Ken Gambles gets around. Sunderland support has taken him all over the country. Worst ground, offering grounds for divorce after a lifelong love affair with football? The old Den probably took the biscuit for Monsieur Salut – a demoralising experience that had you questioning your own sanity for being there – and if we are honest, some opposing fans will point fingers at Roker Park or the SoL. But Ken has a negative batch of medals to award to three other stadiums …
As the close season meanders its way towards August 18 and various transfer targets flit in and out of the newspaper headlines, with the Olympics still to be endured (G4S permitting), it seems opportune to look back over 40-odd years of following Sunderland and award gold/silver/bronze for the grounds that provide the worst memories.
By worst I mean the whole matchday experience (ugh!) in terms of travel, food and drink, results etc.
Were it merely a matter of results then I suppose the old Wembley (1973 excepted), Highbury, Selhurst Park and even Eastlands would be prime candidates for the medals.
It’s evidently an intensely personal choice based on a number of visits but my chosen three have all challenged my love for the game.
I dearly wanted to choose the Sports Direct Arena but some great results there and a generally cracking derby atmosphere, if intimidating, rules it out. Also as A Love Supreme so marvellously put it, “if the game is poor you can always watch Berwick”.
My bronze medal therefore goes to Upton Park.
It’s an odd choice really and could have stemmed from an 8-0 hammering (how appropriate) in 1968 but I’d been a couple of times before and it always seemed cramped with poor views. Later visits to a revamped ground hardly improved the downbeat verdict; given the lack of friendly pubs, the queues for the tube and the crammed journey too and from central London, I’d be happy not to have to go again.
There always appears to be an air of menace around the place with too many “geezers” waiting for something to kick off. I’d absolutely hate to be around when they play Millwall.
Menace and intimidation bring me nicely on to the silver medal position which is claimed by Elland Road. Oddly enough I have some good memories of the place, most especially the 1-1 draw after extra time in a 5th Round replay in 1967, with a record crowd in the ground, and more recently good wins under McCarthy and Keane.
On every visit, however, I’ve felt under threat, never more so than in the late 80s in the old Lowfields Stand, or was it Lowlife? That day I was glad to get out unscathed and my Yorkshire accent came in very useful as there were scenes mildly reminiscent of Stamford Bridge in 1985 with yobs seeking out visiting supporters to attack.
Of all the football fans I’ve met over the years those of Leeds and the Boro have generally been the least capable of discussing the game in a calm and reasoned manner.
When we play at Elland Road there is ALWAYS trouble on the corner by the Bremner statue (fitting really). It seems they will never forgive us for 1973 – but then again I can’t forgive them for their gamesmanship and dirty play in the 1960s. Add to this the swathes of surrounding motorways, the no-go pubs and the less than admirable Mr Bates and you have a worthy silver medallist.
But let’s go now to the winner of this tarnished gold medal.
With regard to Goodison Park,let me first make clear it’s largely friendly, relatively trouble-free and you can get into the pubs, albeit on the Liverpool side of Stanley Park. When I was young, Goodison was a glamour ground with its double-decker stand and the brilliantly familiar Archibald Leitch ironwork.
They also had some fine players such as Alex Young, Gordon West, Brian Labone and Jimmy Gabriel. In 1966 the ground famously hosted some excellent World Cup games including one of my all-time favourites, Hungary v Brazil.
Those days are long gone though and it really is well past its best with very cramped seating, poor sightlines, minimal catering and inadequate toilets. Add to this our varied record at the place, where we lose, lose easily or lose heavily in an improbable sequence going back to 1996 (even drawing there in the cup now seems like a defeat – ed). Yes, there has been the odd draw and I did see the Bridges-inspired win but in about 14 visits I have seen one victory, that happy memory overwhelmed by consistently miserable performances including 7-1 and 4-0 defeats.
Even seeing Jon Stead score a goal can’t prevent Goodison taking gold in my hatred of the place. As an aside, the ground does have a wonderful timeline of photographs from events in Everton’s history on display around the ground (and what a great idea this would be for the Stadium Of Light).
No doubt everyone will have their own particular choice of horror ground for a variety of reasons but on a basis of continual cruelty these three are almost enough to make me give up going to away games, but of course I expect I’ll be there when the season does eventually begin.