Ground trip

Photographer Tony Davis was commissioned to take pictures of all 92 League grounds for the new national football museum in Preston. On his travels he found squalor, splendour and some terrific shopping

I’m at Deepdale, home of the national football museum, trying to arrange a trip to Blackpool to photograph Bloomfield Road. But they don’t want me. Could I come back when the ground has been knocked down and redeveloped? With only a few weeks in which to finish the project, I tell them it has to be today. A series of phone calls later, I’m on the road to Blackpool. 

On arrival, I immediately sense the reason for their embarrassment – the ground is in a terrible state, with peeling paintwork and seagull droppings spattered on seats in the home end. On an outer wall, alongside posters for a Hale and Pace show and Boogie Nights featuring Shane Ritchie, there’s a large piratical skull on a hoarding for the Coral Island restaurant featuring its Premier Meal Deal, with the final “L” changed to a “D” by a passing artist

Blackpool were supposed to have an Oyston Dome a few years ago, before the eponymous chairman was sent down. Grandiose plans have been shelved, but two new stands are to be built. There is still a sense of history here, at least. The groundsman took me to a shed under the stand where a tin bath “used by Stanley Matthews” had been installed, together with some seats from Wembley Stadium, allegedly dating back to the 1953 Cup final.

My brief for the national museum was to show the League’s grounds as they are, whatever the state of disrepair. That also meant recording the oddities that can still be found, such as the “hospitality box” at Cardiff stuck on its own above a terrace and looking like an old police control unit, or the stand at Carlisle where a row of seats stretching beyond the pitch provides a fine view of brick walls and tractor sheds but not the goalmouth. There’s the Vetch Field too, with its “Welcome to Swansea” sign surrounded by barbed wire and rubbed out graffiti and the strange stand set in a row of terraced houses with a floodlight perched wonkily on top.

Since I last toured the country taking pictures for the last edition of Simon Inglis’s Football Grounds of Britain five years ago, there has been a wave of redevelopment, with most clubs either following the horseshoe and main stand design, pioneered at Mid-­­ dles­brough, or going down the Northampton route of four identical stands. Stoke’s Britannia Stadium, basically a replica of the Riverside within a much smaller budget, feels bleak and barren, while Walsall, with its bleak exterior and rooftop car adverts (“That’ll Be The Daewoo!”) visible from the adjacent motorway, looks like a factory in Detroit.

A few clubs have been more adventurous, though, with Bolton and Reading notably learning from the design of Huddersfield’s McAlpine Stadium. Great care seems to have gone into both the look of the Bolton’s Reebok Stadium and how it functions: gaps have been filled in, ornate designs are worked into the floodlights. Reading’s Madejski Stadium is impressive, too, though it is rarely close to being full. There is a powerful sense of a corporate structure at Reading, with its car park full of Mercedes and BMWs, but the entrance to the football club itself is difficult to find. Someone in reception had to find someone else to show me around and I wondered if they had ever been to a match at the old ground or even knew much about the history of the club. Nonetheless they made sure I signed a pile of legal documents before I left.

There couldn’t be a more complete contrast than at Rochdale where the groundsman made me a cup of tea, then stood and talked about the price of beer in the local working men’s club and how Thatcher had fucked up the country: old values in an old football setting. Spotland is also a prime example of the way both codes of rugby have intruded into football grounds. A waterlogged pitch had to be repaired for the next home game after it had staged a rugby match that only took place because it was to be shown on Sky. Wigan would probably win the prize for the most dramatic change of venue, from modest Springfield Park to the splendour of the JJB Stadium, but there is a sense of the rugby club being the senior partner, with only two sides of the ground in use for football.

The biggest surprise was that even at the new out-of-town stadiums, football clubs still do not cater properly for fans arriving by car. In a lot of places, parking seems to be restricted to five-year season ticket holders. At a time when multiplex cinemas and retail parks are springing up everywhere it seems odd that football clubs haven’t yet worked out how to deal with fans arriving in units smaller than a coachload.

Clubs that have stayed put, in some cases because they couldn’t get planning permission for new sites, have had to make the best of what they’ve got. Exeter has a village feel, with the train station to one side and the club offices in a Portakabin called The Near Post, though the effect is undermined slightly by their rather plain new stands. Darlington has a similar atmosphere, though thanks to their chairman they have more money that might have been better spent – their great old barrel-roofed stand has been replaced by a basic structure with garish black, white and red seats.Among the Premier League grounds Goodison Park stands out. One of the few places to have retained an Archibald Leitch stand, it has been refurbished really well throughout, with new touches such as the blue asphalt track and a wooden rail around the perimeter of the pitch with plaques in memory of deceased fans. Newcastle is the most striking of the rebuilt grounds because it is so unusual, like two stadiums welded together. One side is like the old Cardiff Arms Park, and would have seemed like a big bowl of a ground in the 1980s. The other, with its sheer banks of seating, is more like the Bernabéu.

Among the various developments at Old Trafford, the most striking is the massive megastore behind the old Scoreboard End, which used to be a red brick wall with the Matt Busby statue and Munich 58 plaque in front. As shopping complexes go, it’s really impressive. Yet despite having spon­sors names picked out in the seats of two stands, this is surely the best stadium in Britain, with Parkhead as its only serious rival.

From WSC 170 April 2001. What was happening this month