Lost forever

Ian Plenderleith examines a selection of websites that remember stadiums from football's past

There’s an online version of a book filled with aerial pictures of Lost Football Stadiums that shows a bird’s eye view on the sites of demolished grounds. Some are shockingly prosaic views of housing projects, industrial estates and supermarkets. To many of us, it seems like sacrilege not just to demolish a ground, but also to leave little or no evidence that it ever existed. Scunthorpe’s Old Showground is nothing but a memorial brick in a wall, while the flats of Leicester’s Filbert Village no more resemble a rural settlement then they do a former football stadium. The preservation of Highbury’s façade is an honourable exception.

Down at ground level, though, it’s a depressing experience to wander along the aisles of, say, Sainsbury’s in Scunthorpe, trying to imagine that right here by the stacks of Special K was the spot where Vince Grimes once regularly displayed his gargantuan talents. According to the website: “The site of the centre-spot was highlighted by a plaque in front of the delicatessen counter (however this was later removed and all that remains of the site’s former use is a plaque by the entrance).” Were the meat slicers haunted by the sounds of a referee’s whistle and the scrape of studs on thigh? Or were there just too many sad-eyed nostalgists standing in front of the honey roasted ham simulating the knock forward of an imaginary ball instead of ordering 12 ounces of Emmenthal?

One of the eeriest settings for a ghost ground is at Stoke City’s former Victoria Ground, which has remained unused in almost 12 years since demolition, to the ongoing chagrin of Stoke fans. One of them, Gareth Cooper, has written an entire website devoted to the venue – The Victoria Ground. Another, David Barker, decided to move on to the land this past January, reasoning that the law of adverse possession would allow him to own it after ten years if he stayed the decade and improved the land, which he began doing by picking up litter. The downside was that he had to live in a tent, and following the mysterious burning down of his shelter (Barker was not inside), the temporary tenant vacated the land, scotching his scheme to donate the land to the city for conversion into a public park.

The property company that now owns the site, St Modwen, “the UK’s leading regeneration specialist”, claims on its website that it is “continually mindful of the impact of our developments on the communities in which we operate”. Mike Herbert, the company’s regional director, said its plans for “a residential-led scheme” – which was put on ice late last year because of the recession – allowed “for certain features to be incorporated into selected properties, in order to commemorate the sporting heritage”. Which could turn out to be either 60-foot kids’ climbing frames modelled on the original floodlights, or the token plaque in an outer wall.

Meanwhile, Tottenham Hotspur fan Jim Tuite has founded a site to preserve part of the club’s physical history in the light of recently announced plans to tear down White Hart Lane and build it anew. Tuite’s not opposed to that at all, but just wants to Save The Red House close to the ground’s entrance that for 60 years served as Tottenham’s main headquarters and postal address, 748 High Road.

The club’s blueprint for the future contains no space for the Red House. It would be replaced by… open space. The architect himself told a public meeting that the Red House would block “a vital exit point”, although the plans don’t back up that claim. Then the justification was amended to say that such an old building would spoil the view of the spanking new stadium. Which sounds more honest, at least, just like the spokesman quoted by the site as saying: “Having the Red House sitting there by itself would just look stupid.”

The site has a better idea: “Tottenham propose incorporating a museum into their proposals, one that will surely house many pictures of the Red House. Could not the Red House be incorporated into a club museum?” If you agree that a shiny new vision should include more than a nod to the past, check out the site and write to the club.

If campaigning for lost causes in football’s corporate age becomes too depressing, at least there are sites that will cater to your wistful wallowing. Tim Rigby’s Tim’s 92 site is the kind of rigorous documentation of current league grounds that you’d expect from a conscientious groundhopper, but he also takes the trouble to check out ground graveyards when he’s on his travels – you can see here, for example, the above-mentioned desultory plaque at Sainsbury’s commemorating The Old Showground, or the no-thrills sign that marks the beginning of Lineker Street. Better still are his shots of Darlington’s charming but vandalised former home, Feethams, just days before it was demolished, and Arnold Town’s now sadly extinct Gedling Road ground.

Other alternatives include cyber-flights around the country courtesy of the addictive Google Earth, or Old Football Grounds, an offshoot of Duncan Adams’s much-lauded Football Ground Guide websites. This features not just dismantled grounds, but stands too, such as Crewe’s Popular Stand and its precarious press box. On the site of Huddersfield’s Leeds Road, there’s now just a brass plaque in the tarmac of a retail estate to mark the centre spot. With the exception of that stadium’s impressive successor, uniform functionality is eradicating character in stadium and stand design, but for those who can’t help themselves from looking back, the internet has become the most accessible resting home for the game’s extinct structures.

From WSC 267 May 2009