On the first day of TBIR Christmas – The Best New Ground visited

It’s been another top year of football over at TBIR, taking in 76 games in 12 countries, including visiting four continents.  It’s not always about football though, and that is reflected in our choice of the Best New Ground visited during the last 12 months.  Our judging criteria?  Simply the grounds that make us want to back time and time again, irrespective of the quality of the game and the atmosphere.  It’s an aesthetic thing.

Our winners last year were Sheffield FC’s Coach and Horses Ground, Arundel FC’s Mill Road and The Guldensporenstadion, the magnificent arena of Belgian aces KV Kortrijk.  It is the most anticipated award in our set of twelve, the one that has seen our message pass around the world in Christmas spirit.

So to this year’s winners.  We saw games in 21 new grounds this year, but that’s just the football – we also visited half a dozen other grounds to sample sports including Baseball, American Football, Cricket, Rugby Union, Rugby League and Aussie Rules Football.  And that is where we start with this year’s top three.

3rd Place – The Melbourne Cricket Ground
14279762608_8aeefa9446_kThe MCG is a legendary venue – It is the 11th-largest stadium in the world, the largest in Australia, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, the largest stadium for playing cricket, and has the highest light towers at any sporting venue. It drips history and should be one of the stadiums to see on a world pilgrimage of stadiums.  Alas, the football season had ended when I was in Melbourne back in June, but the Australian Rules season was in flight and so I got to experience my first taste of Australia’s famous past time – drinking pots of Coopers Ale.  Oh, and a game between Richmond and Sydney.  Thirty thousands were in the famous crowd, creating a bit of noise, but you can just imagine what it is like on a Boxing Day test.  Spine-tingling.

2nd Place – The Arena National, Bucharest
15604928938_565cc6ad8e_k (1)As you approach the new national stadium of Romania your breath is taken away by the superb architecture.  It is built like a Greek temple, sitting high on a mound, with uniform columns and arches around the whole ground.  Whilst the inner area of the stadium isn’t anything special, spartan in fact, the actual bowl itself is a cauldron of noise.  A canopy roof, held in place by huge TV screens ensures that the cold Romanian nights are kept out and the white-hot atmosphere is kept in.  Already highly rated by UEFA, with the 2012 Europa League final being held here.

1st Place – Causeway Lane, Matlock
14834944870_ce9c8487ad_kFollowing in the footsteps of Belgium, Germany and Poland comes….Matlock.  A town of 10,000 people on the edge of the Peak District Park in Derbyshire, home to Northern Premier League side Matlock Town.  And quite simply, one of the best grounds you can visit in the world.  Of course there is the heart-felt Non-League hospitality, the tip-top pie and peas but it’s the views that are the reason why Causeway Lane has scooped this year’s award.  A three-sided ground sat in a bowl with a spooky Scooby-Doo inspired castle on the hill looking ominously down on the game.  Words fail to sum up the beauty of the ground so I will leave it to my pictures from the visit back in August here.

Tomorrow – The ying of the yang…the worst new ground visited.

The Gladiators versus The Spartans

There can be few better feelings in life than watching a game of football with the sun beating down on your face, beer in hand surround by England’s green and pleasant land. Add in a view to die for and a pie with gravy and this could be Nirvana. I could have chosen one of twenty games in the Premier League or the Skybet divisions today that were within an hour’s drive of Northern HQ but instead I’m at Causeway Lane, Matlock, in the heart of Derbyshire’s Peak District. Even the sale of the naming rights to the ground (“The Autoworld Arena” conjures up images of Speedway to me) can’t spoil the beauty of the moment.

15007767741_867b992671_zNobody was telling me to sit down, taking my beer away or trying to sell me a credit card. Watching football at the highest level of the game in a England has been a joyless experience for a number of years. As each season passes and clubs find more ways to justify ticket price hikes whilst greedily scooping up more cash from TV deals, pre-season tours and bizarre commercial partnerships.  It’s no surprise that the governing body, the Football Association are just as guilty these days, happy to put aside their unelected mandate to run our game with a focus on all aspects and all levels for the latest sponsorship deal.  I still find it incredible that an organisation that talks about the importance of sport for children to maintain a healthy lifestyle by signing long-term commercial deals with the world’s most recognised fast food brand and a brand of beer.

I was here on a mission from God. Well, sort of.  The little Fuller’s had been enjoying a week of a Northern life at the in-laws and I was here to collect them and re-as simulate them back into normal life.  Whilst the Current Mrs Fuller was conducting a Southern language lesson I took my leave and headed 39 miles west to Matlock. How could anyone resist this game? The Gladiators versus The Spartans played in one of the finest arenas that England has to offer.

I was disappointed when I rang the club in the week and asked if I wore my toga I’d get in free? It appeared that the Matlock Town marketing machine had let the opportunity of a themed match day experience pass them by.  I’m sure Woburn Safari Park could’ve had done without a lion or two for the afternoon and as for an orgy? Well I’ve still got the numbers for a couple of trainee Bunny Girls I met at the Playboy Mansion a few years ago (Did I tell you I’ve been to the Playboy Mansion?).  But any sad face soon disappeared when I pulled into the car park on the cricket pitched, stopped at mid wicket and looked straight ahead at the three-sided Causeway Lane ground. Ruddy marvellous.

The Northern Premier League, just like its southern cousins, is a pig to get out of with only the winners guaranteed a spot in the Vanarama Conference North.  Last season, Blyth finished in 8th spot, not too far off the play-offs although quite how they would fair in tier 2 of Non-League football is another matter, with significant away trips to Oxford City(550 miles), Worcester City (500 miles), Gloucester City (550 miles) and a whopping 600 mile round trip to Lowestoft. This underlines the main issue with the current non-league structure – trying to fit clubs into a rigid structure that ignores geography.  The big elephant in the room, still, is FC United of Manchester with their travelling legions and inability to progress out of the NPL Play-offs. A visit by the bootleg Red Devils swells the coiffures of all the clubs in this league.

14824252268_da93451cac_zI handed over my £9 for entry, £2.50 for my pie and £2.70 for my pint and I was a happy man for the next two hours. My afternoon was completed by seeing two of the finest Non-League photographers known to man, Chris Hayes and Paul Paxford at the far end and made my way down there to get snap happy.

Matlock Town 1 Blyth Spartans 1 – Causeway Lane – Saturday 23rd August 2014
Opposite the ground is Hall Leys Park, where their Bank Holiday festivities were well underway.  As the two teams emerged the sound of Disney filled the air. Surely they had better walk out music than this? Then it dawned on me that it was the theme tune to Frozen which was being shown on a big screen in the park opposite. And so the songs punctuated the air for the rest of the afternoon as the two rivals cancelled each other out in an entertaining draw.

The Spartans started the game with the smell of blood in their nostrils. Roared on by a small group of away fans, the leader of whom loved nothing more than an occasional jig around the terrace outside the bar, spilling most of his beer each time. He had something to really shout about just before half-time when a Holland skipped passed his marker and fired the ball into the corner of the net.

14987846766_0633f5f872_zThe second half saw a re-energised (I.e bollocked) Matlock team emerge, realising the weaknesses in the Spartans right hand side.  The away keeper was forced into half a dozen good saves before he was finally beaten when Hawkins reacted fastest to a deflected cross and smartly headed home.  If the game was to produce a winner it was undoubtably going to come from the home side but then they sat back, almost inviting The Spartans to attack with numbers.

The final whistle saw a round of applause from the 260-odd souls in the ground.  “Better than the bloody rubbish we saw on Tuesday but we are still rubbish” said one fan as he waked past me “still liver and bacon for tea and Tess Daly on Strictly. Life isn’t all bad, son.” Wise words indeed and with that I headed back east to the Littlest Fuller’s. He was spot on, life in the Non-Leagues in the English Summer wasn’t bad at all.

Matlock Town face the same issue many Non-League clubs have each and every week. Within a 30 minute drive of the town this afternoon, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Alfreton Town all played at home.  That’s the challenge – trying to encourage the locals of Matlock not to hop on the bus or train at 2pm but to stay at head down to Causeway Lane.

My good friend Mike Bayly is currently researching a book on the grounds you have to visit before you die. Matlock would be on my recommended top 10 list on a sunny day like today although I’d give it a swerve when the cold Peak District wind blows on a wet Tuesday in February.