David Conn: Business bulldozer runs roughshod over Victorian values at Northwich

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The Independent Online

The Drill Field is no more. The dogged, magical home to non-league stalwarts Northwich Victoria since 1875, once thought to be the world's oldest football ground, was sold to housebuilders Bryant and, since Easter, they haven't hung around. Soon it will be "Victoria Gardens", a neat, planned estate of 102 aspirational, new homes, with not a whiff of football in the air.

The Drill Field is no more. The dogged, magical home to non-league stalwarts Northwich Victoria since 1875, once thought to be the world's oldest football ground, was sold to housebuilders Bryant and, since Easter, they haven't hung around. Soon it will be "Victoria Gardens", a neat, planned estate of 102 aspirational, new homes, with not a whiff of football in the air.

Where the Vics' shop and office used to sit waiting for fans to buy green bobble hats and a programme, stands Bryant's Marketing Suite. There, a smart, breezy woman, Angela Kenwright, told me lost souls are forever turning up, gazing at the diggers and builders tearing up the earth, asking which house will occupy the old centre circle. She smiled: "We've got no idea at all." They did roll up the turf intending to use some of it, but "it'll be compost by the time we need it".

Northwich Victoria's is a football history of redoubtable loyalty, survival, ambition, farce and hope. The town, on the Cheshire plain, 20 miles from Manchester, has another long-established non-league club, Witton Albion, and the two sets of fans burnish a bitter rivalry nobody outside the place can fathom.

Founder members of the Football League Second Division in 1892, Vics realised very quickly that the town's population could not sustain a League club, and dropped into semi-professional competition, where they have been a distinguished presence. In 1979 they became founder members of the Alliance, non-league's top flight which became the Conference. They are the Conference's only ever-present club, but that record is now at serious risk - Northwich are the first English football club to have had 10 points deducted for going into administration. Exeter were docked 12 points last season, but had them reinstated on appeal; however, Northwich do not intend to appeal.

Wrexham, who this week won a two-week stay to their winding-up petition, are likely to follow, but Vics went into administration in September, putting the club back on six points, 10 adrift of safety, with relegation to the North First Division lying in wait.

The bitter twist in the tale is that Northwich sold the Drill Field specifically to enable them to stay in the Conference. It was never, in fact, the country's oldest ground, although the Football Association did once say this was so. Bramall Lane, first played on in 1862, is older, as are several other grounds. Northwich then produced the memorably tortuous claim that the Drill Field was the oldest football ground in the world to be continuously played on by one club, but that too was punctured by unswayable local historians, who found that the original Vics went bust and reformed in 1890.

But the Drill Field was special. Squeezed by suburbia at one end and Kwik Save at the other, when the floodlights came on it glowed with an aura, testament to generations' commitment to sport. The ghost of Northwich's greatest former player, Billy Meredith, football's first superstar at the beginning of the 20th century at both Manchester clubs, could be sensed, weaving down the wing, trademark toothpick between his lips.

Supporters raised £167,000 to fight off developers in 1993, but two years ago the club agreed to move. Not in crisis, but for ambition. At the time, the Conference's unquenchable drive to be professional football's fifth division led them to insist on spectacularly high ground capacities for their clubs: 6,000, capable of being enlarged to 10,000.

Northwich, for whom 1,000 was a good gate, 3,000-4,000 a hoped-for bonanza if they drew a League club in the FA Cup first round, could not convert the Drill Field to such numbers because there was no room. Opposed by some fans, the directors agreed to sell and build a new stadium on the edge of town.

Ground sharing was out of the question, so Northwich Victoria began to build a new £3m stadium, with a £500,000 grant from the Football Foundation, just 100 yards from Witton Albion's ground, which was built just 10 years ago. Vics have played at Witton's ground while their stadium is built, and the crowds instantly fell to around 700. Some fans will travel to Farnborough, Gravesend and Canvey Island for away matches, but refuse to watch Vics play at home at Witton.

Then, within weeks of the decision, the Conference changed its ground requirements, back to 4,000, meaning the Drill Field could have been saved. However, the club pressed on.

With falling crowds, payments to Witton of £1,000 per game, a planning delay and the battle to stay in the Conference, Northwich began to pile up losses. Last season, the only two Conference ever-presents remaining were Vics and Telford. Vics finished bottom, but were not relegated because Telford went bust. Then, earlier this year, work on the stadium stopped.

The money was gone. Faced with a winding-up petition, in September the club went into administration owing £560,000, taking the 10-point hit. The administrator, David Appleby, agreed a sale to a Manchester businessman, Mike Connett, whose son, Ben, plays in goal for the club. Barring late delays to the Company Voluntary Arrangement, Connett will buy the club and ground, which he plans to complete with an astroturf facility, bars and restaurants. The club will be given a 15-year lease and pay rent to play at the ground.

But the players will need one of football's great comebacks if the first club to be docked 10 points for insolvency is to avoid relegation. The move to stay in the Conference looks ultimately likely to send them down.

You'd think this might have produced bitter regrets among the Northwich fans, but many are surprisingly optimistic. With Connett's money promised, work has restarted. This week, although the bricklayers were rained off, the diggers were back, scraping away. In a temporary hut, helping out, was Joe Biddle, the groundsman. I asked him if he missed the Drill Field: "I do, it was a great place," he said. "But it was an embarrassment compared to some grounds, and we couldn't make money there. Football's a business now. We'll do better out here."

The stadium, taking shape, looks impressive, and the pitch is already laid out, clean turf in an estate of mud. Peter Grimes, of the Supporters' Trust, told me: "This could be the best thing that has ever happened to us." Witton's ground is just across the canal, behind some conifers.

In town, Bryant are putting houses on the old Drill Field with terrifying speed. Some at Vics think they are naming roads after old players, there will be a plaque; but they are not, and there won't. Standing in the rain looking at Victoria Gardens, it's hard to decide: is this philistinism, or progress? Is this a comedy, or a tragedy? A huge step forward, or just a tale of the way things are?

davidconn@independent.co.uk

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