Arriving at the Stadium
You can recognise the classic ground-hopper a mile off. He’s come by public transport, on his own, and has intrigue on his face and a limp and aging rucksack on his back. He arrives early and walks right around the ground, both outside and in. He takes a worryingly detailed look at every nook and cranny, makes copious notes in his notebook, and takes a photo of every corner flag. I often try to engage in conversation with them, and hear their story. And let’s be honest. I’m one of them. I don’t take pictures of corner flags, but I do list all the grounds I’ve been to on www.footballgroundmap.com. Take a look some time.
There are some quality new non-league grounds around the country these days, aren’t there. Especially in the National North. Everything’s neat. Everything works. There’s even hot water taps in the gents. But don’t you find some of these stadia a little bit bland? OK, I’m jealous, yes, but I do still have a fond regard for the quirky old ones. The ones many of us regularly visited in recent years. Hitchin Town and Leighton Town come to mind. Just in case you didn’t get to any of these more classic yet eccentric venues, the experience went something like this.
It was often the depth of the puddles in the car cark that was the first indicator of what was to come. Tiptoeing my way through the mud, I would aim for the somewhat lethargic activity that was evident at two of the three turnstiles. The third one had clearly rusted up through neglect, a decade or more ago.
At this level, some football grounds are actually called stadiums, and an increasing number have adopted the name of their sponsor. So desperate are the clubs for some income, you might find yourself in something like “The Arthur ‘Plummy’ Plumb the Plumber Stadium” (I made that one up), or (and this is a real one, although I’ll save the embarrassment of Basildon United Football Club by not telling you where it is) the Ho Ho Stadium. I’m not joking. Nor are they. It’s not named after two-thirds of Father Christmas, but after their sponsor, a local Chinese Restaurant. But usually the word ‘stadium’ seems too grand a description for a patch of grass with a decaying block of 100 seats rotting by its side, all surrounded by a wall that’s just too high for the average person to see over.
‘Concession please.’ At that level, it would set me back about £7. All I could see in the murk of the turnstile kiosk was an elderly hand, and several little piles of £1 coins stacked three high; change from the £10 note that I’d set aside from my pension that week. In exchange for my £10 note, the elderly hand would silently slide one of the piles of coins towards me, and an equally elderly foot would release the catch to let me through the turnstile. Invariably I would push either too hard or too early, and have to take a step back, onto the foot of the next customer, while the process was repeated. I know. Those who have never experienced non-league football will wonder what on earth I’m talking about. But for you, my friends, those of you who join me by putting ourselves through this ritual week after week, I can see your ironic smile right now.
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...watched Ipswich Town home and away until moving to Kettering in 1983, since when I have followed Kettering Town. If I'm not watching KTFC, I tend to seek out a game on a ground I have not previously visited.
...featured in the Kettering Town match-day programmes in the 2021-22 season.
Kettering; verb. The present continuous tense of the verb 'to ketter', as in "I know I am, I'm sure I am, I'm Kettering till I die". Or, as our fans sang once on a rain-soaked open terrace in Charlton, "I'm Kettering till I dry".
We are required to be pessimists. Being a pessimist is a large part of the enjoyment.