Friday, 23 October 2009

My Theatre of Hope....

Following on from my last post about the gulf in differences between the teams at the top of the Premier League and those in the divisions below, I thought i'd write a piece about the ever changing picture of the modern football stadium.

I make no apologies for saying that I love my teams football ground, Gillingham's Priestfield Stadium. In no way do I claim it to be or make it out to be the most aesthetically pleasing stadium to the naked eye, but having visited all other league grounds over the past few months it made me realise how much I appreciate having the chance to walk through a fairly run down high street, after a health conscious fry up for lunch, knowing that by the time I reach the train station at the top of town i'll be able to see the floodlights towering above the stadium, guiding the way down two or three short residential streets. It doesn't sound glamorous and it isn't but why would you want it to be? A dodgy parking space, greasy spoon bacon and eggs, a pint with no bubbles, your team winning 2-1 after trailing at half time and James Alexander Gordon on 5 live sports report filling you in with the days other results whilst you drive home. That's what football's all about isn't it?

Dont get me wrong, some new builds are essential due the lack of expansion space or cost of re-developing the old stadium, so not all teams can stay in their spiritual homes. But the need for teams like Darlington to build a 25,000 all seater, completely soulless and pointless leisure centre with a council restriction on the capacity for the club reduced to 10,000 seems little short of crazy. There's no history at the stadium and barely any association with the club it's meant to be benefiting and that's before going inside and witnessing the non existant atmosphere. It must be soul destroying for any fan of that club to see how much their new stadium has taken away when it had promised to be so advantageous. The sound of ticket tearing at the turnstiles is replaced by a small human version of the Dartford toll. Enter your ticket or card, wait for the green light and proceed through the barrier. The sight of four floodlight pylons is exchanged for a hundred of those B&Q spotlights that often illuminate your neighbour’s back garden. The list really could go on.

A few years ago now, a national newspaper published a story revealing the worst grounds in the English football league. Even in 2004, with a set of terracing behind the town end goal and away toilet facilities reminiscent to the bucket and spade method found at some coach stops in France, I could have reeled off a list of at least 20 other teams situated in worse areas, with worse facilities and a worse stadium. The outrageous article went on to add that "Gillingham was the biggest dump in English football” and that it made “Middlesbrough look like Monte Carlo”. However, in the last 10 years Gills have won 115 of their 230 home league games. Quite impressive considering we've had two relegations in that period. Infact, with only 66 defeats in that time it suggests that a trip to Gillingham isn’t every visiting side’s highlight of the year and in this respect the club holds a great advantage. With our away form as patchy as a Sunday League goalmouth in winter, our home form is crucial to our survival.

What a contrast this Saturday will provide. With talks of a sell out for the game with Charlton Athletic, Priestfield could see its biggest league crowd since in excess of 11,400 watched us beat West Ham 2-0 in 2003. It really doesn't seem like 6 years have passed since our nosebleed years in the second tier or 5 years since I watched Sunderland visit and take the 3 points away with a 4-0 demolition job making us look stupid in the process. So much has happened since then. A successful relegation battle, two unsuccessful ones followed by a first promotion in 10 years... It's been hard to keep up with the ever exciting life as a Gill.

Noise and atmosphere might not be Priestfield’s strongest points, but it ouzes character and history and makes for a more exciting prospect than a visit to any new, characterless bowl. Teams and players alike want to get in and get out as quickly as possible leading to sides such as Aston Villa, at full strength, in last seasons FA Cup struggling to perform and only scraping through with a dodgy last minute penalty. With ideas of a new stadium being pushed firmly to the back of the filing cabinet, let’s hope Charlton and every other away team don’t fancy the prospect of playing in ME7 this season.

After all, it might just be the difference between which side of the dotted line we finish come May.

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