Football grounds have always fascinated me. When I’ve nattered about the game in general to many different fans who’ve been to games, I’ve always asked questions such as “what’s the ground like?” or “how do you get there?” It’s a strange phenomenon that affects thousands of silent sufferers to varying degrees. You can spot “sufferers” on train and bus journeys, as they crane their necks for a passing glimpse of the back of a stand or a set of floodlights they’ve probably seen hundreds of times previously. This can lead to some tense moments as the non afflicted wonder why these weirdo’s keep staring them out for a couple of minutes at a time. Is it really our fault that these ignoramuses decide to sit in the same sight lines as our temples?
I fully admit to been a Grade A sufferer and am quite proud about the fact. I’ve even “come out” when work colleagues and mates ask what I’ve done on my day off. As I live in London, I am in a perfect location for my addiction. Hardly a journey goes by without me passing a sports venue. I can see the Wembley arch from my work place yet every day without fail I check to make sure it’s still there. As my article on the lost grounds of London revealed in AC6, you never know when they may disappear forever.
Over the years I’ve visited over 70 league grounds and over 100 non league, as well as others around Europe. In the last 2 years I have purchased a digital camera, a laptop and a mobile phone with a decent camera on it. I decided to start a collection of photos of grounds. I’d done this previously to very mixed results. With my old camera the results were very average. I had no instant image to make sure I had the photo I really wanted. The cost and time involved was also an issue. If you are paying for every shot and you don’t know what you’re ending up with, so I took a minimum of photos at each venue. His inevitably led to a shortfall of pictures not really encapsulating the ground properly. The advantages of digital are immense as I can take loads of pictures from lots of angles, and simply delete the ones that are no good. I still have a folder from years of visiting grounds when I would painstakingly draw a diagram of each venue as well as putting together details of each club such as club crests and a history of their playing kits. I had hoped one day to either produce a book on the subject. Unfortunately I’ve been beaten to it as many random publications are now available. I am currently pondering whether to invest in producing a web site to show off all my pictures of different standards of grounds and stadiums that I’ve visited. My intention would be to give each venue the same respect so fans of all clubs, no matter what standard they play at could visit the site and not just fans of “big clubs” who receive far too much attention as it is. That’s hopefully one for the future.
When I first moved to London in April 1999, I intended to see a game at each venue. I spent many afternoons and evenings watching a lot of meaningless dross (no offence to the teams involved), when my main focus was the place where the game was played. I still only count a league ground if I see a game on it, but something had to give with non league (especially if there was little chance of seeing my beloved Boro play there). Years ago when I was a young student, living on the outskirts of London I would occasionally buy a one day travel card and visit as many grounds as possible in the same day. In October 2004 I started working for London Underground. One of the perks of the job is I receive free travel on all tubes and buses. Since then I’ve had a few enjoyable days out groundhopping, trying to visit as many grounds as possible in the same day while adding pictures to my collection. I am now about 20 grounds short of visiting everyone of Step 6 (NCEL Division 1 standard) and above within the M25.
Apart from feeding my addiction, the hobby has other hidden advantages. I have seen areas of London I would never of otherwise visited (this is good and bad!). A day out is an ideal form of exercise as there is a lot of walking involved. I now know the transport system and areas of the capital as well as any lifelong Londoner, which is helpful when assisting customers at work. It is also a relatively cheap day out especially if I take a packed lunch with me.
One of the most pleasant features is the people I sometimes meet by chance who are involved with the clubs I am visiting. They are delighted that people take in interest in their clubs. Some realise immediately what I’m doing but some have seldom had anyone take an interest in their beloved clubs. They are so proud of what they’ve achieved, no matter what the standard of their ground. Sometimes I fall behind schedule as the conversation evolves as I explain I’m a Scarborough fan. Last season they wanted to know what was happening whereas now I explain about our new set up. Everyone is full of admiration for what we have achieved (though sorry for what happened) and wishes us success in the future. The other major attraction is stumbling across a hidden gem of a ground. A lot of grounds simply satisfy the ground grading requirements but just occasionally I visit somewhere exceptional for the league it represents because of the clubs former history, an incredibly hard working committee or a former philanthropist.
You may be wondering how I decide which grounds I put together on a day of groundhopping and how I put a schedule together? I have a good map of greater London as well as bus plans. I decide on an area I’m going to select (for instance South West London and Surrey). I then write down the clubs I’m targeting and try and link them together with transport routes. I bear in mind that I don’t want to finish in the middle of nowhere as I’m likely to be tired by then. A sensible journey home is a necessity. If it’s at all possible I try and start at the furthest point but I also need to consider an escape route home if anything goes wrong (weather, illness or general fatigue). Sometimes time and light can beat me so I have to think on my feet and abort visiting somewhere that I can tie in with another day out. Because of this, I never contact a club before I call. This gives me flexibility but can have its drawbacks, the main one been a locked ground. This can often be overcome as a lot of pictures can be captured from outside (low fences or ones with holes in, even gaps underneath!) I have received some very strange looks from local residents and passers by as I contort myself to get my missing snap. On the mentioned Surrey trip I ended up balanced on a plank above a compost heap in a semi-private allotment behind some very posh houses just to get an image of the main stand at Wheatsheaf Park, Staines. It’s only a matter of time before I have to explain myself to a local bemused police force having been reported in by some suspicious local.
As I mentioned earlier I will soon complete grounds within Greater London. As I pen this piece I am getting ready to embark on my first “hop” elsewhere. I am booked on a bus to Brighton to clock up grounds along the West Sussex coast. Further districts around the South East will be next on the agenda, before hopefully spending some time during my works holidays later next year visiting cities and districts far and wide.
I realise some of you will probably have me and any fellow groundhopper down for requiring psychiatric treatment, and you may have a point in some cases. Hopefully though this article may save one of my fellow sufferers filthy looks or in the worst-case scenario physical violence. We are not staring you out. You are probably blocking our view of a football ground. Please treat us kindly.