kicking the ball back towards the near post thus enabling Bartlett to make a completely unexpected save.) Five minutes added time. The bloke behind me says: “We could still win this. Stranger things have happened.” “Not here, they haven’t,” replies his mate, a man very soon to be proved of sounder, if more fatalistic, judgement. Despite this being a contest between a set of mid-table no-hopers and a team having a mental breakdown it was completely absorbing from first to last. Of course, it ends with loud booing and no curtain calls.
Afterwards John Sheridan, the Chesterfield manager, was on local radio as I drove up the road to take a peek at the new stadium. The interviewer spoke as if to someone bereaved by a death of a promotion hope and Sheridan responded first with incoherence and bafflement, then blamed a lack of character in the team. It doesn’t augur too well for a change of division. But the change of location is a much bigger affair.
Soon I’m confronted by a mountainous white Tesco Extra. It’s the biggest I’ve ever seen and semi-attached to it, in the manner and scale of a garage to a mansion, stands a small, neat stadium in dark blue, grey and silver. Four matching stands all looking utterly clean and normal in the early evening quiet. In the town of the Crooked Spire you’d hope they would add some design twist or quirk before it’s finished. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
From WSC 279 May 2010