We all scoff at the thought of Groundhopping, yet hands up who peers longingly out of the train window for the hope of the sight of a floodlight or two. And when we do, we are straight on Google Maps to find out what ground it was? Hmm…so only me. Oh, and Mike Bayly. Well, Mike can tell you all about it.
I have a small confession to make: I don’t drive. The closest I have ever come to driving is sitting in a hydraulically operated Outrun simulator, imagining I was Don Johnson in all his pastel infused glory. In my head I was smooth and smoulderingly attractive; to the casual observer I was a chronically inadequate 35 year old man who should really give the other children a turn on the arcade game. It is a cross I gladly bear. Despite the social stigma of being ‘without car’ – most women look at me like I am Timothy Lumsden when the conversation crops up – there is a glorious upside to this conundrum. Having no car, means relying on public transport, and for longer journeys this invariably means the train (I draw the line at coaches – there are few more hellish scenarios than being stuck in a traffic jam outside Daventry listening to the driver’s personal collection of Daniel O’Donnell). Although train journeys have been historically synonymous with feelings of destitution, they do allow for one of the more peculiar obsessions of football culture to be lived out: the cult of Groundspotting.
Groundspotting, in lay terms, is the spotting of football grounds whilst travelling. Etymologically, Groundspotting would appear to be a hybrid of Trainspotting and Groundhopping, which sets all sorts of social alarm bells ringing. In truth it is a million miles from such a yolk stained, carrier bag fondling world. For a start, most people don’t have a preset agenda with Groundspotting. It is highly unlikely someone will deliberately drive down the M1, or pop on the London to Brighton line on the off chance they might spot a ground. The beauty of Groundspotting is stumbling across the unknown at the least expected moment, or waiting in anticipation as your route passes through a town you know has a football team.
Groundspotting is popular by car, particularly as you can take diversions to drive by a ground. Obviously this is a more deliberate strategy and reduces the surprise element. However on longer journeys, the car has severe limitations. Dual carriageways and motorways were designed to bypass much of the built environment, whereas railways tend to have the historic advantage of cutting right through the centre of many urban and rural conurbations. As a seasoned train traveller and blagger of lifts, the train always delivers the more satisfying experience.
The phenomenon of Groundspotting has gone as far to catch the media’s attention. In 2009, a Guardian Article discussed the greatest number of league grounds that can be seen on a single train trip in Great Britain. The Plymouth to Aberdeen route came out top with twenty stadiums, beginning at Home Park, Plymouth and ending at Montrose’s Links Park. The same paper then set off on a mission to map all league stadiums in Britain which can be seen from a train. During this project, a few insouciant readers suggested non-league grounds shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed. These sentiments were echoed on a variety of other blogs: if you only get excited by grounds in the professional leagues, the joys of Groundspotting will be far more restricted.
Whilst everyone likes to bask in the architectural splendour of Wembley or The Emirates, there is very little mystery in it. Once you’ve seen it a couple of times – plus countless occasions on TV – it loses a degree of mystique. By contrast, non-league stadiums are far more esoteric. One of the real joys of Groundspotting is discovering a ground and having no idea who it belongs to. I experienced this on my regular commute from London to Sheffield when passing a small ground on the outskirts of Leicester. For years I had no idea who played there, until a member of a non-league forum recognised my sketchy description and revealed it to be Friar Lane & Epworth of the Leicestershire Senior League.
Groundspotting also require a significant degree of luck. Who knows what delights you can miss going to the toilet on the East Coast Mainline, or passing a Barley Sugar to someone who’s about to vomit on the back seat of the car? There are also those grounds you might struggle to find due to factors beyond your control. QPR’s Loftus Road can be seen from one of the West London branch lines if you know which part of the haystack the needle is in, but trying doing that on a smoggy summer’s day. Similarly, you can get a distant view of Oxford United’s roof when the train is passing through Radley a few miles south of Oxford, but only in the winter when there’s less greenery in the surrounding countryside. Other grounds are a little more obvious. Dorchester Town, Totton & Eling and Moneyfields practically back on to the rail tracks, with the latter using a safety net to stop stray balls going on the line. There are literally hundreds of other examples, but Worcester Park’s ground in the Combined Counties League gets a special mention for sitting directly behind the station platform.
Perhaps the biggest single change to the football landscape in recent years – and one that has left its mark on the Groundspotting fraternity – is the decreasing number of floodlights in stadiums. Aside from making grounds harder to find, it is also a cultural tragedy. If seeing a distant stadium is football porn, then floodlights are the money shot. Sometimes just catching sight of them and nothing else gets the pulse racing, like a Victorian lady flashing a piece of ankle. Floodlights are totemic in football culture; they symbolise not only a place of worship but act like an urban lighthouse. In extreme cases, the sight of floodlights on a train depot or industrial estate can cause faint arousal, like a dog salivating at the sound of a tin opener. And this, above all, is why Groundspotting is an infatuation I have little control over.
A football fan once described seeing a new ground from a car or train like a form of orgasm (slightly different to former French manager Claude Le Roy who once described football as “a permanent orgasm” – surely no man could hold a face that stupid for so long?). It is a feeling of intense pleasure and fixation that makes you stop everything and stare uncontrollably until the rapidly shifting vista has moved beyond the natural craning of one’s neck. In truth, the feeling is indescribable, as it is for so many of life’s phenomena. You could have two liberally oiled women fornicating in the seats opposite, but show me a football ground flash by the Virgin Voyager and I am lost in a hypnotic trance.
Despite appearing a very English fetish, it would be hard to imagine our counterparts around the globe being any different. Groundspotting is a mere extension of the unfathomable depths to which our addiction – and I use that word carefully – takes us. Yet final word should probably go to the fans of Arezzo in Italy who took the concept to a whole new level. In response to authorities banning them from Figline Valdarno’s ground, it was reported Arezzo’s supporters decided to watch the entire game from a train stationed behind one of Figline’s terraces. Given the frequency with which stock breaks down in England, it can only be a matter of time before a similar feat is achieved over here.