On Mid-Life Crises, New Beginnings, and Treasure Troves of Football History
I called Ian in mid-September whilst deciding if I would have a mid-life crisis or not. During our conversation he mentioned that he had access to a treasure trove of football ground photos, programs and other tidbits that we should dig into together. He hadn’t seen John’s archive himself yet but was already interested in investigating it with another football fanatic. After Ian had seen the archive he rang me up and was bubbling with excitement. Within a couple of minutes I was also afflicted with tunnel vision considering the scale of what Ian had seen with only a cursory examination.
A couple of weeks later I went out to meet Anita, the holder of her late brother John’s archive, and have a look for myself. It was one of those several-hour long events which went by in a flash, and when I got the archive home later I spent hours looking at photos and other memorabilia. It was clear that John had gone about his photographs with a vision, often capturing the same stand or terrace from a similar location year after year. Watching the changes from bare walls to a little advertising to the full marketing onslaught of today; watching terraces give way to seats, gradually at first and then by 1994 following the Hillsborough tragedy; where there used to be plain white wooden plank seating they painted in team colours that faded rapidly before plastic chairs replaced wooden planks; and the appearance and disappearance of the high metal fences between supporters and the pitch: they too disappeared as the result of Hillsborough.
Until the 1980’s few owners or club chairmen cared about the safety of supporters let alone the “fan experience.” Safety concerns revolved around violence by and between supporters inside and outside the grounds. The response of authorities to hooliganism from the mid-60’s was to erect metal fences to keep opposing sets of supporters away from one another and off the pitch. Some clubs resisted the high fences, Arsenal amongst them, and that decision cost teams lucrative matches like FA Cup semi-finals. After the Hillsborough tragedy the Taylor Report demanded changes to how crowds were handled and imposed strict new safety standards requiring seats for all: this meant the end of the terraces.
The terraces are gone, some of the stadia are gone, but the atmosphere is still fantastic even though we will only lose more of the historic grounds. Attending a West Ham match at Upton Park is amazing even when one doesn’t support the club. Every West Ham supporter hears “Bubbles” when he/she sees a picture of the ground. Upton Park has been sold to developers and next season will be the last for West Ham at the ground as they move to the larger and more modern Olympic Stadium. Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground is an odd mix of different redevelopment plans dating back to the 1970’s, the costs nearly bankrupted the club. The planned changes were never fully realized as money, ownership decisions and changing expectations of what a ground could provide for a club delayed a complete redevelopment. Chelsea plan to build a new stadium on the same site but that will necessitate playing home matches elsewhere in London for a couple of seasons. There is no lack of suitable venues for the club but none of the football grounds that are big enough are close to Stamford Bridge.
Arsenal’s “new” home, the Emirates, isn’t Highbury but nothing else was or is either: Highbury’s stands were unique, beautiful & expensive 1930’s Art Deco. The atmosphere there was great, even when they were “boring boring Arsenal.” Emirates is a beautiful ground, the atmosphere can be very good and while it isn’t Highbury gradually I realized that in a few decades wherever they are won’t be Emirates…or Ashburton Grove or whatever they name it when the sponsors are no longer involved with the club. For kids who started attending matches since the move Highbury is a mythical place, they can go see the stands integrated into a housing development but for them Emirates will always be Arsenals’s home.
Each ground contains memories for supporters, good and bad, regardless of the level of the club involved. Perhaps the lifelong dedication of a Shrewsbury or Rochdale supporter makes the dedication of those supporting clubs higher up the food chain seem less ardent. Clubs at the top for extended periods attract plenty of fans of the kind that get the weary dismals when a season goes by without a trophy, but those who support Port Vale, Dagenham, Barnett and the bulk of the professional football world that is rarely on TV deserve consideration as well. One of the wonderful things about John’s archive is that he didn’t just photograph grounds in the top tier, or even the top four divisions in England, but non-league clubs throughout the country.
The range of photos available will continue to grow as more photos are scanned and tagged. Not only do we have ground photos for the more than 92 clubs to have played in the football league since the early 70’s we also have an extensive collection of photos of grounds throughout Europe. Wherever John went, and he traveled extensively in the UK and Europe, he visited grounds and took photos. Every picture we have was taken by the same person: remember that when you are browsing the gallery.