Football: Ghost grounds bear testament to past spirits

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(AFP)

Another new season under way, more infectious optimism for fans of all those non-elite clubs who win no prizes but have an unshakeable belief that better times are around the corner.

Until the dark days of winter relegation battles or European elimination kick in, memories of old failures are mentally locked away.

So are recollections of an ever-growing list of stadiums once graced by legends of the game but which have been consigned to history.

These ghost grounds have given way to shiny new venues, far comfier than those they replaced.

Yet however much they add in glitz there is one intangible element missing.

The history.

As the English game cleaned up its act following the hooliganism-blighted 1970s and '80s, so clubs had to accept that old, sometimes downright unsafe stands had no place in a modern cash-laden era.

In 1985, there were events such as the stadium fire at Bradford City's Valley Parade and the Heysel disaster at the European Cup final in Brussels, when 39 Juventus fans were crushed following a stampede by Liverpool fans.

Then came 1989 and Hillsborough where Liverpool fans were the victims.

All these provided the momentum to either revamp old grounds or abandon them altogether.

And so more than a century of history in several cases was simply demolished by the wrecking ball, with over 20 old grounds disappearing.

In the English Premiership, Arsenal's Highbury with its famous old Clock End is no more, having made way for apartments in 2006.

Manchester City similarly waved goodbye to Maine Road, and Sunderland to Roker Park, where Brian Clough suffered his career-ending cruciate ligament injury in 1962.

As Sunderland fan and blogger Jeremy Robson says mournfully of the new venue: "Visiting the Stadium of Light reminds me of when my favourite uncle went into an old folks’ home. Clean, modern, and functional. Pleasant almost, were it not for the sad inevitability that you can’t turn back the clock..."

Stoke's Victoria Ground rocked in the 1950s to the mesmerising rhythm of wing wizard Stanley Matthews.

In 2009 it is no more. Stoke's new stadium bears the name of a building society because, in the words of English writer L.P. Hartley: "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."

Wigan fans don't sing at Springfield Park now but at the JJB Stadium.

Bolton is no longer synonymous with Burnden Park but with the name of kitmaker Reebok and Hull's Boothferry Park gave way to KC Stadium.

Even Liverpool are still pondering whether to quit Anfield.

In the Championship, famous old grounds such as Derby's Baseball Ground, another old haunt of Clough, have disappeared

Welsh Championship sides Swansea and Cardiff have quit the Vetch Field and Ninian Park respectively.

Though leaving their history behind, Arsenal have at least only moved a few dozen metres and their new Highbury Square development has conserved its art deco stands - including the East Stand with its famous Marble Hall, suggesting from outside at least that the ground is still there.

Former striker Alan Smith suggested to the Daily Telegraph the old ground, which began hosting matches in 1913, had "few equals in terms of old English charm".

Today, the old pitch has morphed into communal gardens and, says Smith, the architects have created an "oasis of calm" where once fans celebrated goals from the likes of Ted Drake, Charlie George and Thierry Henry.

Today's financial climate has slowed the rate of sales for the new development comprising 700 units with a top-of-the-stand penthouse commanding some 1.4 million dollars.

Whatever the pros and cons of moving on, some Gunners fans clearly identified with the old ground to the extent that they will never leave, even posthumously.

More than 500 have had their ashes scattered in a memorial garden section of the new development, where a century of footballing memories also lie buried.

cw/dj09

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