In 1990, Walsall became one of the first clubs of the modern era to leave their home for pastures new, when they departed Fellows Park for the Bescot Stadium. Tom Lines tells the story of their original home. If you support a club that has moved home and fancy writing about its old ground, feel free to drop us a line via the Contact page. There is plenty more on the history of Fellows Park here.
Objectively, there are few reasons to mourn Fellows Park – the ramshackle hotchpotch of timber, concrete and corrugated iron that served as Walsall FC’s home for 94 years. Of course, like snoods and DJ Spoony, objectivity has no place in football and with two decades having passed since Fellows Park was torn down to make way for a supermarket, Saddlers’ fans old enough to remember the former ground have had plenty of time to allow their memories to percolate.
Fellows Park was actually known as Hillary Street for the first 34 years of its existence before the club decided to honour director HL Fellows in 1930. Following the amalgamation of Walsall Swifts and Walsall Town (both successful sides in their own right) in 1888, the club had played at a variety of locations in the borough before Hillary Street became their permanent home in 1896. Even then the club had to move back to their previous ground at West Bromwich Road during the 1900-01 Second Division campaign when they were unable to pay the rent. For many years Fellows Park consisted of one small stand and a banked track around the pitch. The catalyst for major improvements came in 1933 when the ground hosted its biggest ever game: an FA Cup third round tie against Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal.
Anticipating a bumper crowd, a roof was erected over the ‘popular side’ terracing to complement the recently finished Main Stand opposite. In later years, rather than replacing or extending this structure another was simply built in front of it. As a result, anyone stood at the back of this terrace suffered one of the worst views in football thanks to the forest of ironwork that held up both stands. The uncovered Hillary Street End behind the goal completed the facilities for spectators. The keen mathematicians among you will no doubt have noticed that this only adds up to three sides. There’s a simple reason for this: for two thirds of its history, Fellows Park’s fourth side – the evocatively named “Laundry End” – was simply a brick wall, the rear of the eponymous Orgills Laundry.
If the directors were hoping to recoup their investment with the visit of Arsenal they were to be disappointed. Having raised ticket prices, only 11,189 spectators filled the 22,000-capacity ground – just a thousand more than witnessed the victory over Mansfield in the previous round. But if the crowd was disappointing, the performance was beyond all expectation. Arsenal were arguably the greatest club side in the world at the time while the Saddlers had spent the preceding decade shuffling between Third Divisions (North) and (South), never once finishing in the top half.
If we think the modern media get carried away with a plucky Cup underdog it’s interesting to note that things were no different in the 1930s. As one slightly hysterical newspaper preview put it:
‘Arsenal, the Rich, the Confident, the League leaders the £30,000 aristocrats, against little Midland Third Division team that cost £69 all in. Arsenal train on ozone, brine-baths, champagne, golf and electrical massage in an atmosphere of prima donna preciousness. They own £87 worth of football boots. Walsall men eat fish and chips and drink beer, and the entire running expenses of the club this season have been £75.’
The Saddlers’ tactics seem to have been based on the not unreasonable suspicion that the Fancy Dans of Arsenal might not like it up ‘em. And so it proved. Reports of the match refer to tackles being “very stern” which, given the nature of football at the time, probably equates to two or three studs-up leg-breakers every five minutes. But it would be naïve to imagine that Arsenal didn’t give as good as they got and, in fact, it was Arsenal who lost their discipline after Walsall took a shock second half lead. Full back Tommy Black aimed an off-the-ball kick at Saddlers’ goal scorer Gilbert Alsop in the area and Bill Sheppard converted the penalty to make the final score 2-0.
After the work that transformed the ground for the Arsenal game, Fellows Park remained relatively unchanged for over 30 years. Then, in 1965, a roof was put over the Hillary Street terrace behind the ‘home’ goal and the laundry was finally demolished to make room for an uncovered terrace that would eventually house away supporters. A few years earlier Fellows Park had enjoyed its record attendance, with 25,453 watching the Saddlers beat Newcastle United 1-0 in Division Two. Such was the crush inside the ground (which still only had three sides) that the official capacity was swiftly reduced to 22,000.
By the 1980s Fellows Park was rapidly becoming unfit for purpose. In 1983, during the second leg of the epic League Cup semi-final against Liverpool, walls collapsed at both ends of the ground and 24 spectators were injured. Thankfully nobody was seriously hurt but the pictures of Graeme Souness carrying one injured youngster across the pitch were an awful harbinger of tragedies to come. However, when chairman Ken Wheldon announced proposals for a move to a new stadium three years later, fans were unanimous in their opposition. The reason? That ‘new’ ground was St Andrews, and Wheldon’s plan involved selling Fellows Park and moving the club to Birmingham. Such was the outrage that he was ousted as chairman (Wheldon subsequently became chairman of Birmingham, becoming as unpopular there as he had been at Walsall) and the club was sold to flamboyant City whizzkid Terry Ramsden in 1986. Today the words “flamboyant City whizzkid” would set alarm bells ringing, but Ramsden benefited from simply not being Ken Wheldon, and a bit of flash 80s PR didn’t go amiss either. Arriving at Fellows Park in a helicopter, Ramsden promised promotion as well as free Christmas turkeys for every pensioner in the ground. But when the Japanese securities market crashed in 1987 so did Ramsden and Walsall FC came perilously close to being wound up.
Instead, in March 1988 the club was sold to a consortium of businessmen, led by Maurice Miller of Whittington PLC and including former Charlton Athletic director Michael Norris and Leeds United board member Peter Gilman. Plans for a new ground were swiftly unveiled and in 1989 work began on the site of an old Severn Trent sewage works adjacent to the M6 at Bescot. Fellows Park was sold to supermarket chain Morrisons for £5.75m. Walsall fans were not expecting a glittering megabowl but having originally unveiled plans for a state-of-the-art ground featuring cantilevered stands and undersoil heating, supporters were hugely underwhelmed when the final design for the new stadium turned out to be a straight copy of Scunthorpe’s recently completed Glanford Park. The contract for building the ground was awarded to GMI Construction, owned by one Peter Gilman. Still, optimistic fans argued that by copying an existing ground Walsall would at least save some money. But as Simon Inglis points out in Football Grounds of Britain, this wasn’t entirely the case:
No-one expected a continental-style masterpiece at Bescot. But for an outlay of £4.5 million one at least expected a design more advanced than Scunthorpe (which cost £ 2.5 million and had fewer roof supports) and at least as good as St Johnstone’s McDiarmid Park, which had cost £ 4.5 million a year earlier and held 10,200 all-seated stands, each with a cantilevered roof. Even Yeovil’s 9,000 capacity New Huish Park, a non league ground opened two weeks before Bescot, had two well equipped stands with cantilevered roofs, built at an overall cost of £ 3.2 million…According to [the] architects, column-free roofs would have cost only an extra £150,000, but the developers deliberately chose to save the expense, regardless of the consequences.
The move from Fellows Park to the Bescot Stadium should have heralded a welcome period of stability after a hugely turbulent decade. Instead the club somehow managed to make a loss of £1.68m on the deal and went into administration less than a year after Bescot was opened, ownership transferring to director (and current chairman) Jeff Bonser. Those looking for answers in the financial records of the companies set up by Miller et al to own the club and ground were further frustrated when both were wound up without ever filing accounts. Furthermore, having spent an additional £1m decontaminating the virtually worthless brownfield site that the Bescot Stadium was built on, the club somehow neglected to purchase the freehold, instead becoming tenants of Severn Trent Property. A few years later the freehold was purchased by Jeff Bonser and the club has paid rent into his pension fund ever since.
Scores of clubs have moved grounds in the two decades since Bescot was built, but because of the controversy surrounding the move, Walsall supporters have a more complex relationship with their current and former grounds than most. Of course, straightforward nostalgia plays its part when recalling Fellows Park. How else to explain fond recollections of the shower of rust that fell from the roof of the Hillary Street End when the corrugated iron walls were pounded by enthusiastic ‘Street Enders’? Or the almost comically squalid open-air toilets behind the stands? It may have been ugly, uncomfortable and downright dangerous in its dotage, but Fellows Park was much more than just a relic of another footballing age. It was ours.
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