Inside football: Drill Field's disputed place in record books

SPARE A thought on New Year's eve for the Nationwide Conference club Northwich Victoria, for whom this should have been a momentous year. It is the 125th anniversary of their formation, with all but the first year played on their current home, the Drill Field, which, according to the club, makes it "the world's oldest senior ground on which football has been played continuously". Yet these landmark claims have been rigorously contested by two local historians, seeing the party plans scuppered, and the Vics' big year passing by unremarked.

The club was planning a year of events to celebrate this remarkable genesis of the world's great game at its modest mid-Cheshire ground, hemmed in now between semi-detached suburbia and a Kwik-Save car park. Northwich's history tracks much of football's own - its eruption in the 1870s from upper-class, amateur recreation to passionately supported, professionally played game of the masses.

As founder members, in 1892, of the Football League Second Division, the Vics struggled to keep up with big city clubs whose wider catchment areas meant bigger gates and, consequently, more money to pay for better players. In 1894 they dropped back to amateur or semi-pro football where they have been stalwarts ever since, selling to Manchester City their greatest-ever player, Billy Meredith, arguably football's first star, who played until he was 50.

Dave Thomas, the Vics' general manager, planned a dinner as centrepiece for the 125th anniversary, commissioning 200 commemorative plates for guests to pay a little extra to keep forever. Graham Gooch was provisionally booked to speak. "We'd have got a big star in as well," sighs Thomas, ruefully.

The party began to be pooped this summer, with letters to the Northwich Chronicle contesting the Vics' precise date of formation and the claim about the Drill Field contained in the late Ken Edwards' 1992 history of the club. Detail by detail, the claims have been unpicked by two local historians, Paul Lavell and the redoubtable Colin Lynch, 70, a retired lorry driver who claims to have read every issue of the local papers since 1861, eight times.

They have pored over original newspapers, plans and documents in a rigorous search for historical accuracy - or, according to some Vics fans, a soulless exercise in nit-picking. They have unearthed sufficient detail to seriously undermine the Vics' claims. In 1890 the club merged with another local club, Hartford and Davenham United, in order to compete with powerful new professional outfits at Crewe and Chester. Lavell insists that this involved the original club being wound up, handing the Cheshire Challenge Cup to Northwich Library, which had been promised should the club ever become "defunct". This break, according to Lavell, strictly makes the Vics 109, not 125, years old. Clive Penny, a Vics supporter, argues that the club remained affiliated to the Cheshire FA, but the row rumbled on into December, unresolved, scuppering the anniversary plans.

The Drill Field claim also appears to have crumbled. Edwards' first belief was that the Drill Field was the world's oldest surviving ground, a claim accepted in writing by the FA in October 1989. Later he modified it: Sheffield Hallam's Sandygate ground (1860), and Bramall Lane (1863) predate the Drill Field. However, as Hallam had a break between the wars, and Sheffield Wednesday played at Bramall Lane before Sheffield United, Edwards produced his somewhat tortuous claim that the Drill Field was "the oldest senior ground continuously played on by one club".

Lynch argues that the Vics had a nine-year break during the wars, and have shared the ground with four other clubs. Since then, the FA appears to have accepted Maidenhead's prior claim to have played on their York Road ground since 1871. Now Lynch says another original amateur club, Reigate Priory, may predate Maidenhead, having played at their ground continuously since 1869.

Many at the Drill Field mutter that the hidden hand of bitter local rivals Witton Albion is behind this little local difficulty, but both historians deny this, saying they are Vics fans interested only in establishing the facts: "Historians have never given football the attention it deserves," Lavell says. "Club histories have tended to be written by fans or directors. The process is only beginning now of really documenting the game's history."

The current Vics chairman, Rod Stitch, rolls his eyes at the very mention of the controversy. His concerns are more immediate - a constant struggle to stay afloat in the current age of wage inflation, even in the Conference, where players are increasingly full-time and have agents. He became chairman in 1995, shortly after the Vics' directors and supporters had raised more than pounds 150,000 to save the Drill Field from a property developer. The Drill Field Trust, funded with appeals and contributions from ordinary fans, is still trying to preserve the ground's future.

Yet now the club is in trouble again; Stitch recently admitted it was losing pounds 2,000 a week. At Tuesday's local derby against Altrincham, fans were asked for contributions to meet the pounds 20,000 needed to pay the players between now and the Vics' next home game in February. "It's a constant struggle," Stitch says. "If you don't pay the wages, players will go to clubs who will, then you can't compete."

He bemoans the money pouring into football at the top: "Greed is ruining the game, turning it from the working mans' game into a corporate entertainment activity. You have to question the motivation of directors at that level who make money for themselves. Much more should trickle down: two weeks of Roy Keane's wages and we would prosper."

The anniversary would have been a nice money-spinner, lost now to minutiae in which Stitch struggles to be interested. "We should have a definitive ruling from the FA to clear up whether 1890 constitutes a break. But it's a shame the year's been ruined."

Tuesday's Altrincham game, the last on the Drill Field this century, was played without sentiment or ceremony, 200 plates piling up, obsolete and unsold, in Dave Thomas's office. Kenny Boyd, the Tannoy announcer, no longer welcomes people to the "World's oldest ground", promising, instead, "the hits of the last century" - which turned out, at half-time, to be "Tiptoe through the Tulips" and "There's no-one quite like Grandma".

Freezing rain came down on a fierce local derby, dominated, as ever, by the flicks and subtlety of the Vics captain, Steve Walters, that prompted, on 65 minutes, a late, two-footed assault by Altrincham's Jason Gallagher for which he was sent off. After 89 minutes, the Vics substitute David Gray finally scored, only for Altrincham's own sub, Richard Landon, to equalise two minutes into injury time.

Even if it is not strictly the oldest ground in the world, the Drill Field still made a fitting place to see football out of this millennium; a monument to its real history of a phenomenal growth from amateur roots into the greatest game in the world, with clubs hurtling along, living beyond their means, the rich lording it over the poor, who struggle to survive, even in these satellite television times of unimaginable wealth.

The game has never managed to look up for long enough from its hard competition to preserve itself properly for the future, or even adequately document itself and its history - the great moments, legends, memories, to which it has given life, almost unwittingly.

WORLD'S OLDEST FOOTBALL STADIA

(All grounds still in use)

Sandygate

Home of Sheffield Hallam 1860

Bramall Lane

Used by Sheffield Wednesday, then home of Sheffield United 1863

York Road

Home of Maidenhead 1871

Boghead Park

Home of Dumbarton 1872

The Drill Field

Home of Northwich Victoria 1875

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