Football: Derby's muddy oasis of sulphur and spectacle

Jon Culley on the Baseball Ground, whose suffocating compactness will put visiting Arsenal to the test for the last time tomorrow

There is a magical quality about a football stadium to which small children will testify on first encountering the theatrical splendour of a professional match and which stays with many into adulthood.

The imagination plays a part, as does the visual spectacle of a green oasis framed by vast, rising banks of humanity. But probably it has most to do with escapism, with entering a small world from which the greater one beyond is excluded.

Few of Britain's football arenas have demonstrated this phenomenon more effectively than the Baseball Ground, which stages its last senior competitive fixture when Derby County meet Arsenal on Sunday.

It is a stadium where tall grandstands so tightly hug the playing area that almost nothing outside is visible from within. Directional senses go haywire and it is possible to feel quite lost, submerged in a sort of suspended reality, where nothing exists but a football match.

Perhaps this is why Derby County, for whom the ground has been home since 1895, have always been reluctant to leave. Twice, in the 1920s and 40s, the club rejected opportunities to move on. Indeed, only in the 59th minute of the 11th hour did they agree to next summer's relocation, having at first said no.

Practically unchanged since the 1930s, by which time three of the four sides were effectively as they are today, the Baseball Ground conforms to everyone's vision of the urban, industrial football ground, built among factories and terraced streets and, though the surrounding landscape is much altered, the sense of history remains. The back-to-backs might still be standing, the next-door foundry still belching smoke.

No longer does the foundry announce its noxious presence, replaced now with smaller, environmentally friendlier units, but its past and the ground's are inseparable. The foundry owner, Sir Francis Ley, the proprietor of Ley's Malleable Castings, developed the field for his work force, although it was set out not for football but baseball, reflecting a passion acquired on a business trip to America.

But then County had started life playing second fiddle; or, more accurately, third, sharing a space with Derbyshire County Cricket Club, in the middle of the town's racecourse. It was a venue good enough to stage an FA Cup final replay in 1886, but disputes over clashing fixtures prompted the football club to leave and an invitation to play on Ley's ground was taken up.

After almost 30 years as paying guests, the club bought the Baseball Ground for pounds 10,000 in 1924, a year after turning down Derby Corporation's suggestion that they move to a pounds 30,000 multi-purpose stadium a mile to the south. County opted for independence and in the space of a decade transformed their ground, spending pounds 16,000 on the Main Stand and pounds 12,000 on each of two double-deckers, at the Osmaston and Normanton Ends.

The Popular Side would have been developed also, but for the closeness of the foundry, the presence of which essentially determined the character of the ground, from the claustrophobic atmosphere that would intimidate visiting teams to the notorious mud underfoot.

Reg Harrison, who comes from an era when players would walk to the match in company with supporters who were their neighbours, reckons blame for the appalling surface could be laid squarely at the old proprietor's door.

"Every year, they used to send samples of soil for analysis, trying to find out why the grass died," he said. "But everyone knew it was the stuff that came out of those chimneys." Harrison, a winger, first played at the Baseball Ground as a 13-year-old in 1936, in a schools cup final; 10 years later he was a member of the Derby team who went to Wembley to lift the FA Cup.

A year before that triumph had come a second offer to move, this time to another proposed municipal venture, a monstrous 78,000-capacity stadium designed by the Wembley architect, Maxwell Ayrton. Again the decision was to stay put, leaving Ayrton's ambitious drawings to gather dust.

The Baseball Ground could never reach such proportions, but in 1969 a tier of seats was added on the Popular Side, cantilevered over the foundry's shed roofs to form the Ley Stand. Soon after it was opened, Derby thrashed Tottenham Hotspur 5-0 before a crowd of 41,826, still the club record, squeezed into a space that, post-Taylor, is restricted to 17,500 seats.

The pitch scarcely improved, however, even while Brian Clough was shaping the side who were to win the championship twice in four seasons. Like Harrison, Alan Durban was happier taking up wide positions, using the better ground. "The middle was awful, one of the heaviest, muddiest pitches anywhere," Durban said, "and, what's more, when you fell the mud would stink of sulphur."

Such tales did no harm in putting visitors off their stride; nor did the proximity of the crowd, who were close enough to engage in banter with their own favourites and to rattle the opposition. "It would scare some sides to death, particularly the foreign ones," Durban added, recalling an extraordinary night in 1972 when Derby destroyed Benfica 3-0 in the European Cup. Three years later Real Madrid came a similar cropper, losing 4-1 (although, incredibly, they won the tie 6-5 on aggregate).

How such nights must have been celebrated in the Baseball Hotel, where the players would have five-a-side practice games in the pub yard, even in Durban's era. It has been demolished now, as have a good many of the surrounding streets, making way for a car park opposite the main entrance in Shaftesbury Crescent and a leisure centre in Colombo Street, behind the corrugated sheeting of the Osmaston End.

Once, neighbouring residents would have been happy to see the stadium go the same way, especially during the violent 70s and 80s, when vandalism to cars and property saw home matches throw the area into a state of siege. A far, sad cry from the time when supporters would politely ask householders to look after their bicycles, and happily pay 3d or the service.

Happily, peace has returned, but when quiet descends for good this weekend something of the community's soul will undoubtedly have been lost.

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