For whom the Belle tolls

Glen Wilson reports on how you could have played in the last game at Belle Vue

At the final whistle in Brighton’s last game at the Goldstone Ground, in April 1997, the fans proceeded to do two things: invade the pitch and tear the place apart. Neither through malice nor a penchant for violence, but just simply in an effort to claim something of what they believed was theirs. Fans left clutching pieces of turf, seats or, in one fairly impressive case, the large clock from the ground’s south-east corner. It was, in its emotion and spontaneity, a fitting fans’ farewell.

Now Brighton’s opponents that day are to say farewell to their ground. On December 23 Doncaster Rovers play Nottingham Forest in the last match at Belle Vue. Home to the Rovers for 80 years, Belle Vue has survived many threats; one world war, an attempted arson, an attempted unlicensed sale and the near demise of the club, the latter three induced by a notorious former “benefactor”.

In January 1999, that “benefactor” went to prison for that arson and Rovers have not looked back since. Progress on and off the pitch has prompted Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council’s investment in the new Keepmoat Stadium. The 15,000-capacity all-seat facility will also be used by the Rovers Belles and the Lakers rugby league side.

All of which means Rovers are able to leave behind the limited seats and open terraces of Belle Vue of their own accord. However, there shall be no guerrilla gardening at Belle Vue’s last stand. Nostalgia is now a marketable commodity; you want a piece of turf? £15.95 for you guv’nor, can’t say fairer than that. Want a seat? You’ll have to go to the auction. Rovers are having an everything-must-go January sale of their own.

There are actually two reasons why the turf must be sold and not “acquired” at will. The first is due to the fact that much of the pitch is already claimed, sold to raise funds in the early 1990s. In fact some of it was bought by Paul Daniels – not a lot, but rumour has it he owns both penalty spots. The second is that the last match at Belle Vue is not actually the last match at Belle Vue.

Between Christmas and New Year, Rovers have organised a testimonial match in honour of the club’s oldest surviving captain, Brian Makepeace. On one team, a selection of Rovers “legends” with a guest appearance by Cyrille Regis. And the opposition? “For just £50 per player you get the chance to play 15 minutes on the hallowed turf.” Potential last opponents and fitting final goalscorers have been long argued among Rovers fans since the confirmation of the new stadium, yet we are now faced with the prospect of seeing the honour of the final Belle Vue goal going to Big Dazza, a plasterer from Moorends.

It is symptomatic of the times. The “Dawn of a New Era” is proving just as marketable as the previous week’s “End of an Era”. For just £10 you can have your name in the commemorative programme for the new stadium’s first game. Another £6 actually gets you a copy. If you’ve another tenner handy you can have that same programme specially signed by chairman John Ryan and placed in a “special first day cover”. Or for something more permanent, why not have your name etched on one of the stadium’s bricks for £40?

This close encounter of modern football marketing should not come as a shock. Although Rovers fans may never speak of it, Belle Vue was actually renamed the Earth Stadium some seasons ago. The club are just following suit in today’s football market where matches are “experiences” and fans are “consumers”. However, the nearer Rovers get to their goal of a Championship side in a plush all-seat stadium, the more I find myself pining for the good old days: an FA Trophy match at Ossett Town or being segregated away from the only snack-bar at Hayes. Often it seems the thrill has been very much in the chase.

From WSC 239 January 2007. What was happening this month