Football: Bishop's Stortford hindered by an Anglo-Saxon plot

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The Independent Online
HERE'S A new year quiz question - which football team plays its home matches at Saffron Walden, St Albans, Ware, Dagenham, Borehamwood and Hitchin? The answer is displayed on a new sign, half a mile up our road, pointing off to an industrial estate - Bishop's Stortford FC. Here lies the problem.

Bishop's Stortford FC are not to be found within the industrial estate; nor indeed within the town whose name they bear.

Since December 1997, when the ground it had inhabited for more than 60 years was sold off for redevelopment, the club's proposed transfer to a new stadium on a green-field site has suffered a succession of hitches. In the meantime, its team has come to resemble an ever-changing band of strolling players whose results have been, well, motley.

Last season, relegation from the Ryman League Premier Division was narrowly avoided. This season, which the team was supposed to have begun in its new home - pause for hollow laughter from supporters - the drop beckons again.

As a young reporter, I followed Bishop's Stortford FC - the last winners of the old FA Amateur Cup - when they returned to Wembley in 1981 and won the FA Trophy. The following year, they gave a Middlesbrough side managed by the Fedora'd One, Malcolm Allison, a replay and a run for their money in the FA Cup.

Hark, did you hear that sound? I believe it was a far cry.

But Stortford's uneven form of late is hardly surprising given the off- field turmoil.

The sale of the old Rhodes Avenue ground raised a reported total of pounds 1.5million to be sunk into the new venture close to the M11 motorway - although a sizeable chunk ended up in the pockets of the legal fraternity following a public inquiry into the move.

As a sequence of practical problems has pushed the moving-in day relentlessly back from September, the pot has been diminished by unforeseen costs for the extra travelling and hiring of grounds. Not to mention the pounds 1,000 fine imposed by the Ryman League for every home fixture which has to be played on another club's ground.

These problems. Let's take a look at them.

There's the access road problem. (Isn't there always, in these cases?)

Uncertainties over fire and safety certificates. Delays because of weather (too cold). Delays because of drainage difficulties. Delays because of Anglo-Saxons, or perhaps even more ancient English folk.

The latter hitch came to Bishop's Stortford FC courtesy of the Herts Archaeological Trust, who investigated the site during early excavation work.

"They found the remains of an old post and some broken crockery," Gareth Stephens, chairman of the Stortford Supporters' Club, said. "That meant they wanted to do a fuller investigation." As it happened, the Trust identified what they believe was a settlement which pre-dated Roman times. Fab news for archaeologists; enough to start local football supporters digging their own holes.

Then there is the ongoing dispute over the size of the advertising boards currently displayed outside the site. The local authority deemed they were too big, causing a potential distraction to passing motorists. As one of those motorists, I can vouch for the fact that they are all extremely dull - but what does it matter what I think? Then there is the ongoing difficulty with the floodlights. Or more precisely, the amount of upward light spillage from the floodlights, which operators at nearby Stansted Airport fear might distract their pilots. The airport is keeping an open mind on the question until the lights are operating; the club, meanwhile, must keep handy an open cheque book.

"There has been a catalogue of things going wrong," Stephens said. "And it is easy for those close to the club to get paranoid and think that everyone is against us." I guess that's why they call them The Blues.

The ever-shifting schedule proved too much for one of the players earlier this season. Wrongly assuming that Stortford's match against Enfield was at Enfield, he discovered it was, of course, at Borehamwood. He turned up too late even to be named as a substitute, and parted company with the club soon after.

The club has also parted company with not one, but two managers this season. Having dispensed with the luckless Paul Taylor after a few games, they decided last month to get rid of the likeable but imprudent Terry "If they score five, we'll score six" Back. It now falls to player-manager Terry Robbins, a former Welling United hotshot, to guide the itinerant footsteps.

Stephens rallies gamely when it is put to him that all the wandering, and waiting might prove not to be worthwhile. "Definitely not," he says. "Maybe in two months' time we will be in our new ground and this will all be behind us." But he doesn't sound convinced.