Football’s lost empires

SOME 10 years ago, I was involved in doing some work for an old Victorian music hall based near the Tower of London. This gem of a place had been boarded-up for decades, almost unknown to people in the neighbourhood. Inside, as ramshackle as it was, there was a hall, a bar, two floors and many period features. The music hall played host to a lot of stars of the era but some preservation groups had seemingly ignored the role of music hall as crucial entertainment for the ordinary folk of London. In some respects, football used to be largely overlooked as an important part of British culture. Fortunately, academics and commentators now accept the game as an integral part of social history.

A lot of old football venues have either disappeared, been demolished or become part of housing estates, hardly surprising given the growth of urban development and the original placement of many football grounds. What we have lost many significant sites where football may have been played in the game’s nascent years, and some of these were actually very prominent locations that have hosted FA Cup finals. 

Take, for example, the Lillie Bridge ground in South-West London, just a goal-kick away from Stamford Bridge. This forgotten arena was opened in 1866 and in 1873, staged the second FA Cup final between the Wanderers and Oxford University. It was a multi-purpose ground, holding bicycle races, hot-air balloon events, cricket, wrestling and athletics. Wanderers had the choice of grounds for the final as they were defending holders and because they had no home of their own, opted to play at Lillie Bridge. For three years, Middlesex Cricket Club played at the ground between 1869 and 1872, after which they moved to Lords. The ground was closed in 1888 after a riot and became a coal yard for the railway and then was used as a car park for Earls Court before being consumed by housing development. The 1873 final was won by the Wanderers, who included Arthur Kinnaird and Charles Wollaston in their line-up, who both won the competition five times in their careers. 

The early cup finals were played at Kennington Oval but in 1892, Surrey Cricket Club decreed no more football would be played at the ground. Fallowfield athletics ground and velodrome in Manchester was chosen for the 1893 final. This proved to be an unsuitable place to hold such a big event as over 60,000 were reputed to be present for the final between Wolves and Everton. The official capacity was 45,000 but there were a number of pitch invasions and overcrowding was evident from the moment the game started. So disruptive was the encroachment that Everton demanded the game was replayed. It wasn’t and Wolves won the cup with an all-English team. Today, the Fallowfield site has been buried under Manchester University’s student accommodation.

Some of the game’s early giants played at grounds that have long gone. Aston Villa, for example, used the uneven pitch of Wellington Road in the area of Perry Barr in Birmingham. Villa moved there in 1876 and 12 years later, just months before the Football League was inaugurated, the ground had its record attendance of close to 27,000. However, this game, against Preston North End, was interrupted by crowd disturbances. As football became more popular, the crowds increased and Wellington Road, which had hosted FA Cup semi-finals in 1890 and 1896 and an England international in 1893, was no longer fit for purpose. There’s no trace of the stadium to be found today.

In some cases, you might find remnants of football grounds of a bygone era. I once worked with somebody who claimed their sister-in-law had bought a house and discovered some strange concrete steps in their garden in South London that were later identified as being part of Woolwich Arsenal’s stadium. How many people had stood on those pieces of terracing over the years?

What’s really thought-provoking and a little eerie is that on sites where a ground once sat, you might be standing in a spot that once had 30,000 people crammed into a collection of wooden stands and crudely-constructed concrete terraces. And when you think hard about it, football has always been one of the few events that have so many people crowded in a single space. In most towns around Britain, football has attracted more people than any other pastime. Surely, if nothing else, that warrants recognition as a site of important historical interest?

This article appeared in Football Weekends magazine, reproduced with permission.

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