Classic tales from the roots of history

BOOK OF THE WEEK; The History of Non-League Football Grounds by Kerry Miller (Polar Print Group, pounds 24.95)
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In a parallel universe, where George Best is the teetotal manager of Manchester United and Pete Best bangs the drum for the Beatles' reunion, Gravesend & Northfleet beat Aston Villa on Saturday before 13,000 fans crammed into their own compact ground.

The real world, responding to the Hillsborough and Bradford tragedies and to the Taylor Report, deemed Stonebridge Road unsuitable to stage the tie. Instead it went to Villa Park, one of a dwindling number of Premiership megabowls to which Kerry Miller's description of Gravesend's humble environs - "One of the truly classic football grounds in this country" - could still be applied.

Such high praise for a Beazer Homes League venue might be dismissed as anorak hyperbole. Unpromising as the subject and indeed title of this book sound, Miller brings to it such authority, affection and depth of research that his judgements appear anything but fanciful.

Simon Inglis, who chronicled the idiosyncrasies of British and European stadiums before the advent of the plastic seat, established that football architecture could engage those who would not know a double-edged fascia from a pedimented gable. Miller sought to do the same for non-League England, and Inglis's enthusiastic foreword suggests he has succeeded.

Like his mentor, the author seems to have been just in time. As venues like Ayresome Park and Leeds Road have given way to supermarkets and industrial parks, so the semi-professional scene has lost dozens of evocative settings, such as Bedford's Eyrie or Brooklands at Romford, with more being bulldozed away every year.

In an odyssey from Cornwall to Northumberland, Miller uncovers the character of those long gone and those which survive. At Torrington's Vicarage Field, for instance, he found a plaque screwed into a goalpost commemorating the 11 goals (all headers!) scored in a single match by one Sid Trickett.

Grove Corner, home of Portland United, put on hundreds of games with a huge, unexploded bomb under one penalty area. "Perhaps it was a blessing," suggests the author, "that Liverpool's roly-poly Tommy Lawrence never played in goal there."

We learn of the demise of the Gracie Fields End at Darwen; how a Ladies XI drew Stalybridge Celtic's record crowd; of the day Great Yarmouth used lorryloads of fish containers as terracing; and the mystery of the stunningly archaic ground near Milton Keynes that puzzles thousands of inter-city travellers is solved.

This heavyweight volume is also beautifully designed and illustrated with a care befitting Miller's work as a photographer. Images of listed buildings in suburban lanes, such as the pavilion at Salisbury and Bexhill's ornate stand, are juxtaposed with weed-strewn terraces at Snowdon Colliery Welfare, as poignant as any newly Heseltined pit-head.

It is, in short, the kind of football book Ray Davies or John Betjeman might have written. Treasure it before a charmless purpose-built ground comes to your town.

Phil Shaw