Kingstonian & Kingsmeadow: Get Me Out Of Here

by | Apr 30, 2017

Tuesday’s Guardian newspaper contained a terrific double-page article by Nick Ames on Kingstonian’s last-ever game at Kingsmeadow Stadium, where they had played since 19th August 1989. Nick covered almost all the bases; the history, the politics, the possible impact of an immediate-term move out of Kingston borough, the raw emotion, my mate Phil’s bobble hat. And the piece wasn’t harmed by… OK, it massively benefited FROM… the absence of any of my ten-minute chat with him. Because I was, in equal measure, without a bobble-hat… and any emotion worth including in a national newspaper.

I recall missing only one competitive Kingstonian Kingsmeadow game, an FA Trophy tie against Aveley in October 2005, when I was hospitalised by an errant pneumonia jab. Yet I’ve said “can’t wait to be shot of the place” whenever asked about our Kingsmeadow departure. That isn’t entirely true. If we could play there until leaseholders AFC Wimbledon leave (currently due to be 2019), we should, as Ks’ move to a new ground is at the “embryonic” and “nascent” stages.

But my last look back at Kingsmeadow felt like a contractual obligation. I certainly wasn’t going to miss my bus to my evening shift at the (shameless plug alert) Non-League Paper by taking too long over it. And I won’t “miss” my journey to the ground, through the “Cambridge Estate,” an ill-reputed 1960s-build high-rise flats complex between Kingston town centre and Kingsmeadow.

However problematic the ten-mile “trek” to Leatherhead FC in leafy, suburban Fetcham will be for immediate-future home games, the 465 bus straight there from Kingston is pretty true to timetable. The 131 bus from Kingston to Kingsmeadow is more often an allegation than an active route. Thus it was quicker to walk through the Cambridge Estate; a fraught journey, especially for midweek evening games, even when you weren’t stopped by police and could hear warnings over their radios of “the suspect over the road…the one who isn’t armed.”

More importantly, Kingsmeadow symbolises to me how badly-run Kingstonian was while we played there, not an era whose end required mourning. But I am probably in a minority-of-one on this, which would explain Nick’s reluctance to quote me in his article (that and the fact that I usually talk sh*te).

It was different when Ks played their last first-team game at their old Richmond Road ground on January 23rd 1988, having played there since 1919. I had only watched Ks there for six years. But the sense of history was palpable, not least because three sides of the ground had changed little from the 1920s.

That departure was as indicative of a Ks decline in fortunes as this one surely is. The old ground had a “reserve pitch” adjoining it, which was sold as Ks’ following and finances mirrored Amateur Football’s sharp post-1950s decline. Ks’ financial (mis)fortune at Kingsmeadow, THE reason the lease hasn’t been ours since October 2001 (remember the date), was entirely self-inflicted, during a generally healthier era for the “non-league” game.

Indeed, Ks were self-inflicting financial wounds from the moment plans to leave Richmond Road were announced and agreed by club members in 1984. The ground, half-a-mile north of Kingston town centre, was sold to property developers because…of course it was. It was the mid-1980s. And Ks were to move to a new, council-owned ground at the old Norbiton Sports Ground, a mile west of Kingston town centre.

Vitally, the new ground would have an Isthmian League ground-grading system’s “A-Grade,” as required for the Premier Division football to which Division One Ks had aspired since a spectacular relegation in 1979 (three wins all season, none after December 23rd… hang your head in shame, Tooting and Mitcham United). And, after Ks’ ground and an adjacent athletics stadium was completed, Ks were supposed to have at least £1m left from the Richmond Road sale proceeds.

Rumours abounded as to why none of the “at least £1m” ever got “left.”One was that while Ks moved in 1988, Richmond Road was sold at 1984, pre-property boom, prices Another was that the ground-build was entrusted to an old club chairman’s friend, who was simply not up to the task. But whatever the background, the all-new “Kingsmeadow Stadium” did not provide the expected financial windfall, and Ks played financial catch-up from then on.

Kingsmeadow looked impressive in its building stages. And we had advanced knowledge of the finished article from Aylesbury United’s near-identical Buckingham Road ground, which was opened to considerable fanfare in June 1988 with a 7-0 friendly loss to a “full” England team preparing for Euro ’88, a tournament over which a veil shall be drawn here. (Aylesbury offered further “advanced knowledge,” if we’d looked. They had to leave Buckingham Road in 2006, when the lease ran out, and have been nomads, ten miles or more out of town, ever since).

Ks version was completed in a rush, a week late for a planned opening fixture against big local rivals Sutton United. This was eventually played on a recreation ground halfway between the towns, an experience made more surreal by a rare Ks win over the Us.

Kingsmeadow was, just, ready for the opening league fixture, against 1989/90’s eventual champions Slough Town. And first impressions were…wonderful. The pitch especially. Sand-based, using new “cell-based” technology beyond my understanding, it was snooker-table-smooth, ideally-suited to the slick-passing team that manager Chris Kelly was forming in his own brash, skilful footballing image.

Like Kelly, they won no trophies, with the bobbly surfaces, de rigueur throughout the division, ideally-unsuited to the team. But at home? Imperious, losing only three league games out of the 42 in their first two seasons. This, though, masked many off-field problems, some signs of which were immediate.

Throughout the 1980s, Ks crowds could be NAMED, not just counted, during a medium-sized half-time interval. With great entertainment on offer, in a new catchment area, crowds soared. And once they approached the 1,000-mark to which all ambitious clubs aspired, Kingsmeadow’s shallow terracing became a viewing issue, further exacerbated by an immediate, glaring design fault. A water-tank under the centre-circle was reputedly “forgotten” and ended up directly behind the goal on what was soon established as the “home end.”

And Kingsmeadow’s general unreadiness was exposed in September 1989 when a stricken Grays Athletic player had to be “stretchered” off the pitch on an office door which took some panicky minutes to unhinge. Hilarious to a Monty Python degree if it hadn’t been so potentially serious.

Despite the bigger crowds (800 the norm as Ks led the league during 1990/91), Kingsmeadow’s atmosphere was surprisingly flat, not helped by both ends being uncovered. In the mid-1990s, plans emerged to roof the “water-tank” end, at an estimated cost of £27,000.

The “Kingsmeadow Stadium Development Fund” was set up to raise funds. And, in common with nearly everything at Ks then, the building work was shambolic. Kelly had become Ks Chief Executive. But the force of personality and impulsiveness which made him a rightly-admired, genuinely likeable figure within the confines of football itself, was a disaster outside them.

“Footings” for the new structure were so problematic that the original £27,000 plans were scaled down to a £10,000 version, which itself somehow rose in cost to nearer the original £27,000. The water-tank disappeared. But the new roof did little to keep the crowd noise in, little more to keep the elements out and was an embarrassing waste of time, fund-raising effort and funds. Apart from that…

By 1998, on-field success was masking off-field problems again, as Geoff Chapple, who managed Woking to FA Cup stardom and Isthmian League and FA Trophy success, began to weave the exact same magic at Kingsmeadow, in the liveliest four years in Ks’ history by a long, long way.

A two-year plan to win promotion from the Isthmian League to the Conference was completed in one (these were pre-Conference North and South days). The first two Conference seasons culminated in beyond-wildest-dreams eighth and fifth-place finishes and two Wembley FA Trophy triumphs. Ks even topped the Conference in October 2000, which necessitated Kingsmeadow meeting Football League ground-grading requirements.

Ks’ success was predicated on excellent away form, the best in the Conference in 1999/2000. But home crowds increased enough to re-expose the shallow terracing’s inadequacies. So, expansion plans combined a bigger main stand with “proper” terracing at the still un-roofed “Athletics Track” end. But the work coincided with Ks’ relegation from the Conference in 2001 and a realisation that Chapple’s success had outstripped Ks’ slipshod financial operation.

Chapple had weaved his FA Cup magic on a lucrative run to a fourth-round proper replay defeat at home to Bristol City in February 2001. Kelly, financially-discombobulated as ever, couldn’t/wouldn’t be more specific than “less than you’d think” about just how lucrative the run was. Some fans’ “thoughts” of £300,000-plus proved more precise than his accounting. But Ks’ desperation to stage the fourth-round replay at an inadequate Kingsmeadow, to pocket £150,000 SKY TV money, strongly hinted at financial concerns.

Indeed, Ks entered administration eight months later. And I subsequently read a Kingsmeadow health and safety report which revealed that the “proper” terracing’s safety capacity was barely 50 different to that of the still-shallow “home” end. Fifty LOWER. Every penny spent FAILED to meet requirements and targets.

Club and ground fell into disrepair after Ks were bought out of administration by a small-time property developer in 2002. And the current League One-standard ground was mostly an AFC Wimbledon-build. The Athletics Track End became well-covered terracing whose safety capacity matches its actual one; and the “£27,000” roof was replaced by a 1,000-seater stand.

The demolition of the Kingston Road End terracing in 2012 inspired (futile) protest and teary-eyed nostalgia from the Ks faithful… and a fine “Kingston Road End” blog. But this was when I realised that any affection I may have had for Kingsmeadow was long-gone.

When I was asked about the terrace’s demise, my inquisitor was genuinely shocked to hear me articulate, for the first time (even to myself), my view that it matched Kingstonian’s shambolic non-matchday operation and that we were well rid of it and its symbolism, as we are now well-rid of it as a home. And last Saturday’s emotion has not remotely changed that perspective.

This is partly because Kingsmeadow hasn’t been OUR ground since October 2001, a simple fact undermining the part of the vitriol Ks fans direct at AFC Wimbledon (even last Saturday) for “buying our ground,” given that the reasons for AFC Wimbledon’s very existence didn’t exist then, let alone the club itself.

It is also partly the passage of time. I care less about Ks generally these days, although that didn’t insulate me from severely-frayed nerves when relegation recently threatened. And I have been a willing club patron, however mediocre the football has been in recent years.

And it is partly not emotional at all. Kingsmeadow was difficult and expensive enough to maintain when it was purpose-built FOR us. It is now a Football League One ground. Ks were two points from being an ISTHMIAN League One club last week, the points gained by goalkeeper Rob Tolfrey’s magnificent penalty save at Merstham on Easter Monday. We cannot afford to maintain Kingsmeadow or buy the lease back. And that has been the case for somewhere between a decade and for…ever.

But it is also because Ks’ positive moments often happened elsewhere. Promotion to the Conference sealed at Oxford City. Wembley FA Trophy triumphs at… well… Wembley. 1999 quarter and semi-final victories at Northwich and Cheltenham. 2000’s quarter-final replay win at Southport. The 2001 FA Cup run victories at Brentford, Southport and Southend, with the infamous Bristol City equaliser at Bristol City. When the run returned to Kingsmeadow (we’d won our fourth qualifying round tie there), we lost. And Ks’ sole Isthmian League play-off win was 2010’s stunning 4-2 triumph at Sutton United.

Not that there weren’t positive Ks moments at Kingsmeadow. Sutton were also the opposition in Ks probably most-memorable, and arguably best, Kingsmeadow win, 6-0 (SIX-BLOODY-NIL!!) in the 2000 FA Trophy semi-final second leg, a golden night when even massively overhit crosses flew wind-assisted into the top corner.

Brighton and Hove Albion, managed by Liam Brady, were downed in the 1994 FA Cup first round, set up by Jamie Ndah’s outrageous 20-yard overhead kick. And the ground hosted Ks’ first appearance on BBC’s Match of the Day, a 1-1 draw with then-second-tier Peterborough United. However, the BBC’s aerial shots of Kingsmeadow that afternoon revealed the ghastly backdrop (“looking like Gdansk,” said a friend, which probably wasn’t a compliment) of the smelly sewage works just under a mile away.

Oh…the smell; known locally as the “Berrylands” smell as it was particularly pungent from trains passing through the town’s railway station. Kingsmeadow got it too, when the wind was in the “right” direction. Yet it would be pushing it to segue into a closing paragraph based on Kingsmeadow “leaving a bad smell.” There were good times among the bad. Better parts of the ground among the worse. Ultimately, though, Kingsmeadow remains overpoweringly symbolic of a club mismanaged into administration in the twelve years during which Ks were leaseholders. I’m not missing it now, a week after Ks final game there. And I doubt I ever will.

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