Wednesday, 10 January 2018

100 Grounds Down- The Pint of Football Story... SO FAR!

100 Grounds Down- The Pint of Football Story... SO FAR!

Now that I've made it to 100 grounds, I have decided to do an almighty review of the best bits to date. Within my opening century there have been a large variety of stadiums taken in from up and down the country, as well as in Ireland, Scotland and Spain. From checking out the country's top grounds such as Wembley and Old Trafford, to many a local non-league venture and plenty of away days as a Macclesfield Town fan, I really have been lucky in my love of groundhopping. Within this summary, I'm going to share the lowdown on my first ground visit at the start of the decade, before attempting to reveal a bit about my favourite ten trips to some really great places. This "Pint of Football Top Ten" list is based on many factors such as match day experience, match entertainment, the fans on display and of course the quality of the ground itself. So without further delay, I hope you enjoy reading the recap of how my love of the beautiful game has blossomed into a borderline obsession for standing in the elements looking at rickety pieces of terraced stands and dodgy pieces of footballing hilarity.

Let Me Tell You About My 1st Time

Back in 2010, before the groundhopping concept of 'Pint of Football' was even alive, I moved away from my hometown in East Yorkshire in pursuit of a degree in Stoke-on-Trent. It was during the first visit of fellow Flamborian Will that we decided we would make the most of being in the Midlands and so we headed on over to Stoke train station to see where the day would take us. Knowing that we had two options locally, Macc vs Burton or Crewe vs Vale, we took the advice of the ticket salesman who said that he wouldn't recommend Gresty Road- how different things could have been. To cut a long-story short, we made the trip to Moss Rose and it was on that fateful afternoon that we would fall in love with the Silkmen. A thrilling encounter saw Hamza Bencherif, now a sixth-tier defender with York City, score a brilliant double to give Macc the three points and on my first trip to a live game (excluding the many grounds I've played at back in Bridlington and surrounding area) I was well and truly hooked.

*Disclaimer- I have excluded Moss Rose from my 'PoF Top Ten', because it would obviously be number 1!

Let Me Tell You About My 5th Time

Skip forward to 2013 and as my time at Uni came to an end I was lucky enough to be offered free tickets to the FA Cup Semi-Final bout between Millwall and Wigan Athletic. Having been to only four Football League grounds over three years, in the shape of Moss Rose, Hull City's KC Stadium, Stoke City's Britannia Stadium and Roots Hall in Southend, it seems obvious that my first experience of our national stadium sits long in the memory and is a great way to start off my "PoF Top Ten". Then Premier League Wigan Athletic took down Millwall on this occasion but ultimately the thing that made the match special for me was the fact that I sat in the luxurious "Club Wembley" seats just behind the goal. True enough the other Semi-Final bout between Chelsea and Man City would have been a more thrilling encounter to behold, but just the feeling of walking out into the stadium was enough of a thrill for me and I have been lucky enough to be able to soak in that same atmosphere on three more occasions for a couple of Non-League Finals Days and also a Conference Playoff Final between Bristol Rovers and Grimsby Town. My latest visit to Wembley was the most emotionally draining, as I watched my own Silkmen lose a very tense game to York City in the FA Trophy Final- but that still won't stop it from sitting high in all my all-time faves list.

Let Me Tell You About My 13th Time
In 2015 I decided to follow in the footsteps of my good friend and fellow football fanatic Tom, aka 'Partizan Bristle', in writing a groundhopping Blog in an attempt to offer a humorous but fair view on my trips to grounds. I got the inspiration to start up Blogging whilst at my seventh ground, Estadi de Son Moix in Mallorca, and I often tell people about the thrills and spills of that day in Palma. Was it not for laziness I would have started up my 'Pint of Football' career at my eighth ground as I went to Crewe Alex's Gresty Road for a weird International Friendly fixture between Qatar and Northern Ireland, but after missing out on a write-up of this 1-1 draw, I finally decided to take the plunge and did my first entry at ground number 9- Palmerston Park. I started off the 2015/16 Season by checking off some local grounds such as Vale Park and the Wood Park Stadium in Alsager, but it wasn't until my debut trip to The Novus Stadium that I got into my real stride. To some folk this will seem like an odd inclusion to my "PoF Top Ten", but I think that most hoppers will agree that there is always that one local ground that you love for some unexplained reason. For me Kidsgrove Athletic's home is that ground for me and with the scene set for my first of many Evo-Stik First Division South venues, I still don't think I've come across a better one since. Hosting a friendly filling of fans, a cosy and atmospheric bar, I took in the Kidsgrove air and saw the hosts dominate their West Midlands opposition. On the field the Grove boasted big names at this level, with Ant Malbon and Nick Wellecomme playing very well, but for me the equally memorable Cliff and Bry sat beside me in the stand made the evening a thrilling one. It certainly isn't the best ground you'll see in England or even the Non-League pyramid, but this hidden gem has left me keeping an eye on the progress of the Northern Stoke outfit- UP THE GROVE!

Let Me Tell You About My 17th Time
One of the marvels of watching non-league football is that you may be lucky enough to dig up some ex-Premier League pros and this one truly brought out a couple of beasts from the vault. This game wasn't all about the legendary figures of Deon Burton and Marlon Harewood though and with 'Partizan Bristle' through for the weekend we followed-up our trip to Marston Road, a ground that just missed out on the top ten, by making the trip to Kidderminster for a National League North match between ground-sharing Worcester City and Nuneaton Town. For anyone who hasn't visited Aggborough before, I would certainly put this one in the category of "must see" before Kiddy move out. As well as being a stunning ground for this level, with an immaculate clubhouse and the best food you'll find served from a football ground food hatch, the pitch was also top notch and I'd go as far as to say that I'm amazed anybody would want to leave. Although it wasn't the Harriers in action on the Sunday of our visit, we were still looking forward to seeing how Worcester City would get on at what remains my only National League North fixture so far. The game itself was not the most exciting in terms of footballing mastery, but neither of us will ever forget the entertainment that the game brought thanks to refereeing super-villain Darren Strain. The match official for the day made several ludicrous calls throughout Nuneaton's 1-0 away win and for the only time I can ever recall as a neutral, I actually waited by the tunnel at the end to hurl abuse at the man with the whistle. As a complete match day experience, it is probably easy to get an impression of why Aggborough is in my "PoF Top Ten" and I think the only way I could've improved my opinion of the ground is if I'd sampled one of those luscious pies!

Let Me Tell You About My 19th Time
There really is nothing better than an FA Cup away day. In any other circumstance, a 500-mile round trip for a 90 minute event would be an unacceptable concept to me, yet there I was on the coach from Moss Rose at 8am heading to Portsmouth in search of one of England's most famous grounds. To say that Pompey have seen it all is an understatement and having gone from Premier League and UEFA Cup highs to League Two lows very quickly, there are thousands of fans from around the country that have managed to tick this one off the grounds list. I remember watching Channel 5's coverage of Portsmouth vs AC Milan a few years ago and since starting my sight-seeing ventures around the grounds I knew I'd have to make it down to Hampshire at some point. Fratton Park may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I was clearly a big fan and there was a lot to admire at this old ground. Just like the city itself, Portsmouth's ground is an old-school blend of historic beauty with grubby undertones and if you add to that a busy crowd then you get the ultimate visiting supporter experience. As three bus loads of Macc fans piled out and made tracks for nearby pubs, I was very glad to eventually find myself in a feisty pub filled with both sets of fans sharing a pint with a full blue complement. As 3pm rolled around we made it in for the main event and although Macc couldn't quite cause the shock we'd hoped for, we couldn't argue with the effort of the lads. Super striker Kris Dennis scored a bit of a fluke for us and Adam McGurk managed 33% of his total goals for Pompey in one match, but ultimately the hosts did enough for a decent win which made the near 6-hour ride back to Macclesfield a disheartened one. Either way though, this ground does go down as a very highly-ranked one in the 'PoF Top Ten'. 

Let Me Tell You About My 28th Time
When it comes to Salford City there are two prevailing opinions that you are supposed to choose between. You are either a Man U mega fan who thinks the Class of '92 are the salt of the earth, or you are a footballing purest who thinks Giggsy and co. are ruining football at this level. All through my teens I grew up with a dislike of The Red Devils due to the overwhelming amount of "armchair fans" I went to school with, however I was now a grown-up who looks back at the era of Van Nistelrooy, Thierry Henry and Mario Melchiot quite fondly as what I would refer to as "the good old days" of the Premier League. Regardless of which side of the line you fall on, you will no doubt have come across the rise of Salford City and they have even had a TV Series made about their recent successes under the Class of '92. The time that I chose to see them was arguably their greatest and most important match to date, a Playoff Final against Workington, and I am really pleased that I made the effort to go up to see this sell-out game. Gary Neville and Paul Scholes were in attendance for what was my second match that day- with my first featuring Emile Heskey's Bolton Wanderers beating Hull City at the Macron- and although the first match of the day was a Championship tie, this was the real main event. As pictured above, the main stand of Salford's old ground, Moor Lane, was the greatest feature of an otherwise average stadium, but the reason that this one gets into my 'PoF Top Ten' is because of the magnitude of the match and of course the manor in which Salford stole promotion away from the visiting side. Salford valiantly fought-back from a goal down on two occasions, with their second equaliser coming in the 80th minute. Football is often cruel and for Workington it was more than that, with the Ammies grabbing an 89th minute winner and causing amazing scenes to follow. I have since got a bit fed-up with the progress of "the original Billericay" since everyone has joined the bandwagon, but at the time of this visit I was really pleased for the club and glad to have been there to witness what will be a moment in the history books that only those in attendance can claim to be a part of.

Let Me Tell You About My 38th Time
It is perhaps an obvious choice, but it would be a criminal offence to miss London's oldest ground off the list and with London Bari playing a "home" fixture in the ground that they were renting from the day's away side Clapton, this FA Cup Qualifier was another memorable day out for Pint of Football. For those who have kept up with recent events between the Essex Senior League sides you will know that a lot has changed for both since my August outing last season, with London Bari, formed in 1995, merging with Hackney Wick and Clapton coming under scrutiny for the deteriorating relationship that they have with their "Ultras" following. Thankfully on my trip the Clapton fanbase were in full-force and this added to the character of the Dog, with a 3-1 victory unfolding on the field for the ground owners against their tenants. The ground itself was very rugged, with old café benches behind the goal, only one proper seating area and of course the highlight was "the scaffold stand" which housed the Ultras who crammed into the area like tinned sardines- unlike nowadays where these loyal fans have boycotted the Dog after arguments with the board about their running of the club. The football truly was a secondary feature for me on this day and the thing that kept me entertained throughout was the rough and ready community feeling within the fenced-off surrounds within the ground. Amongst chatting with some of the locals, meeting a couple of club legends and lifelong fans, I also spoke to a few other groundhoppers and even a scout from Norwich United- not City! If people were to ask me why this one features in my top ten, I would struggle to summarise my answer in a way that gives it credit, so instead I would just encourage you to go there and see for yourself why London's oldest is one of its best.

Let Me Tell You About My 46th Time
When considering what makes a top ground, there are lots of elements to make the perfect trip. As well as the ground itself needing to be memorable, with decent facilities and passionate fans, the match I am overseeing needs to be a classic. So step forward Dundalk's Oriel Park to rise well up the rankings in my favourite ventures to date, as well as being the start of a mahoosive four ground trek for Partizan Bristle and I that featured Solitude, another entry in my top 10, as well as The New Saints' Park Hall and Keys Park in Staffordshire. Having never been to Ireland before, we touched down in Dublin after a drive to Birmingham Airport and then a coach ride to the small northern Republic of Ireland town, Dundalk, ready to see the last game of the Irish Premier League 2016 season as the champs-to-be faced Galway United. At this stage, Dundalk still boasted now Championship players Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle as well as David McMillan who now plies his trade in the SPL with St.Johnstone, so it's needless to say that we were both eager to see how the final day would pan out at Oriel Park. The highlights for the evening were plentiful and after a dominant display by the Lilywhites, who had also made Irish history with a proud effort in that season's Europa League competition, an injury-time fourth goal for the home team caused a pitch invasion with 4,000 jubilant supporters taking to the field and ending the match prematurely at 4-1. In an attempt to avoid the inevitable rush for the bar, we headed straight in so that I could taste my first ever Guinness before being joined by a mass of Dundalkians all looking to party into the early hours of the morning. The champagne was flowing and the folk we sat with were as crazy as they were friendly, and after lifting the league trophy it was a true night to remember. Oriel Park on the whole was a good ground too, with a rickety main stand that seeped character and had the feel of having seen many great things over the years. Granted, we did pick a particularly great time to visit, but even if you discount the result and the celebrations that followed it, I have to say that this one is a great day out to watch the beautiful game. Oh, and I never even mentioned the Full Irish Breakfast to come on the morning of our departure to Belfast- magnificent!

Let Me Tell You About My 47th Time
It's not often that you get to visit two of the best grounds you've ever been to in the space of 24 hours, yet that was exactly what we did as Pint of Football and Partizan Bristle continued north from Dundalk over the border to Belfast in search of Northern Ireland's oldest club- Cliftonville. With a fairly substantial hangover, the afternoon began with a bit of hair of the dog in Belfast centre- a much needed pick me up to get us in the spirit for a trip to the rough northern region of the capital. Knowing that this match wouldn't be nearly as well attended as the one we'd seen the night before, we thought it would be nice to head through to Solitude early so that we could take a look around this museum-style venue that has been a home of football since its opening in 1890. We had been given a couple of pre-match warnings about the overly-political nature of fans in this area and that looked to be backed-up by an early sign of heavy-duty armed vehicles patrolling the streets as we hopped off the bus. However, we decided to continue with our plan of mixing with the locals in the clubhouse beforehand and actually felt very welcomed as I'm sure all visitors do who come over to witness the ground. Half of Solitude remains condemned and out of action these days, so we were reduced to sitting in the new Cage End Stand and just had to settle with looking at the old relic of a stand from afar. In terms of football, the game was below average in parts and not too bad in others, as Cliftonville eventually swept past Glenavon with a 3-0 victory in which the Reds never really looked like losing. As with the Old Spotted Dog and a couple of other venues I've been to, it is not the prettiest of grounds and certainly isn't as monumental as the likes of Old Trafford and co, but as I've stated before it was much more of an interesting afternoon than you'd get at the Etihad and other generic looking Premier League grounds, so I was still pretty chuffed to have made the journey over to Ireland to absorb this golden oldie before it is inevitably knocked down.

Let Me Tell You About My 59th Time
From London, to Ireland and now back to London again for my next Top Ten Ground- Champion Hill, the home of Dulwich Hamlet. This end of February trawl down to the capital would prove to be an outstanding game between my beloved Silkmen and their Isthmian opposition as Hamlet came from two goals down to snatch a replay at the Moss. Although we overcame the Step 7 side and went on to reach the Wembley Final, the toughest part of the run to get there was at the hands of our gritty opponents here at Champion Hill. After driving through to the ground, I was delighted to be mixed in amongst a mass of home and away supporters on an afternoon which saw the ground creep into the top Non-League attendances that weekend, and whilst wandering around the facilities I also treated myself to the most almighty of mighty Bratwursts. Aside from the brilliant food, passion in the stands and amazing game, the ground wasn't half bad either. Deep in the heart of East Dulwich, the 1912 stadium lies opposite a Sainsbury's and in an overall delightfully tranquil part of the Borough of Southwark. Having been renovated in the early 90's, there are still a lot of worn features to the south side terrace and particular attention must be made to the vast amount of football fan stickers and Hamlet graffiti which is left as a stamp on the home that is also shared with Millwall's Ladies team. Since their impressive run last season all has not been well for Dulwich Hamlet off the field, with worries of financial struggles and talk of the ground being closed, but hopefully this hidden gem of non-league football will prevail through tough times and continue to draw one of the highest average attendances at their level. 

Let Me Tell You About My 70th Time
To complete my ultimate list of grounds so far, we take a look back at my time to the end of 2016/17 and my 70th ground- another Evo-Stik Premier Playoff match that rivalled the great game I'd seen at Salford the season before, which also included Workington! Yes the War Memorial Ground in Stourbridge is truly a great way to round off my list and this footballing and cricket venue is a true classic. Located in the West Midlands, a lot of great memories had been made that season and although everyone will remember Lincoln City and Sutton United's FA Cup runs in the greater scheme, the followers of the lower leagues will argue that the Glassboys had an equally as stunning run that eventually was halted by Adebayo Akinfenwa in a 1-2 defeat to Wycombe Wanderers in the 3rd Round. Just a few months on and the hosts for this match had continued to plough on in the Evo-Stik Premier League and they had been awarded a home-tie against their Cumbrian adversaries. The match seemed to be sewn up as the 90th minute approached with the hosts 2-1 up, but a late Wordsworth goal sent it to Extra Time- talk about tense. Like in the previous season, a game I'd also attended, the hearts of the Workington fans would be re-broken as another 3-2 defeat came in Extra Time and as a neutral it really did put the icing on a delightful slice of footballing cake. 

So... which one was the best?

Now that I've narrowed down my Top Grounds to Ten, it seems that the only thing left to do is rank them in order to complete my search for the best of my first 100. It has been a tough list to compile and I've swapped them about so much, but I feel that I have made the best decision in my ranking.

10. The Novus Stadium- Kidsgrove, Staffordshire.
Evo-Stik First Division South Ground, home of Kidsgrove Athletic
Ground Number 13

9. Aggborough- Kidderminster, Worcestershire.
National League North Ground, home of Kidderminster Harriers

Ground Number 17

8. War Memorial Ground- Stourbridge, West Midlands.
Evo-Stik Premier League Ground, home of Stourbridge

Ground Number 70

7. The Old Spotted Dog- Forest Gate, London.
Essex Senior League Ground, home of Clapton

Ground Number 38

6. Moor Lane- Salford, Greater Manchester.
National League North Ground, home of Salford City

Ground Number 28

5. Solitude- Cliftonville, Belfast (NI).
Northern Irish Premier League Ground, home of Cliftonville

Ground Number 47

4. Fratton Park- Portsmouth, Hampshire.
League One Ground, home of Portsmouth

Ground Number 19

3. Wembley Stadium- Wembley, London.
National Ground, home of England and Tottenham Hotspur

Ground Number 5

2. Champion Hill- East Dulwich, Greater London.
Isthmian Premier League Ground, home of Dulwich Hamlet

Ground Number 59

1. Oriel Park- Dulwich, County Louth (ROI).
Irish Premier League Ground, home of Dundalk

Ground Number 46

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