Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Centenary Celebrations

It’s taken 17 years, a sum of money which means my bank statements are in the shredder the second they drop through the letterbox and a 500-mile round trip to Accrington on a freezing Tuesday night in January - but I’ve finally reached the 100 football grounds milestone.

From Kingsmeadow at the tender age of four to Dorchester Town’s Avenue stadium on Saturday, various fixtures and random impulses have taken me to such fantastic grounds as Stamford Bridge (more times than I care to remember), Old Trafford (more times than most Manchester United ‘fans’) and Camp Nou (more times than my dad’s credit card would appreciate!).

But it’s not all been glitz and glamour with – no offence to the following – the Dorking’s decrepit Meadowbank, Ringwood Town’s Canotec Stadium and Wembley (Vale Farm, before you ask) also making the list.

As well as holding my helmet and bat aloft in celebration, I’ve also decided to mark the occasion with a mini awards ceremony.

Best Pre-Match Drinking Facilities

Nominations: Oakwell (Barnsley), The War Memorial Sports Ground (Carshalton Athletic), Stonebridge Road (Ebbsfleet United)

Winner: Oakwell (Barnsley)

Let's begin with the most important category! Although it has no bearing on later categories (namely 'Best Ground')! Despite being shepherded into a leisure centre sports hall selling cans of beer on arrival, we eventually escaped to a very quaint (not to mention reasonably priced!) pub not far from the ground. With a mixture of home and visiting fans enjoying the hospitality, a great atmosphere began building with banter flying backwards and forwards. It all seemed very typical of south Yorkshire and certainly added to the experience of the trip.

Worst Pre-Match Drinking Facilities

Nominations: Priory Lane (Eastbourne Borough - despite boasting probably the best bar in non-league football), Pride Park (Derby County), Crown Ground (Accrington Stanley)

Winner: Pride Park (Derby County)

A 'new ground' in the middle of nowhere, offering little in terms of pre-match beverage facilities except a Frankie and Benny's opposite - which we all piled into, much to the delight of the unsuspecting diners! Needless to say, it was soon 'ram'-packed, with no-one able to get to the bar and people spilling onto the pavement outside for oxygen. Maybe home fans would have a better idea of where to go, but for the average away fan, a ground with a selection of local amenities, where natives and visitors can enjoy some pre-match banter is far more appealing.

Best Food

Nominations: New Lodge (Billericay Town), Atspeed Stadium (Horsham), Wheatsheaf Park (Staines Town)

Winner: New Lodge (Billericay Town)

Whilst many a non-league fan will fight the corner of Thurrock's 'Fleet Burger', I've yet to have the pleasure, although had I managed to make the trip through the Dartford Tunnel, it would take an amazing piece of culinary skill to beat Billericay's steak baguettes. This mouth-watering prospect - available in a variety of forms, including with onions, mushrooms or even fried eggs, causes fans of clubs throughout the Ryman Premier League to hunt frantically for their side's away trip to New Lodge when the fixtures are released each year. And it's well worth the trip...and starving youself for a week ahead of the game to feast upon one at half time and maybe even a cheeky one through a dull and dreary second-half.

Best Atmosphere

Nominations: War Memorial Sports Ground (Carshalton Athletic), Selhurst Park (Crystal Palace), Old Trafford (Manchester United)

Winner: Old Trafford (Manchester United)

As much as it pains me to say it, on each occasion I've been to Old Trafford the atmosphere has been outstanding, both in terms of volume and humour. With the capacity of the ground, this shouldn't be a surprise, but with the 'big clubs' you never really know what to expect, especially with so many foreign visitors and 'once-a-season' supporters crawling out of the woodwork. But credit to the real Manchester United faithful, they do generate a great atmosphere and their unity is evident with the amount of green and yellow on view at games.

Worst Atmosphere

Nominations: Gander Green Lane (Sutton United), Camp Nou (Barcelona), The Pilot Field (Hastings United)

Winner: Camp Nou (Barcelona)

A crazy suggestion to some, with a collosal capacity of 99, 354 the Barca faithful must be able to generate some noise...and boy do they! But for the away fans, hoisted up in the Gods with the players below resembling little more than Subbuteo figures, it's next to impossible to make yourselves heard. And only one set of visibly (well...to the ears...) vocal fans doesn't equate to much of an 'atmosphere', unlike grounds where supporters engage in a battle of volume and wits to act as that all imporant and clich├ęd 'twelfth man'.

Best Design

Nominations: Millennium Stadium, Griffin Park (Brentford), The New Defence (Horley Town)

Winner: Griffin Park (Brentford)

A pub on each corner you say? That'll do for me!

Worst Design

Nominations: Princes Park (Dartford), Imperial Fields (Tooting and Mitcham United), Wembley Stadium (New)

Winner: Imperial Fields (Tooting and Mitcham United)

Having sold their old Sandy Lane ground and purchasing land previously used as both Chelsea's and Crystal Palace's training ground, the opportunity to spend their finances wisely and build something impressive from scratch was there for the taking. But sadly it slipped through the architect's grasp. Firstly, the main stand looks like it's been put together with leftover bricks from James May's life-size Lego house. But instead of being bright and welcoming, the whole ground is just a big monotone monstrosity. The opposite side to the main stand is very narrow, despite stretching the length of the touchline and behind the goals are 'coverings' - I use the term loosely - which helpfully have no back, sides or even roof. Go figure.

Best Ground

Nominations: Oakwell (Barnsley), Mestalla (Valencia), Stamford Bridge (Chelsea)

Winner: Oakwell (Barnsley)

With Camp Nou, the Mestalla and the Luzhniki Stadium all making my centenary list, Barnsley's modest offering may seem like an odd selection. But on my one visit to Oakwell, despite the result (a 1-0 win against Chelsea in the FA Cup), though probably aided by the cheap northern beer on offer, I completely fell in love with the place. Brimming with character and a real example of an old-school ground of hard knocks, Oakwell is a fine showground for how stadiums should be - not this Ikea flatpack style creeping in now (see Pride Park, St Mary's and even the likes of Wheatsheaf Park in the non-league game). Take a bow Barnsley and don't let the fame change you!

Worst Ground

Nominations: Pride Park (Derby County), Melbourne Stadium (Chelmsford City), the Withdean (Brighton and Hove Albion)

Winner: The Withdean (Brighton and Hove Albion)

A very peculiar ground that offers absolutely nothing, not even a roof (I'll come back to that in a minute). Now admittedly I've been regularly spoiled with trips to top flight grounds around Europe, with superb facilities both inside and outside the ground, especially Stamford Bridge with 'Chelsea Village'. But the Withdean's surroundings are shockingly poor and certainly set the scene for when you go through the turnstiles. The athletics track I was prepared for, but perhaps i should have paid closer attention the the Football League Show on a Saturday night to realise what i was letting myself in for. My experience may have been tainted a bit (ok, a lot) by the fact that it pissed it down for 90 minutes plus and we were in a stand with no roof, surrounded by well-versed folks in waterproof dresses. But the disjointed stands, with the away end seemingly stuck out in the middle of nowhere, and the distance from the pitch thanks to the athletics track certainly didn't help matters. At least I can say I've been...and survived...

And special mentions for...

The Avenue (Dorchester Town), Lodge Road (Yate Town), Fratton Park (Portsmouth), The Dripping Pan (Lewes) and Dean Court (AFC Bournemouth)

The full 100 is as follows:

1. Accrington Stanley – Crown Ground
2. AFC Bournemouth - Dean Court (Fitness First Stadium)
3. AFC Hornchurch – The Stadium
4. Aldershot Town – The Rec
5. Andover – The Portway Stadium
6. Arsenal – Highbury
7. Ashford Town (Kent) - Homelands
8. Ashford Town (Mx) – Short Lane Stadium
9. Aston Villa – Villa Park
10. Aveley – Mill Field
11. Barcelona – Nou Camp
12. Barnsley – Oakwell
13. Bexhill United – The Polegrove
14. Billericay Town – New Lodge
15. Bishop’s Stortford – Woodside Park
16. Bognor Regis Town – Nyewood Lane
17. Boreham Wood – Meadow Park
18. Brentford – Griffin Park
19. Brighton and Hove Albion – The Withdean
20. Bromley – Hayes Lane
21. Canvey Island – Park Lane
22. Cambridge City – The City Ground
23. Cambridge United – The Abbey Stadium
24. Carshalton Athletic – War Memorial Sports Ground
25. Charlton Athletic – The Valley
26. Chelmsford City – Melbourne Stadium
27. Chelsea – Stamford Bridge
28. Chipstead – High Road
29. Crawley Town – Broadfield Stadium
30. Crystal Palace – Selhurst Park
31. Dartford – Princes Park
32. Derby County – Pride Park
33. Dorchester Town – The Avenue
34. Dorking - Meadowbank
35. Dover Athletic – The Crabble
36. Eastbourne Borough – Priory Lane
37. Eastbourne Town – The Saffrons
38. Eastbourne United – The Oval
39. East Thurrock United – Rookery Hill
40. Ebbsfleet United – Stonebridge Road
41. Fareham Town – Cams Alders
42. Folkestone Invicta – The Buzzlines Stadium
43. Fulham – Craven Cottage
44. Harlow Town – Barrows Farm
45. Harrow Borough – Earlsmead Stadium
46. Hassocks – The Beacon
47. Hastings United – The Pilot Field
48. Havant and Waterlooville – Westleigh Park
49. Haywards Heath Town – Hanbury Park
50. Heybridge Swifts – Scraley Road
51. Hitchin Town – Top Field
52. Horley Town – The New Defence
53. Horsham – Atspeed Stadium
54. Horsham YMCA – Gorings Mead
55. Kingstonian – Kingsmeadow
56. Knaphill – Redding Way
57. Leatherhead – Fetcham Grove
58. Lewes – The Dripping Pan
59. Leyton – Leabridge Road
60. Littlehampton Town – The Sportsfield
61. London Colney – Cotlandswick Playing Fields
62. Luzhniki Stadium - (Torpedo Moscow)
63. Maidenhead United – York Road
64. Manchester United – Old Trafford
65. Margate – Hartsdown Park
66. Merstham – Weldon Way
67. Metropolitan Police – Imber Court
68. Millennium Stadium
69. Northwood – Northwood Park
70. Ramsgate – Southwood
71. Raynes Park Vale – Grand Drive
72. Reading Town – Scours Lane
73. Redhill – Kiln Brow
74. Ringwood Town - Canotec Stadium
75. Poole Town - Tatnam
76. Portsmouth – Fratton Park
77. Preston North End - Deepdale
78. Seaford Town – The Crouch
79. Sittingbourne – Bourne Park
80. Southampton - St Mary’s
81. Staines Town – Wheatsheaf Park
82. Sutton United – Borough Sports Ground
83. Three Bridges – Jubilee Field
84. Tonbridge Angels – Longmead Stadium
85. Tooting and Mitcham United – Imperial Fields
86. Valencia – Mestalla
87. Walton and Hersham – Stompond Lane
88. Walton Casuals – Franklyn Road Sports Ground
89. Watford – Vicarage Road
90. Wealdstone - Grosvenor Vale
91. Welling United – Park View Road
92. Wembley (Old)
93. Wembley (New)
94. Wembley – Vale Farm
95. Weymouth - ‘The’ Wessex Stadium
96. Whyteleafe – Church Road
97. Woking – Kingfield
98. Worthing – Woodside Road
99. Yate Town – Lodge Road
100.Yeading – The Warren