Progress. Where would we be without it? For a start this would have been scrawled in pig’s blood on the wall of a cave. Although chances are you wouldn’t have been able to read it, because as soon as you turned your back a hairy backed troglodyte would have clubbed you over the head and dragged you back to their cave for a spot of “natural selection”. But for the most part, unless you’re a UKIP supporter, progress is considered to be a positive thing in life.
Football is big on progress too. Without it we’d still be playing in a 1-1-8 formation, have crossbars made out of tape and leather footballs like cannonballs. But in football progress isn’t always a Good Thing. For a start multi-coloured boots, ridiculous kick-off times and footballers covered in tattoos can all get in the bin. And of course there’s half-and-half scarves (Scotland/England: “Together in friendship”.)
Modern football grounds are a tricky one. On the one hand, it’s obviously difficult to make an emotional case for a modern, soulless stadium over a traditional ground, steeped in the history of the club. The old wooden stands have seen every glorious win and every heartbreaking defeat, witnessed all the last minute penalties and the missed sitters. There are fans who have sat in the same seat or stood on the same spot on the terraces for decades.
But sometimes sentiment has to give way to practicality. Supporters want comfort, safety and somewhere to park their car and all three can be lacking in old grounds.We all have nostalgia for the good old days of terracing, but the truth is, it really wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The potential for harm came from everywhere. Injuries caused by crushing or falls were numerous, and with little or no segregation between home and away fans, there was also the risk of getting caught up in fighting between rival gangs of hooligans. Furthermore, the threat of being knocked out by a flying bottle launched from the rear of the terracing was never very far away. And even if you managed to avoid physical injury, getting caught in a downpour while exposed to the elements could cause a really bad cold.
In purely monetary terms, the cash to be made from selling a prime town centre plot of land can be enough to secure some clubs’ long term future, while the facilities that new grounds can offer play a vital role in making the club part of the community, helping to attract a new generation of fans. Sentimentality is all very well, but it doesn’t pay the bills.
And so the latest club to embrace progress is Stamford AFC from the Northern Premier League. The Daniels – named after a man said to be the fattest person in history – were formed in 1896 and played their first match on Hanson’s Field, where they remained for the next 118 years. There is apparently evidence that the site staged football in the early 1870s making it possibly one of the world’s oldest football grounds. But sadly it is no longer. After more than a century, Stamford have moved to a shiny new ground on the outskirts of the town and the gates have been locked for the last time at the Vic Couzens Stadium – aka Wothorpe Road, aka Kettering Road, aka the Town Ground.
The old ground will eventually be bulldozed and the town centre site used for housing. It’s progress of course and it’s difficult to criticise the club for making the move. The new Zeeco Stadium is modern, comfortable and easy to access and the club will no doubt benefit greatly from the move. That doesn’t mean the loss of another historic old ground isn’t a bit sad.
Visiting Wothorpe Road, it’s easy to see why the club decided to move. Parking is limited and inside, the facilities are showing their age, to put it kindly. Paint is peeling, woodwork crumbling, metal rusting and signs fading. And while that may be in part down to the long-awaited move, there’s no doubt the old place has seen better days.
The main stand, with its corrugated iron roof and decorative wooden front, was built sometime between 1894 and 1911 (no records exist to pinpoint the exact date) and it remained largely unchanged for decades, until an upgrade in the mid 1990s.
New perimeter fencing, turnstiles, plastic seating and a walkway round the pitch were added to bring it up to league standard. At some point a snack bar was opened and a portacabin selling programmes and souvenirs installed.
The final first team game at Wothorpe Road was against the grandly named Rushall Olympic on November 22nd 2014. A crowd of 410 saw the home team sign off in style with a 3-0 win, their first home victory since August. A week later though, I was present for the very last game at the old ground, a Peterborough and District League Division One match between Ryhall United and Sutton Bridge. This time the audience was barely into double figures. I wonder how many of the players, and the assorted dads and girlfriends who made up the crowd, were aware the significance of the game.