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Football's Greatest Comebacks

Rest in peace

Football's Greatest Comebacks
11 January 2018

I’ve been watching football for a long time, but I didn’t realise quite how long it had been until I casually had a conversation about the many grounds I’d been to over the course of my supporting career, and realised that I was into the double figures of visiting grounds that no longer existed.

It was a strange realisation, to look back on those fond (and not-so-fond) memories and think about the history that those famous old grounds had seen; the hopes made real and the dreams dashed, the drama, the joy, the heartbreak - and then, one day, it was all over. No more action, the bulldozers called in, and the centre circle destined to become part of an Asda car park.

But we will not forget. We will remember them. So, like my guide to the UK’s most beautiful football stadiums, I offer my list of the most-missed of them all, unapogetically based, in the main, on my experiences of them while following my team, Leyton Orient.

Let’s pay tribute to these former cauldrons of football.

23. Boothferry Park (Hull City) - last game 2002

Hull legend Dean Windass stands on what used to be the home terrace at Boothferry Park

Reader, I will not lie, I visited Boothferry Park the year before it was condemned to watch the Os claim a solid 1-0 defeat in the play-off semi-final first leg (which proved to be enough as we won the second leg 2-0) and the old place was falling apart - literally, in the case of the away end, as lumps of broken-off concrete were just lying around.

Still, I remember it had a tremendous atmosphere and it turns out that its run-down nature was very much part of its charm: it obtained the nickname ‘Fer Ark’ due to the fact that only those letters were left illuminated on the giant ‘boothFERry pARK’ sign outside. Before this, it had been known as ‘Bothferry Park’, after one of the Os fell off. Superb.

22. Saltergate (Chesterfield) - last game 2010

Fans invade the pitch at the end of the very last game played at Chesterfield’s old Saltergate stadium

I’m putting this one in both despite, and because of, one of the worst away experiences I’ve ever had in my life, as Orient were demolished 4-1, we had coins and darts thrown at us by scallies in the home end while stewards who had, before the game, been presented with an award for their sterling work, proceeded to then refuse to go into the home crowd and sort the culprits out (“I don’t get paid enough mate,” a memorable reply from one of them when we asked why they were just stood there watching).

So why is it in there? Well, it was a memorable day and also it was, for better or worse, a proper old football stadium. Also, fun fact, Saltergate stood in for Wembley Stadium, Carrow Road, Bloomfield Road the Baseball Ground (more on that later) in the brilliant 2009 film The Damned United.

21. Upton Park (West Ham) - last game 2016

Don’t know if you heard, but West Ham moved stadiums recently

I’m not sure if you’d have heard about this one because no one seemed to mention it, but apparently West Ham became the first team to ever have to move grounds back in 2016. Still, the new one has a much better atmosphere so it’s all worked out just fine…

Joking (absolutely not joking) aside, Upton Park (I never once heard anyone refer to it as the Boleyn Ground until they were about to leave - did anyone mention that they left? I’m not sure they did) was a great ground, with the action close in and, in recent decades, the regular scene of the Hammers thwarting Man United as their players caved in under the febrile atmosphere. The famous old ‘chicken run’ East Stand used to generate a fearsome sound and the weird castle things on the West Stand were nothing if not memorable. Still, the Taxpayer, sorry, London Stadium eh? Just as good. Just as good.

20. Goldstone Ground (Brighton) - last game 1997

Fans invade the pitch after the last game at the Goldstone Ground

The Goldstone endured an ignominious end to its 96-year history as it was sold off by the unscrupulous chairman Bill Archer with no new stadium in place and a host of on and off-pitch protests which led to bans and points deductions and the club very nearly slipping out of the Football League; a fate they avoided by winning their last-ever game at the ground and then securing a draw against Hereford, who went down instead.

However, it doesn’t deserve to be remembered for its bitter final years; instead we should recall the hosting of 2,174 games across all four of the Football League divisions and many generations of great memories.

19. Filbert Street (Leicester) - last game 2002

Before Leicester were Premier League champions, this was their home

A stadium that bowed out on a Nelson - 111 years of service - Filbert Street was, in some ways, a victim of the success of its club, Leicester City. With the triumphs of the Martin O’Neill years in the ‘90s, the club decided, in 1998, to relocate rather than attempt to expand Filbert Street, which, after a Taylor Report-instigated redevelopment, had a capacity of only 21,500.

As good as the new stadium is - and it was, of course, to witness the most unlikely title win in footballing history in 2016 - it’s a shame that the old ground, which boasted the famous ‘double decker’ south stand, had to go, but that’s progress I guess. 111 years and (roughly) 47 Gary Lineker tap-ins: farewell Filbert Street.

18. Burnden Park (Bolton Wanderers) - last game 1997

L.S. Lowry’s ‘Going to the Match’, which features Bolton’s old Burnden Park ground

A famous old ground that saw some of the greatest sights in English football history - Nat Lofthouse banging them in in the 1950s, hosting the 1901 FA Cup Final replay - and also some of the worst, with the 1946 overcrowding disaster claiming the lives of 33 Wanderers fans.

Nonetheless, it witnessed 102 years of football from one of the 12 founder members of the Football League, and was even the subject of a painting in 1953 by L.S. Lowry, entitled ‘Going to the Match’, which was bought for £1.9 million by the PFA in 1999. Say what you see L.S., say what you see.

These days the site is an Asda superstore, as well as hosting a Co-op travel shop, a Subway and a Carphone Warehouse, which we’re sure is just what Lofthouse would have wanted.

17. Ayresome Park (Middlesbrough) - last game 1995

North Korea celebrate their famous win at Ayresome Park in 1966

Ayresome Park warrants inclusion on this list purely for playing host to one of the greatest upsets in footballing history - when, as a host ground in the 1966 World Cup, it saw North Korea beat Italy 1-0 and knock them out of the trophy.

However, it was, of course, the home of Middlesbrough for 92 years, bowing out with a title win in the old Division One (now Championship), led by player-manager Bryan Robson after the decision was made, in the wake of the Taylor Report, that it would be too expensive, and leave the club with too small a capacity, to convert it to the new standards.

Excellently though, the club didn’t forget its old home, as the gates of Ayresome Park were taken with them and relocated outside the entrance to the club’s new ground, the Riverside Stadium.

16. Feethams (Darlington) - last game 2003

Darlington take on Chelsea at Feethams back in 1958

A ground that wasn’t just famous for football, but for cricket too, with Feetham’s witnessing Durham’s first-ever home victory in the County Championship in 1992. This dual-use led to the strange quirk of fans having to walk round the cricket pitch after going through the turnstiles in order to get to the football ground; and that wasn’t the only lovable aspect - in true non-league style, its layout allowed supporters to change ends at half-time.

Feethams was the home of Darlington for 120 years before it met an unnecessary end, with infamous chairman George Reynolds moving them to a new 25,000 stadium (which they never even came close to filling) - a decision which would eventually lead to the demise of the original club who were unable to deal with the ensuing debt. Meanwhile, Feethams was demolished in 2006 after an arson attack on the vacant ground.

Another brilliant Feethams fact: in 1907, it hosted an England Amateur international, which saw them beat the Netherlands 12-2. As this match was recognised as a full international by the Dutch FA, it remains their largest-ever defeat.

15. Highfield Road (Coventry) - last game 2005

Coventry City’s old Highfield Road

I daresay that Coventry City fans would give anything to trade their current Ricoh Arena - and hapless owners SISU - to go back to the glory days at Highfield Road. It was their home from 1899 through to 2005, when it was deemed a good idea to sell Highfield Road and relocate to a new purpose-built stadium, but relegation, financial problems and poor management mean that they now have to pay rent to play at the Ricoh and, despite having been the fourth longest-serving club in the top division in 2001, they now languish in the lower divisions.

Highfield Road was nothing if not a survivor, enduring bombing by the Luftwaffe (which saw turnstiles deposited 500 metres down the road), the main stand burning down in 1968 and the visit of Leeds fans in 1981 who ripped out a section of the seats. However, it was finally consigned to history when it was demolished in 2006 to make way for a housing development although, pleasingly, the area which was originally the playing surface was relaid with grass so that children can continue to play on it.

14. The Den (Millwall) - last game 1993

The Den in 1976

One of the most legendary grounds in footballing history, to take a trip into the away end at The Den was to walk into a veritable cauldron of noise, as the ‘Millwall Roar’ erupted to intimidate both visiting supporters and players. It was known as one of the most hostile grounds in world football and was closed a record five times by the FA for rule violations.

Visiting fans knew they were in for a treat early on as the entrance to the Ilderton Road end was through a dark, unsurfaced car park on top of a disused railway embankment, while the other end of the ground was accessible only via the narrow, cobbled and aptly-named Cold Blow Lane. However, like many other grounds on this list, the decision was taken to build a new, modern stadium, and the club duly moved to the New Den (originally the New London Stadium) in 1993; it may now share the name of the famous old place, but it will never recapture that air of danger and excitement.

13. Ninian Park (Cardiff) - last game 2009

The old Ninian Park gates at the new Cardiff City Stadium

The home of Cardiff City for 99 years, Ninian Park saw its glory days in the 1950s, when it regularly hosted attendances in excess of 50,000. It also hosted the Wales national team, with 84 international fixtures taking place before it was finally closed in 2009. The site was originally a rubbish dump and, in its early years, debris such as glass would often rise up to the grass surface - players were often paid extra to turn up early and clean the pitch before the game. Presumably, when the crowd shouted ‘rubbish’, it wouldn’t always be in reference to the quality of Cardiff’s performance.

Safety issues led to Wales moving away to Cardiff Arms Park before it was eventually decided that a new ground for Cardiff City would be needed. Now, as so often, the former site of the ground is a housing development although, since Pope John Paul II once appeared there in 1982, presumably the location is suitably blessed (although Cardiff’s results at Ninian Park in the wake of his visit might suggest otherwise).

12. The Baseball Ground (Derby) - last game 1997

The Baseball Ground was Derby’s home up until 1997

As the name suggests, Derby County’s ground was originally used for baseball for the first eight years of its life, until 1898, when the Rams moved in. And why was there a baseball ground in Derby? Well, it was part of a ‘personal quest’ by businessman Sir Francis Ley to introduce baseball to the UK with his stadium the focal point of a sporting complex for workers at his foundry, Ley’s Malleable Castings Vulcan Ironworks. We already had rounders, did no one tell you Franny?

After almost a decade of football, eventually the practicalities of implementing the Taylor Report meant that the ground was too small for the club, who had lofty ambitious; they duly moved to the newly-built Pride Park in 1997. It continued to host reserve and youth games before finally being - yes you guessed it - demolished for housing in 2003.

11. Plough Lane (Wimbledon) - last game 1991

Wimbledon’s old Plough Lane

Having ended up living in Wimbledon for a good few years, it’s always pained me that the legendary Plough Lane was no longer around to go and visit. Built on disused swampland in 1912, its South Stand was originally purchased from the Orient (then in Clapton) in 1923, although this was bombed in the Second World War. However, it was soon restored to its former glory and the ground saw its happiest years in the 1980s when the crazy gang - complete with their legendary dressing room antics - ruled the roost, with the club famously winning the FA Cup in 1988.

Again, the Taylor Report meant that modernisation work would be required; however, instead of attempting something that would have been expensive, but not impossible, owner Sam Hamman instead took the club to a ‘temporary’ groundshare with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park from 1991. The Dons would never return and, of course, were sold up the river - literally - when they were uprooted to Milton Keynes in 2004. AFC Wimbledon, the resultant phoenix club, has always aimed for a return to Plough Lane, and plans to move to a new ground on the site of the old dog track are closer than ever following an agreement with the council in December 2017: it will be a momentous day when the club are finally back home where they belong.

10. The Manor Ground (Oxford) - last game 2001

Beautiful (image: Steve Daniels/Wikicommons)

These days Oxford play at the out-of-town Kassam Stadium, following their move in 2001 away from the famous Manor Ground, which they’d played at for 76 years. I’ll leave it to my friend Joel to describe just what made it special:

“Initially seated with my dad in the family stand, I felt like a YTS trainee supporter who eagerly wanted to graduate to the first-team football that was standing behind the goal in the London Road end. A covered terrace swaying with loudly singing supporters who undoubtedly had an effect on each home game, it was this section of the ground which provided me with my abiding memories of the Manor Ground, a tumbledown hotchpotch place with Meccano-style flood lights, a wedge-shaped away end and of course, the famous slope which ran down towards the roaring, baying masses crammed into the ‘London Road’.

“Many games live long in the memory at The Manor, as do many players, but nothing will ever compare to the nostalgia of night games at this incredible theatre. At 7.25pm on a Tuesday night, turning off the main road which runs through the expensive Oxford suburb of Headington and walking down towards the entrance to the London Road terrace was like stepping through the wardrobe and into Narnia. A mythical world of loud noises, smells, lights, magic and the unknown.

“Wading through the crowd to my usual spot on the terrace, it was during the wonderful Manor Ground years that football infected me with a yellow fever. This was a time when passion triumphed over points, cheeky chants over trophies. I have dear friends who I made solely from being on the London Road and it is these friends, and the stories we tell of games gone by in a place we used to call ‘home’ that will outweigh any on-field success, cup upset or promotion, and make every relegation, bankruptcy threat or simple weekly dropping of points so much easier to take.”

9. Underhill (Barnet) - last game 2013

An atmospheric night under the lights at Underhill

I know what you’re thinking: Underhill was meant to be terrible wasn’t it? And it had that ridiculous slope? And, in its later years, away fans had to sit in an uncovered stand meaning you got absolutely soaked if it rained? Well, yes, yes and yes. But, still, I miss Underhill. It was crap, but it was brilliant, and I saw a load of absolutely superb ding-dongs between Orient and Barnet over the years.

Best of all though, as a wee nipper, I remember a rainy Tuesday night when I looked on in awe as a 47-year-old Peter Shilton, still one of my heroes to this day, rolled back the years and pulled off save after save to earn us a 0-0 draw. There was something magical about watching a legend of the game - who had nothing left to prove - get stuck in in the mud and rain on a tiny, atmospheric ground. Proper bloody football that.

8. Roker Park (Sunderland) - last game 1997

A packed Roker Park in 1996

Another ground that hosted matches in the 1966 World Cup; Roker Park received four of them, including an Eastern Bloc quarter-final between the Soviet Union and Hungary. But it was most famous for being Sunderland’s home from 1898, with the ‘Roker Roar’ regularly spurring the team on to triumph. The main stand was designed by the legendary Archibald Leitch; it nearly bankrupted the club but ensured that capacity rose to an official 60,000 - although often, in those safety-concern free times, there would be a lot more than that crammed in to watch the Black Cats.

Roker Park saw three league titles brought back in the early decades of the 20th Century but, again, the Taylor Report would mean that its capacity was severely reduced and, with the ground too constricted to enable expansion, and with the club remaining ambitious, a move, to the Stadium of Light, was inevitable. Again, the site is now the home of a housing estate, but it hasn’t forgotten its roots: the streets were named Promotion Close, Clockstand Close, Goalmouth Close, Midfield Drive, Turnstile Mews and Roker Park Close.

7. Millmoor (Rotherham United) - last game 2008

View from the away end at Millmoor

I am unashamedly including Millmoor in the list primarily because it played host to the second-greatest day of my Orient-supporting life, when, after 210 goalless minutes over two legs of a play-off semi-final, we triumphed in a penalty-shoot to make it to (the old) Wembley. The atmosphere under the roof of the old Railway End away stand was the best I have ever experienced - and, as I recall, the home support in the rest of the ground was pretty tasty too.

After being Rotherham’s home for 101 years, the club moved away, first to the Don Valley stadium, and then to the New York stadium. Meanwhile, Millmoor still stands, but does not have a professional tenant - these days, it’s used for youth football. It seems a crying shame that the atmosphere of that Tuesday night in 1999 will never be experienced again.

6. The Dell (Southampton) - last game 2001

As soon as I was old enough to understand football I understood that The Dell was the archetypal ‘crowd virtually spilling out onto the pitch’ ground, with fans right on the edge of the action. Despite, by the end, only having a capacity of 15,000, it had a hostile atmosphere which could unsettle opponents; most famously, in its latter years, with the sight of an overwhelmed Manchester United losing 3-1 in a match in 1996 and changing their grey shirts at half-time after Sir Alex Ferguson’s claim that they couldn’t see each other in them.

The Dell played host to many successful seasons from The Saints but, to me, it will always be remembered as the arena for the irrepressible brilliance of Matt Le Tissier, who played his entire career there and, fittingly, scored a volley in the final minutes of the final league match played, to take the honour of scoring the last competitive goal at the ground.

Yeah, you know what’s coming next don’t you? Just look how close those fans behind the goal are to the pitch.

5. Layer Road (Colchester United) - last game 2008

Outside Colchester Utd’s Layer Road

I went to Layer Road many times before Colchester moved out-of-town to the Community Stadium in 2008 after 71 years there, and I loved it every time, despite the fact I’m fairly sure I never saw a win. The capacity was a mere 6,320 and it was cramped and intimate - so cramped in fact that the back of the goal and the netting actually cut back into the stand at the Layer Road End. You were virtually on top of the players and you knew they could hear every word you shouted. A much-missed ground, full of character.

4. The Gay Meadow (Shrewsbury Town) - last game 2007

The picturesque setting of Shrewsbury’s old home

It pained me to have to leave The Gay Meadow off my list of the UK’s most beautiful football stadiums on account of it not existing anymore, following Shrewsbury’s move to the New Meadow, back in 2007. There was very little not to love about the ground, with three terraced sides and a hugely picturesque setting, complete with views of Shrewsbury’s Castle and Abbey, on the banks of the River Severn - a position which, of course, necessitated the positioning of a man in a coracle, Fred Davies, to collect any balls booted out by lower league defenders who overhit row Z.

Ultimately, the ground had poor access for the emergency services and fans alike, while its proximity to the river led to regular flooding and postponed games during the winter months, so a move was inevitable. But still, we all miss it.

3. Highbury (Arsenal) - last game 2006

The remaining facade of the old Highbury East Stand

I remember going to Highbury with a school friend to watch the Gunners against Blackburn, having only previously seen the ground on the TV. The first thing that struck me upon entering was just how small and narrow the pitch was - the fact that Anders Limpar and Paul Merson were able to forge successful careers here was nothing short of a miracle. And the second thing, when Arsenal took the lead, thanks to a goal from the aforementioned Merse, was the noise and the roar of the crowd that being in such a vast, yet intimate stadium, could help amplify.

Of course, architecturally, it was magnificent, with the famous Clock End, and the art deco façade of the East Stand on Avenell Road (the façade of the West Stand also remains, while the old pitch was converted to a garden). The Emirates, of course, is a wonderful stadium, and Arsenal needed to make the move to compete long-term with rivals with larger capacities, but Highbury remains much-missed.

2. Wembley Stadium (England) - last game 2000

The famous old Wembley Twin Towers

I’m going to say it right now: the new Wembley is not a patch on the old one. I’ll never forget my first visit there, to watch England v Argentina back in 1991, walking up Wembley Way with the famous twin towers in the distance. It was utterly spellbinding. I saw Orient lose the play-off final there in 1999 and it was clear that it needed modernisation - it was a very old stadium, built for standing, which had had seats thrust upon it so you had no legroom. The facilities were basic - but it was Wembley.

I was lucky enough to go to the first England game of Euro ‘96, and when Alan Shearer ended his goal drought against Switzerland, the huge roar that went up was truly breathtaking. It didn’t just have footballing history; when I recently watched the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert and saw the shots looking out from the stage and from the air, the hairs on the back of my neck went up. There was no sight like it in the world.

The new Wembley is perfectly functional, and the arch was a valiant attempt at creating a new feature to rival those Twin Towers; but they were so iconic that it truly is a tragedy that they weren’t able to be worked into the design of the new stadium. Oh, and one more thing, the old Wembley was, of course, briefly the home of the Orient - the Os played two Third Division South matches back in 1930, so it had to be high up the list, didn’t it?

1. Maine Road (Manchester City) - last game 2003

When I went up to visit my sister at university for the first time, there was no doubt in my mind the first place that I was going to go. I duly dragged her along to watch a game at Maine Road, with City then at their lowest-ever ebb, in the third tier, facing off against Colchester United, a team I had watched Orient play many times. It was freezing, City played badly (but just about won), but it was everything I wanted it to be. You could feel the history seeping out of the stands themselves; I looked at the pitch and imagined seeing Summerbee, Bell and Lee doing their stuff; if I squinted I could even see the recently-departed Georgi Kinkladze undertaking one of his mazy runs, and when I got back home I’d rewatch the video of Oasis’ famous gigs at the ground in 1996.

Its 80-year history saw a host of famous matches, including countless cup semi-finals, back in the days when they were played on neutral ground. Of course, it made complete sense for the club to move to the new City of Manchester stadium, built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and, of course, just five years later they were to be bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group and catapulted to become the richest club in the world - and, of course, this led to them finally ending a 44-year wait for a title. But still, I’m sure that every Manchester City must miss Maine Road a little; a ground that had true northern soul.

(Main image: Shutterstock, all other images: Rex)

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