Football has changed in many ways over the last twenty-five years. If you were to put the average twenty-five year old in a time machine and transport them back to 1983, the first thing they’d ask would be probably be, “where is the football”? Confined on the television to an hour on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, and to one page in most daily newspaper, the game was certainly less visible than it is now. Once said twenty-five year old had actually managed to locate the game, they would almost certainly notice the decrepit state that it was in. The comparatively small crowds at matches, the hooliganism and, most noticeably of all, the condition of the the stadia.
By 1983, most English football grounds were in a poor state. Most had not been significantly developed since at least before the war. Hillsborough and the Bradford Fire were just around the corner. Clubs which recently had carried out ambitious building projects over the previous ten years – Bristol City, Wolves and Chelsea, for example – had been hampered by poor design and spiralling prices. The very arenas in which the English watched their football were about to change beyond recognition and for good. Simon Inglis and “The Football Grounds Of England & Wales” was, to an extent, in the right place at the right time to capture a world that was, for better or for worse, about to disappear forever.
The premise of the book is fairly simple. There are chapters on the history of football stadia, on the developments of floodlighting, goal posts and goal nets, and then it’s in to the meat of the book – a tour of all ninety-two of the Football League’s members, and a trip to Wembley Stadium. There’s a chapter about the former homes of clubs that were no longer members of the League, and there are appendices at the back about the Burnden Park tragedy of 1946 (when thirty-three people were crushed to death during an FA Cup match between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City), admission prices, The 92 Club (the club – still going strong today – for people that have visited all ninety-two Football League and Premier League grounds) and the origin of the name “Spion Kop”.
In some ways, and for the supporters of many clubs, “The Football Grounds Of England & Wales” is no more than a nostalgia trip. Thirty of the ninety-two grounds that Inglis visited in 1983 are no longer there – the clubs have moved on, usually through their own volition, but not always. A handful of clubs have also fallen out of the Football League (Halifax Town, who folded and reformed last summer), but no-one in the book is not represented today in some shape or form, which is, if you stop and think about it, quite a remarkable achievement. Some of the grounds, such as Bristol Rovers’ Eastville and Newport County’s Somerton Park were in a remarkable state of disrepair even in 1983. Neither would be standing within ten years. Inglis isn’t afraid to call things as he sees them, criticising, for example, Wolves’ decision to build a stand that was twenty-odd yards from the pitch. He seems to have an inbuilt understanding of the need to improve the safety of English football grounds, while retaining their unique atmosphere, tradition and ambience. Whether his thoughts on the subject – and, if nothing else, writing this book made him one of the leading authorities on it in the country – is, however, a moot point.
By the time of the second edition of the book was written in 1986, everything had changed. The second volume devotes a considerable amount of time to the Bradford Fire. Inglis had noted upon his visit to Valley Parade in 1983 that there were gaps between the seats in the stand into which piles of rubbish had fallen, and was told that they were cleaned at the end of each season. This litter was one of the major causes of the fire. In the introduction to the second edition, however, he describes himself as having been “indefensibly soft” on Bradford for describing the main stand there as “worthy of preservation”. By 1986, many clubs had been forced to close parts of their grounds as fire hazards and, with plummeting attendances preventing many from carrying out much needed repair work, it was questionable whether the game would be able to survive as we knew it. Within the next two or three years, Walsall and Scunthorpe United would become the first Football League clubs in over thirty years to move to new homes. Fellowes Park and The Old Show Ground became the first of a multitude of grounds to be lost to the history books.
Inglis didn’t see Hillsborough coming but, then again, no-one did. His section on Sheffield Wednesday only briefly mentions the Leppings Lane end of the ground at which the disaster unfolded. This seems to vindicate the widespread belief that terraces in themselves aren’t unsafe – that there were a host of procedural and policing errors on the day which exacerbated the problems there caused by fencing and crush barriers that were primarily in position for reasons of containment rather than safety. The introduction to the second edition, however, is telling. He warns clubs against moving to “soulless concrete stadiums with no atmosphere”. No chance if that happening, then. Overall, though, “The Football Grounds Of England & Wales” and “The Football Grounds Of Great Britain” (the second edition also included all of the members of the Scottish Football League for the first time) are two books which are utterly timeless, yet provide a snapshot of the vast problems that the game faced in the mid-1980s. Possibly the greatest football book ever written.