With the fixtures out and a little under a month until the new Football League season gets under way, fans up and down the country will be cursing the fixtures computer for giving their team a Tuesday night in November trip to Torquay, Blackpool or Bournemouth, when you were hoping for a seaside bank holiday weekend with the lads. Maybe the local derby you've been looking forward to is the same day as a family members wedding - there are no doubt many people to whom that would be a genuine dilemma, not for me though, hopefully the police would bring forward the kick off time and I would still be able to make the meal and the reception on the evening, providing we won, of course.
Recently, me and a couple of friends were mulling over the fixtures list, and inevitably, in the ensuing conversation many a sentence began with the "I remember when we went there the other year..." and a grand tale or scare story usually followed. Shortly after, we started comparing our worst experiences following our respective teams around the country and it wasn't long before the subject of the worst stadiums we had been to were drawn up, grounds past and present were thrown into the debate - all for various reasons, so what makes a ground truly rubbish?
One of my friends got the ball rolling by nominating Hereford United's Edgar Street, saying that visiting the Bulls home since 1924 was akin to getting into a time machine and sending yourself back to the early 80's. I couldn't really argue with that, most of the stands and terraces were built in the 70's and the less I say about the toilets in the away end, the better, but I would never say that any of these things would make it my "worst" away day. I enjoy trips to Hereford, even if it is charm is purely retro.
The team I support, Bristol Rovers, play their home matches at The Memorial Stadium, purchased from Bristol Rugby Club in 1998. I really struggled to argue a case for the ground itself not to be nominated as the worst. Built by the rugby club, we have a a stand resembling a cricket pavilion on one side, a shed with a canvas roof at one end and an uncovered away terrace, it would seem that there are plenty of reasons why Rovers' home could top the list of away days to avoid. There are, however, also plenty of pubs nearby and a decent pasty is served inside the ground, enough to keep "The Mem" off of the top of our list of grounds you never want to go to ever again.
Then again it all depends of what you are used to as a fan. If you are used to going to Old Trafford, St James Park and Stamford Bridge you might look at Championship Stadiums like Watford's Vicarage Road or Crystal Palace's Selhurt Park with a raised eyebrow whilst throughout the lower divisions, there are plenty of small grounds that host the teams of Dagenham, Accrington, Barnet and Crawley, but you can't really criticise a team that gets average gates of around the two thousand mark for not playing in fancy surroundings, the last thing anybody wants to see is another club suffer the same fate as Darlington.
Going to the Darlington Arena was a very strange experience, a thirty thousand capacity, modern all seater stadium less than one tenth full. The fans were sparse and the atmosphere muted, the venue would eventually prove to be a ball and chain around the neck of the Quakers, dragging the club into both footballing and financial obscurity. After months of fighting off insolvency Darlington Football Club finally ceased to exist last month after being relegated from the Blue Square Premier League, whether or not they would be in better shape had they stayed at the old Feethams ground is something we will never know, but I know that I would prefer to see clubs survive at grounds that some would deem inadequate than die chasing an impossible dream.
It was after we raised the subject of Darlington, that we turned our attentions to the generic new stadiums popping up around the league. I have nothing against new stadiums in principle and, my favourite type of grounds are the old ones that get redeveloped over the years and keep their sense of history and uniqueness, yet still offer supporters a comfortable experience, Wolverhampton Wanderer's Molineux is a prime example of this. Of the newer stadiums built from scratch Bolton's Reebok has a striking design that sets it apart from the rest, with its crescent shaped stands and canopy style roof it is at least interesting to look at even if the football isn't.
The ground that I finally settled on as my least favourite actually turned out to be several. Starting with the Riverside Stadium, almost every single new stadium built in this country for the last 15 years has followed an almost identical design. What is different about St Mary's and the Walkers Stadium other than the colour of the seats? The same can be said of the grounds of Reading, Derby, Cardiff, Swansea and MK Dons amongst others.
Not only are these grounds identical in design, but they are almost always on the outskirts of town, located conveniently just off of a motorway junction. The closest and sometimes only place for fans to drink or eat before a game turns out to be a bowling alley or chain restaurant, places where the banter associated with football supporters is not usually appreciated, especially when there is a twelve year old's birthday party happening just across the room.
I appreciate that clubs need to build modern, multi use stadiums in order to get into the Premier League and generate non match day revenue streams in order to survive, but as an away fan I would take going to Filbert Street or The Baseball Ground over their replacements any day. There are some new stadiums I really like the look of, Hull and Brighton have both built unique grounds rather than just seemingly getting a mail order flat packed stadium, identical to the stadium you went to last week. There is rarely much individual charm to these identical stadia, even less when they are only half full.
Maybe, given time, the designs of today will become as iconic to future generations as Archibald Leitch's famous designs. A lot of his work is still there for all to see, Ibrox, Craven Cottage and Goodison Park all have stands that at the time of building, were also considered to be functional as opposed to aesthetically pleasing, yet they have stood the test of time for almost 100 years, even after the Taylor Report demanded massive changes in football stadiums post Hillsborough.
Those future generations however, will never get to know what it was like to stand at a game, nor will they experience things like a rain soaked afternoon at Doncaster's old Belle Vue Ground. For me, those experiences were all part of the fun. I have great memories from away days at town centre stadiums that were easy to get to by road or rail, surrounded by pubs with a real atmosphere inside the ground. There was the excitement of seeing the floodlight pylons rise above surrounding buildings as you arrived at the ground after a couple of hours on a coach and the sights, sounds and smells that went along with these lost cathedrals of football. These days a Stadium could be mistaken for an out of town shopping centre from a distance, and there is no way any self respecting football fan wants to go anywhere near one of those on a Saturday afternoon!
Obviously there is a need to build a more comfortable, profitable stadium of the future but I wish clubs would show a bit more imagination when embarking on building projects. Nobody wants to go back to the days of unsafe stadia or grounds that instead of urinals just had a wall with a gutter cut into the floor, however enough of the game's identity and history is being lost with foreign owners and players, new worldwide TV audiences and the massive pressure to succeed when so much money is at stake, that it would be nice if the stadiums at least were individual to their owners.
So basically, in my eyes new stadiums are the worst stadiums that I've ever been to.
Although saying that, Swansea's old Vetch Field was pretty bad...