Where the heart still beats strong

IT’S EASY to forget the roots of professional football are to be found in the north of England rather than the south. And with so much emphasis on the big clubs in England, such as Chelsea and Manchester City, many of those that once formed the lifeblood of the game have been sidelined.

Students of football are more than aware of the cultural contribution made by the north in the evolution of the game, and the fact that it gave us not only the Liverpools and Manchesters but also the Stockports, Bradfords and Rochdales.

I ventured north a few times at the back end of 2017, firstly to Stockport County to see them play Southport in the FA Trophy. The mere thought of Stockport was a reminder of how clubs were once a natural part of the neighbourhood and sanctuaries where working men could unwind on their way home from the mill or factory.

Arguably, that model that has almost become extinct, with in-town grounds being replaced by cookie-cutter stadiums and the Lowryesque client base that trudged to the match, all tweed headgear, Bovril and rattles, has almost disappeared.

It would be harsh and a little patronising to say that clubs like Stockport were left behind as football reinvented itself in the 1990s but in 2002, they were in the Championship. Financial problems, constantly changing management and declining crowds, which have remained remarkably loyal, paint a gloomy picture of the club, but there is a strong heart beating within Stockport’s Edgeley Park.

“The scarf my father wore”, a slogan emblazoned along the back of the big stand behind the goal, on a giant blue and white scarf, tells you people really care. True, they’ve seen better days, but they do have a plan. Edgeley Park is a 10 minute walk from Stockport railway station, a stroll that takes you past red-brick industrial revolution-era buildings – the Bluebell Hotel, for example, and past rows of terraced houses that were once the homes of mill workers and hat-makers from the town.

They provide the sort of approach typical of inner-city football grounds until the concept of out-of-town was invented. At Stockport there’s what looks like a disused factory or workshop outside the stadium which probably made overalls or similar industrial clothing in its heyday. While this is evocative of a different time, you wonder how long it will be until the area is developed – isn’t that the script these days?

Poor old Bradford Park Avenue, in their original guise, lost their home back in the 1970s, and the reformed club now plays out at Horsfall stadium. People get very misty-eyed about PA, but when the club was voted out of the Football League in 1970, they were averaging just 3,000 for their home games. The club had lurched from crisis to crisis and after losing their league place, they lasted just four years before going under completely.

I recently travelled to Bradford to catch up with an old pal, Paul, a proud Yorkshireman who has long championed his home town and in recent years has been attracted to the non-league game. We were meant to attend a game at Horsfall but snow and ice got the better of that. Nevertheless, we drove over to see the last remnants of Park Avenue’s old ground.

Paul helped on the recent archeological dig at the site, which formed the basis of a fascinating book, Breaking Ground, one of the most unusual and, dare I say, aesthetic, books on football I’ve come across.  The death of a club and the dereliction of a ground represent some of the saddest moments in the game – any place where thousands of people once gathered creates a slightly eerie location. This book captures the ghostly remains of the old stadium, from the trees now growing where people once stood to the crumbling section of the terracing. It’s difficult not to be moved. This book helps to firmly place the game as part of the history of the city of Bradford and football as a symbol of the nation’s social fabric. It’s a simple but compelling tale – football studs, goalpost castings, hooks, coins, some memorabilia and plenty of anecdotes.

It also demonstrates how football has always been a way to unite people, with some meeting for the first time at the club and ending up married or friends for life.

The story of Bradford Park Avenue is somehow symbolic of my own friendship with “Paul from Bradford” as he has always been known in our house. We met as Chelsea fans in the early 1980s and although we’re seen each other only spasmodically down the decades a more loyal mate you could not wish to have. To me, that’s the real value of football, be it at the highest level or the more down home non-league code. It can be a force for real community and for meeting folk!

This article appeared in The Non-League Paper on Sunday January 21, 2018

2 thoughts on “Where the heart still beats strong

  1. Enjoyed your article in the NLP on Bradford P.A. Neil and it brought back memories of me trialing with the club in the late 60’s – Didn’t come to anything though! I have tried to buy a copy of the book you talk about but its sold out and they say no further print run planned. Have you any idea where I can get a copy. Would love to read it as my family originate from Bradford as well as my trial at Park Avenue. Hope to hear from you.
    Regards, John

    1. I have no idea, I’m afraid, John – I was sent a copy to review. Interestingly, total accident that this happened, I was on a train talking to an Italian fan on the way to Bolton and this guy leaned over and asked if I was interested in reviewing it. Weird, but then I didn’t realise it, but a pal of mine was actually involved! Sorry I can’t be more helpful – you might try Bradford Park Avenue FC, they could have some. Thanks for your feedback, by the way.

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