John Russell writes about modern traditions as seen from an endangered viewpoint.
Given all the jiggery-pokery surrounding the building of the North Stand in 1977 one wonders what ghosts will be discovered beneath the foundations when it is demolished, as surely it will be, in a few months time. Nearly half a century on and despite a police investigation no-one is quite certain who paid who for what or who actually laid brick on brick.
Unlike the old Trinity Road stand which was officially declared open by a monarch, royalty was not invited to soil its regal gloves by laying a foundation stone or pulling the drawstrings to unveil a celebratory plaque, which is odd because at the time the North Stand was described as offering “the best view in football”. It saw its first spectators almost unannounced on 27th August 1977 for the game against Everton but the day passed without any of the ceremony normally associated with such occasions, not even in the match programme.
The stand reportedly cost a mere one million pounds and was built in a record time – just eight months from pouring the first concrete to topping out. Though it does not do to mention that between October 2005 and April 2006 in St Louis, Missouri they demolished a complete fifty thousand seater stadium at the end of one season and replaced it with a like for like stadium for the start of the following season.
It was another two months before the Villa even deigned to mention their new stand in the programme. This is perhaps understandable because in those intervening two months all the teething problems with the new structure came to the fore and to this day they have been impossible to resolve, hence the impending demolition which no-one will mourn, except possibly me as it undoubtedly means the loss of my front row seat.
I can indirectly thank Doug Ellis for this. When they were forced to create a temporary directors box in the North Stand following the sad demise of the majestic Trinity Road I was obliged to abdicate my second row seat and due to be relegated way up near the back of the North Stand. Result was that Steve Stride agreed to meet me one sunny July morning to discuss where I was to move to. I took with me a brief copy of my Villa exploits in the hopes that these would appeal to his good nature. Sure enough, having arrived home two hours later I immediately received a phone call from Steve saying how impressed he had been with our meeting and the article and he had found a place for me on the front row. Thus I have since been able to enjoy an uninterrupted view of the action ever since.
The problem with the North Stand is that there is absolutely no room to move about once inside, so I have generally made a habit of not entering the ground until fifteen minutes before kick-off. Not unlike days of yore when the players used to mingle with the fans outside the ground until someone blew a mythical whistle with thirty minutes to go and everyone retreated to wherever.
Having struggled to get in through the turnstiles you are faced immediately with a flight of concrete steps. The stand is not disability friendly, there are no lifts. In recent times I have become increasingly bored of waiting around outside now that there is no H&V seller to chat to and find myself going in earlier and earlier. I have solved the problem of the overcrowded gallery by stopping to rest at the first landing at the top of the first flight of steps. Here I discretely open my wallet and stow my season ticket away safely and make my tickets easily accessible for the fraught journey home. But with no rush to take my seat I now find myself leaning on the handrail and concrete wall for a few minutes watching my fellow supporters arriving.
I have become fascinated by the large number of pre-teens who come bounding up the stairs busting with excitement at what they hope they are about to see. Similar to me seven decades ago and I would like to think that at least one of them will be writing about the experience in the decades to come.
The number of women taking their place also surprises me. They must all sit towards the back because there are none in my immediate vicinity. Then there are the middle-aged, most of whom tend to ignore me and look away seeming to view me with an air of suspicion wondering perhaps why anyone would stand there merely watching the early arrivals and why. Finally there are those closer to my age group, for whom climbing the steps in an act of monumental effort. These are the folks who will occasionally give me a nod or a smile as I congratulate them on their achievement so far and try to encourage them to further effort. They are still only halfway to their seat, after all. They then have to force themselves into a narrow corridor and the maelstrom at the top of the steps amongst those for whom no match is complete without the ubiquitous meat pie.
If all this time they have been desperate for the facilities they will find some toilets which even the French would consider antiquarian but which those at the Fenway Park, Boston might consider the height of luxury. Forcing ones way past those irregulars who are uncertain about which way to their seat, it is time to climb the final set of steps to paradise.
Sadly, the scene before you lacks the sensation you get as you cast eyes on the expansive empty greensward at Citi Field or wherever. Mainly because there are so many people on the pitch. I have taken to counting them and the record to date is 62. Actually on the field that is, those on the track that is don’t count.
Villa players always occupy the Aston end so seeing them twenty times a year I give nary a glance as they run about or not, doing whatever pointless exercises they now deem necessary preparation for the task ahead. I concentrate on those directly in front of me because I am likely to get to see them only once a year.
It is fascinating to see how different teams go about their business. Some are overseen by a man acting like my old gym master at school. Some hold impromptu five a side games, others shooting practice But all in various degrees of disorganisation or togetherness.
Next is the amusement caused as the groundstaff wrestle with second set of goalposts and nets which they hope the players will use to protect the precious turf. Some visiting goalkeepers still prefer to use the proper thing so that they get an accurate sighting of the background. Then with nearly ten minutes remaining to kick-off time the players suddenly disappear se to at best muted applause. One visiting player invariably insists on kicking a ball into an untenanted net to the annoyance of the ball boy or whoever is responsible for gathering them all in a sack.
The players’ disappearance is replaced with an air of expectation before they re-enter the arena as though for the first time, to thunderous applause and incomprehensible music But unlike the times when players used to dash onto the field with enthusiasm they now seem constrained with having to walk out, albeit casually and sometimes self-consciously accompanied by children whose parents have paid the club for the privilege of a once in a lifetime treat to be able to say they have trodden the sacred turf. Lately some strange flags have started to appear around the periphery, presumably for the benefit of the television audience at home because if they are an attempt to create some sort of American atmosphere for the fans then the instigators of this flag waving have never been to America.
The players are then obliged to shake hands with their opponents or not as the case may have been. Whereupon they hang around like lost sheep because they have long since been denied the use of a ball to kick about whilst the two captains and the officials get to exchange pleasantries.