In Praise Of… “Football Grounds With Alan Mullery”
Molineux, Wolverhampton. Judging by the brightness of the sunshine and the bareness of the goalmouth, it’s springtime. The camera lingers on the main stand as it fills up with a lone goalkeeper (Mike Stowell, perhaps?) warming up in front of the camera. Finally, a shower of ticker-tape and the team takes the pitch. Welcome to “Football Grounds With Alan Mullery”. There comes a point when even the most obsessive of us think, “You know, maybe this is too much”, and it’s entirely plausible to believe that many of us might reach that moment with this video.
And yet… this is a time capsule. Our football stadia stayed largely unchanged for much of the twentieth century, and this is probably why Molineux was chosen as the opening shots for this video. When it arose from the crumbling ruins of the old stadium in the early 1990s, it was considered to be the height of new ground sophistication. Less than two decades on, “Football Grounds with Alan Mullery” (recorded in 1993) already had the sense of being a paean to a lost age of vast concrete terraces. By the time it was being filmed, it was already clear from a cursory viewing of “Match Of The Day” that the times were a-changin’. If the first couple of seasons of the Premier League had a “look” to speak of, that look was probably bulldozers, wooden boards and the occasional skiving workman as the out was swept out and the new was ushered in.
Alan Mullery looks surprisingly ill at ease in front of the camera, although he retains the familiar, extravangantly-spectacled look that those that recall his managerial stints at the likes of Brighton, Charlton and Crystal Palace will remember well. After a perfunctory introduction, he disappears and is replaced by our guide, Peter Wickham, who takes us up an unnamed motorway to Newcastle United’s St James Park, where he notes the “unusual concrete crush barriers” and – possibly sarcastically, possibly not – that with the construction of the new stand at the Gallowgate End, that “the view of Gateshead will be blocked out for good”. With that (for the narrative of this video, to the extent that there is any – not that it needs any), he’s off to Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park to linger upon a scale model of what we now know as the Riverside Stadium, before Alan interjects again (quite clearly, it should be noted, standing at the foot of the old open terrace at Craven Cottage), to tell us about how he once tackled Brian Clough and then curtly reminded him that he’d “never heard of him”.
And so it goes on. Wickham travels south, accompanied by a John Shuttleworth-esque synthesised soundtrack, to York City’s Bootham Crescent and then to Huddersfield Town’s Leeds Road. It is venues such as Leeds Road that hold our attention the most, with blue paint having faded off the wooden tip-up seats, the wooden lattice in the roof of The Cowshed Terrace and an air of dereliction about the place as the club prepared to move to Galpharm. Ewood Park, meanwhile, is a building site in a very literal sense. Not even the pitch is visible under the building rubble and bulldozers. Meanwhile, the fact that Anfield during the Kop’s last season is only shot from the outside seems to indicate that the production team couldn’t get in to have a nose round. They have more luck at Old Trafford, which is already starting to take on the appearance of the behemoth that it is today. No mention of a megastore, though.
This cycle then continues for what seems like the rest of my life, but is in actuality only just over an hour. What becomes increasingly apparent is that Alan Mullery’s interest in ground architecture isn’t as great as might be imagined. His recollections largely involve – as one might expect, and certainly not without justification – what happened with respect to the various grounds being looked at rather than anything else. His primary recollection of Bramall Lane is of, whilst the ground was still three-sided, kicking the ball as far onto the cricket pitch as possible if holding on for a result, whilst a fondness for Chester City is revealed for the slightly peculiar reason that he almost signed Ian Rush for Brighton while he was the manager there.
As things progress, the voice-over takes an almost flowery tone, particularly in its descriptions of Molineux and Gay Meadow. At Wolves, he meets the head groundsman, who is understandably delighted with the developments at his place of employment, and Fred Davies, the apparently 150 year-old man whose job it was to pick the ball out of the River Severn in his self-made coracle if it was booted out of the ground. Finally, though, we reach London, where Alan tells us a little bit about Craven Cottage (although his reminiscences about various Fulham “characters” are likely to make anybody that doesn’t support Fulham’s eyes glaze over for a couple of minutes), before heading off around the rest of London and out to Wycombe, following them back into town to Wembley Stadium for the 1993 FA Trophy Final.
At almost a decade’s remove, it’s easy to forget how much of a dump the old Wembley was. As the Wycombe Wanderers and Runcorn players take the pitch, they have to walk through a good half inch of sand, and it’s no great leap of imagination to think that they are having to watch their step in order to avoid pieces of petrified greyhound faeces from days gone by. The seats are faded and grey and even the netting on the voluminous goals looks as if it may have been pulled taut as a cost-cutting measure. By 1993, Wembley was a (in the case of the plastic seats, literally) faded and jaded facsimile of the legendary venue of popular folklore.
A final twist comes with the closing credits, when it is revealed that the script was written was written by one of the unsung heroes of non-league football writing, Dave Twydell. Twydell has spent more than twenty years writing innumerable books about both league and non-league football, including the invaluable “Defunct” series of books and an authorative history of Brentford at Griffin Park. With this, the keen eye for the quirky detail of the grounds that he visits – the statue with it’s back to the ground overlooking Gay Meadow, the camera shot lingering on a protected tree that sits just outside Craven Cottage – start to make sense. This is a man that knows his football, and knows his football grounds. Without having realised it, you’ve spent the last hour and a quarter in the company of a legend – and that legend’s name isn’t Alan Mullery.
It’s ironic, really, that Mullery’s involvement in this video is the weak point in a film that captures a critical juncture in the modern history of English football. The old was being swept ruthlessly out and being replaced with a brave new world of glass, steel and concrete. There is no question that much of this needed to be done – the disrepair and grime of the likes of Leeds Road and even Wembley Stadium are self-evident – but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in the enormous rush to sweep out what was considered to be the dead wood, both on the pitch and off it, something great (as many the many bad and dangerous things) was lost that we’ll probably never get back. For those amongst us that are interested in the history of the game, it might be useful to take those blinkers off and hunt down a copy of this. Just try to tune the music out.
“Football Grounds With Alan Mullery” is out of print and was never released on DVD but, should you be interested in this sort of thing, there are a handful of second-hand copies on Amazon at present, should you still have a video player.