After a depressing few days, let’s try and lighten the mood a little as Mark Murphy brings us his memories of the former home of Kingstonian FC at Richmond Road.
I only saw the death throes of Isthmian League Kingstonian’s Richmond Road ground. But it still had ‘something.’ And (sorry if this is “too much information”) most of my dreams involving Kingstonian games are still at Richmond Road, despite it hosting its last fixtures in January 1988. Richmond Road had housed Kingstonian (Ks) since the club took on the name – and the mantle of “town club” – in 1919. Before the “great” war, there was a “Kingston-on-Thames FC” there. This club emerged from the primordial swamp of clubs which characterised organised football’s development in the town at the turn of the last century. And in 1907… it split again.
Kingston-on-Thames continued at Richmond Road and the “new” club, Old Kingstonians (“Old” being the 1900s equivalent of “AFC”), played at Norbiton Sports Ground, on which now stands Kingsmeadow Stadium, where Ks now play and to where Wimbledon will bring league football in August. With war dissipating old enmities, “Kingstonian” was formed in 1919 and although the Norbiton Sports Ground was available for £2,225 in April of that year, the £2,225 was not available; a lot of money in those days etc…
Richmond Road, which had done wartime service as allotments, was owned by trustees of the Dysart Estate, representatives of a Scottish earldom which was an extensive local landowner. Ks negotiated tenancy and readied it for the 1919 Athenian League season, drawing their first home game 2-2 against Wimbledon on 13th September. There were early complications as the clearly non-football-loving Dysarts leased the ground to Leyland Motors FC the following season. After much verbal and written argument, a groundshare deal was hammered out. But Ks soon had the financial wherewithal to buy the eight-acre site for £5,000 (a LOT of money in those days etc…) and set up “permanent” home. A £1,100 stand was opened in January 1922 and was extended in 1925 by a lower stand from nearby Surbiton’s Horse Show Society.
Most pictures of the ground in the late 20s were instantly recognisable as the ground which existed in the late 80s – except that there were a few (thousand) more people, mostly men in hats, around in the 20s. The piecemeal main stand – part football, part show jumping – was dwarfed by a massive 40-odd step terracing behind one goal, which would be remarkably full on big match days as Ks won two Athenian League titles in the mid-20s and were accepted into the supposedly higher-standard Isthmian League in 1929, winning two Isthmian titles in the mid-30s. But the grass banking behind the other goal was as much of a focal point, not least because it provided a view of two games at once, with Ks “reserve” pitch standing the other side of the mound, giving older supporters two opportunities for the price of one to shout “bloody rubbish, Kingston, I’m never coming again.”
The inter-war years were Kingstonian’s most successful, until their administration-inducing three-year spell in the Conference a decade ago. And the gradual decline in Ks fortunes after World War II was mirrored by changes to Richmond Road’s layout and surroundings. While covered terracing was added opposite the main stand, and floodlights were introduced in the early 60s, the ground was all-too-often a solution to increasing financial problems. It may have been amateur football, watched by thousands of paying customers each season. But to pay what bills there were, Ks had to sell swathes of land in and around the ground. In 1956, fans entering the ground off the actual Richmond Road had to fend for attention with motor vehicles visiting the new petrol station (named ‘Kingstonian’) built on part of the Richmond Road frontage.
Attempts to sell the reserve pitch in 1957 for flat and maisonette development were foiled by Kingston Council. But both the mound and the reserve pitch it overlooked disappeared under a housing development and a new clubhouse and club car park in 1974, restricting standing room behind the goal from a couple of thousand to a couple of dozen. During those years, overall crowd numbers plummeted equally rapidly. And by 1984, the ground was embarrassingly larger than necessary, as well as a logistical and financial nightmare to maintain. It was a dishevelled, ramshackle Richmond Road into which I walked for the first time on March 23rd 1982 – and, no, I didn’t have to look the date up. My first game was a biggie, a League Cup semi-final against a powerful Wycombe Wanderers team. And although the crowd didn’t look enormous to me, it was apparently the biggest Richmond Road had seen in “many, many years.”
Ks were too embarrassed to print crowd figures, and my first few league games demonstrated why. The Richmond Road terracing was big enough for each of us to have two-and-a-bit rows to ourselves. The personalities in the main stand(s) could be named individually. And the terracing opposite the main stand was almost entirely superfluous. The restricted standing room where the mound used to be was a curious exception. The clubhouse wall was so close to the action that wayward shots (of which there were plenty in the early 80s) would hammer dangerously into the brickwork, with the ball rebounding at indeterminate angles into the back of heads of fans not paying attention.
The distance between wall and pitch was so small that the terracing provided little more than a snug fit for some of our larger fans. And if the more rotund among us wanted to become less rotund, a trip to the clubhouse would do the trick. Its wall may have been right behind us. But a combination of a strategically-placed gate halfway across the terrace and the club’s inability to find its key meant that a trip to the clubhouse entrance involved an entire lap of the ground. This rendered the concept of a quick half-time pint (or piss) obsolete for those who liked to stand behind that goal. So there was plenty of Richmond Road which was not missed when the land became the inevitable housing estate of the day. But the move to Kingsmeadow was as messy as the old ground had become.
The Richmond Road end had just been sold to property developers when it was announced in February 1984 that club members had voted to sell the rest, valued at “more than £1m,” amid forecasts that Ks wouldn’t otherwise survive the decade. Yet Ks didn’t leave until 1988, by which time property values had consumed the six-figure profits initially envisaged. Kingsmeadow wasn’t opened until August 1989 and Ks shared neighbouring Hampton’s ground in the interim, with two “home” games in Carshalton, almost far enough away for us to develop an accent. And Kingsmeadow, though relatively impressive, was one of the identikit new stadia of the time – Aylesbury’s ground, completed shortly beforehand, pretty much WAS identical. But I missed ‘something’ about the old place, for all its faults; probably that it was so old yet so recognisable as the ground in grainy 1920s images. It was easy to sense the excitement of former days, even if it was harder to visualise the thousands crammed into the place. And so it is that my dreams involving Kingstonian matches still usually revolve around Richmond Road.
Follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.