Mark Sanderson describes how Southampton's former home has been replaced by flats but their fans have fond memories, and vivid imaginations
Ten years have passed since The Dell was demolished. My memories of watching Southampton play there are based on just how close supporters were to the pitch. I remember being in the front row of the East Stand, as Liverpool's Steve Nicol prepared to take a throw-in, realising I was only an arm's length from yanking down his grey shorts.
In nearby Bedford Place, a yellow signpost still points defiantly to The Dell's whereabouts, but anyone wishing to make a pilgrimage to where it once stood will find very few clues to the place ever having existed. It is now a residential area of houses and flats. Living there myself, I understand how even fellow residents could be forgiven for not knowing they live on what was a quintessential British football ground.
While the different blocks of housing are named after former club stalwarts (Ted Bates, Mick Channon, Matt Le Tissier, Bobby Stokes and Danny Wallace), the only physical reminder of the past hangs above the communal entrance to the lifts in both Channon and Wallace Courts, in the form of a photograph.
In it, James Beattie is in hot pursuit of Le Tissier, just after the latter had scored a late winning goal against Arsenal in the final competitive match at The Dell. The picture in Channon Court has been exposed to almost a decade of sunlight, leaving Matt's complexion looking a bit jaundiced.
Alongside Matt are two more photographs. One is a slightly blurred aerial shot of the ground, taken sometime after plastic seats replaced the terraces in the early 1990s, the other is a black and white picture of a match from the late 19th century. The identity of the players in that match is as big a mystery to me as Beattie would be to those with no interest in football. Seeing as the pictures are not annotated this question remains sadly unanswered.
Flats occupy the Milton and Archers Road ends behind where the goalposts stood, while rows of town houses stand in place of the East and West stands. The grass has been replaced by a car park. In its centre – where the halfway line would have been – there is a small patch of grass and a concrete wall, which is indented with the soles of football boots. I have often seen people studying the shallow stud marks in that wall, as though trying to fathom some form of hieroglyphics.
The motif has always struck me as a confusing afterthought from Barratt Homes who built the complex, not that they were under any obligation to make the site into a shrine to The Dell. That said, at a time when some (in these pages at least) hanker for a past that has pretty much disappeared, it seems an opportunity to commemorate how football was watched for the majority of the 20th century has been missed.
All that is left of The Dell is memories. Solace can be found in the pages of Hagiology Publishing's collection of books on Southampton, which all offer an almost infinite amount of detail on the club. Sadly, that isn't always enough for me. I suppose it's quite reasonable for the residents of 102 Wallace Court to see a stationary Peugeot 206 in their allocated parking space, but to me, this is the spot where Jimmy Case drilled home from long distance in a pre-season friendly against Soviet opposition, Dnepr.
Sometimes these vivid memories of the past get the better of me. From my estimations, when sat on my toilet, my head is in line with the trajectory of Barry Horne's last-minute 40-yarder past Bolton Wanderers' David Felgate in the 1992 FA Cup fifth round replay. I shared this morsel with one of my neighbours, who no longer seems keen to talk to me in the three years since I first brought it up with him.
Of course, Southampton had to move on from The Dell and now play in a wonderful stadium, very close to the area of the city in which they began life. However, if there really is a demand for Southampton's private guided tours to dedicate a walk solely to Isaac Watts, one of England's first and most prolific hymn writers, perhaps the time will come for them to include the place where thousands of people regularly congregated for 103 years, to watch football in the kind of environment that is fast becoming history.
From WSC 296 October 2011