Losing a ground doesn’t always mean moving to a new venue. AFC Bournemouth bulldozed Dean Court, spun it around ninety degrees, and rebuilt it as a three-sided ground. For Andy Smith, it might never be the same again.
Can you write something about the old Dean Court, I was asked? Of course, I reply. No doubt I’ll fill it full of the standard ‘old ground’ clichés, but as you, the football fan, know, they’re clichés because they are grounded in fact. But why? How many construction workers do you hear hankering after the days they used to hang off of building sites with no safety equipment? Doctors wishing for the return of smallpox? Or East End dwellers longing for the re-instatement of their slums.
The standard old ground was an accident waiting to happen. Crumbling terraces, poorly maintained safety barriers, half-time food that was, at best, a bi-weekly game of Russian roulette for your digestive tract. And at Dean Court it was all this and more. By the time the decision was finally taken to redevelop the ground it was effectively no decision at all. Build a new ground or have three stands condemned. The South End seemed to shrink every time you turned up, each week a further section was roped or fenced off. The Brighton Beach End, (so called because it was originally just a bank of shale, or rubbish, not like our beaches, you know, proper beaches, pfft, Brighton eh?), had no roof and no facilities at all. A perfect pre-Taylor away terrace, truth be told. The New Stand was a series of steps with a tin roof with terrible access points. By the time we got to say goodbye, capacity had shrunk from its 1950s high of 28,000 to barely 10,000.
I made my first visit to Dean Court in January 1987, what could be termed the start of the AFCB glory years. We’d had our moments in the sun before (the FA Cup run of 1957, the a couple of division four successes, Ted McDougall’s nine goals in one match, an Associate Member Cup win against Hull, at Hull) but this was to be the season we finally made it out of the basement leagues into the Today Football League Division Two. Apart from a couple of games watched from the New Stand (most memorably, Middlesbrough in March 1987. We won, we were going up) and a few watched from the Main Stand, it was the South End that I would call home for the next fifteen years. What I liked best about the old Dean Court was that all four stands ran the full length of the sides of the pitch. Plenty of other grounds didn’t have that then, and still don’t now. It was symmetrical and aesthetically correct. To my mind, rightly or wrongly, it gave veracity to AFCB being a proper club. We mightn’t have achieved much but at least we’ve got a decent set of stands. All four were tight to the pitch, so you wouldn’t have been watching Delapball at the old Dean Court. The size of the roof and the space behind the fenced off and condemned wooden terracing at the back of the South End meant that when the crowd started to sing it made a pretty decent racket.
To get to the terracing in the South End you had to go up a flight of steps and came out to an elevated view of the pitch. From there you made your way to your favoured spot. Just behind the goal, about ten steps up for the youngsters and then a natural progression further back to the choir as you got older and more confident. It didn’t matter if you went on your own, you could wonder round until you found someone you knew, no matter how tenuously. If you cared about it you could turn up early to claim your favourite spot against a crush barrier. And conversely, if someone came and stood next to you and you didn’t much care for them or their stupid views you could move away.
As I said, I started going the year we finally won promotion out of Division Three. Success then, was normal for thirteen year old me. There followed three years with the bigger boys and with better financial management (ie, someone who had the balls to say ‘no’ to Redknapp occasionally) and a board that didn’t slavishly follow Moynihan’s ID card ideas it could have been even better. No ID card meant no entry, so if you wanted to bring a friend you couldn’t. The two or three games per season brigade were effectively cast adrift too. So attendances flatlined and Redknapp’s grand plans to sign ageing stars on high wages (ha, and you all thought he learned that at Portsmouth) meant that we were relegated by Leeds United on the last day of the 1989/90 season, whose ‘support’ took advantage of the crumbling, even then, nature of the ground to throw bits of it at my, and several thousand other supporters, head. That said, even today I hate Middlesbrough more than Leeds. They had lived in the bottom three all year and then won at promoted Newcastle on the last day of the season in a manner that suggested brown envelopes all round.
So back to the lower leagues, less cash and lower attendances. The Pulis years really were hard work. Thankfully, I was away at university, only coming back for what seemed to be the worst games of the season. Pulis left, Machin came in and a proper genuine Great Escape led the old Dean Court to perhaps it’s last ever Great Night. Not a Sky-sponsored, “we’ve spent £50 million and stayed in the Premier League” type of Great Escape, mind. This was a bankrupt club that was effectively down in October storming through to stay up in the one season where FIVE clubs were relegated. Oh, did I mention brown envelopes and suspicious wins earlier? Ten minutes into our final game against Shrewsbury, played five days before the rest of the league played their final games – thanks to Leeds and Dorset Police’s insistence we couldn’t play on Bank Holidays – we were three goals up and the chairmen of Cambridge and Plymouth walked out in disgust. The packed stands were rocking from the start, a win at promotion chasing Brentford days before had given us the hope we needed. The final whistle pitch invasion seemed to last forever.
By now I’d properly moved to London and rarely managed to get back to Dean Court. In what seemed like a bid to increase attendances the board, in the final couple of years before redevelopment, told us, in what seemed to be almost weekly dictats, that ‘this is the final game before we knock it down’. My last game was a defeat to Gillingham in the FA Cup. The actual final game was a few weeks later, the police ruining what should have been a bittersweet farewell, with a heavy handed approach to people understandably taking their time saying goodbye to their memories.
And therein lie the major reasons why the rubbish, falling apart, smelly, widdle stained old ground was better than the shiny, well designed, lovely view from every seat new one. It had atmosphere. It had tales to tell. It had the ghosts of football past. It had history. No doubt in fifty years time, when the generations who were used to celebrating goals by cheering and jumping up and down have been replaced by those who celebrate by shouting “WOO HOO!” in time to Blur, when those who charted their years at football by whereabouts in the stand they were stood rather than how many years they’ve sat in the same seat, when the new ground has as many stories to tell as the old one, people will get misty eyed about the new Dean Court. And in fifty years time we might have as many stands in the new ground as we had in the aesthetically correct one we knocked down.
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