Stortford's fresh start as the field of dreams moves out of town

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The Independent Online
ONE of those odd little coincidences occurred this week. While paying my paper bill (accountants please note) my eye was taken by a booklet recounting the history of the local football team, Bishop's Stortford, whose ground has been bought up by property developers.

Glancing through the pages, I heard a familiar Yorkshire voice behind me, asking if the racing papers had come in. It was John Radford, ex- Arsenal and England, ex-Bishop's Stortford too, although he remains the club's general manager.

The Blues' recent upheaval has had a tangible effect upon Radford's life: his garage is now filled with bar equipment salvaged from the old clubhouse. But if Radford is in temporary limbo, so too are the players, who have 10 league matches left - starting today with Hitchin Town away - to avoid relegation.

In moving from a cramped, town centre location to a ground on the industrial outskirts, Stortford are following a well-worn path. But they have a fiendish stumbling block - the smart new ground on the edge of town will not be ready until next season. Thus every match now is away, as the club stages its home fixtures at a succession of venues - St Albans, Stansted, Saffron Walden, Ware... wherever.

"It's horrendous," admits the Stortford manager, Paul Taylor, who gets a result merely by ensuring all the players turn up at the right ground. "No one has gone missing yet," he said. "But the whole thing is much more difficult than I ever imagined. It's been a huge wrench to leave. It's a shame in a way, because the club have been there for many, many years."

Seventy-eight years, in fact. The booklet, entitled "Field of Dreams" and put together by Gareth Stephens, contains a picture of the first match played there on 3 October, 1919. It is just a playing field, ringed with the 400 supporters who witnessed a 2-1 win over Ware on that distant Saturday afternoon. The players are long-shorted blurs. In the foreground of the picture, behind the long row of flat-capped onlookers, someone has flung a bicycle down on the grass.

Over the years, that space was filled - houses were built along streets whose names acknowledged the man born two minutes' walk away, Cecil Rhodes: Zambesi Road, Shangani Road, and Rhodes Avenue, adopted as the popular name of Stortford's home ground despite official efforts to call it the George Wilson Stadium.

The club facilities also grew. First there was an old polo pavilion and a changing-room so small that the teams had to change in turn. In 1927 the club bought their own ground for pounds 300 - a sum raised by supporters rallied by a local railway clerk, Sid Rose.

The 1930s saw a small wooden stand erected, and a Tannoy system which played gramophone records. Cigarettes and chocolates were sold by Rose from an usherettes' box. In 1962, the wooden stand was replaced by a brick one...

Progress, in bricks and mortar. This week I walked a familiar route to the ground where I had reported on the then soaring fortunes of Bishop's Stortford FC during the early 1980s. In that time, with the likes of Radford, Terry Sullivan and Lyndon "Bald Eagle" Lynch leading the line, they had won the FA Trophy at Wembley, and engaged in high profile FA Cup runs which saw them visited by a Middlesbrough team managed by Malcolm Allison in his fedora-wearing, cigar-chomping pomp.

"Crest Homes," the sign on the ground said. "Coming soon. A development of 2, 3 and 4-bedroomed houses."

Coming soon. How very exciting.

The field of dreams was now a field of mud, pipes, breeze blocks, bricks and yellow diggers. The foundations of a service road ran through the site of the stand. A man in a yellow jacket stood where the Town End goal had been, consulting a clipboard.

Since the last match, on 23 December, the builders had busied themselves to the extent that this piece of Hertfordshire had been restored, if only temporarily, to the space that existed here in 1919.

The booklet holds out the hope that the new ground will, in turn, become "home". What makes a home? In football terms, green green grass is a start. But there has been no sentimental transfer of the sacred Rhodes Avenue turf. "We left all the mud there," Taylor said with a chuckle.

The new pitch is being seeded, a less expensive alternative to re-turfing, but Taylor said: "I think it should have been turfed." For the sake of the players and supporters, let's hope it does not turn out to be a case of "as ye sow, so shall ye reap".

Radford, meanwhile, must bide his time. His garage won't be clear for months yet. The racing papers hadn't come in when he asked for them - but he sounded philosophical about that.