Among my collection of football books is that of Simon Inglis, published in 1983: The Football Grounds of England & Wales. It has always been a favourite, as impactful to read now as it was when it was released, the story of how the stadia of the Football League had been developed and the state that they were in. Nothing like it had ever been produced and it instantly answered the sort of questions asked by supporters about the grounds that they had visited and the reasons for the sheer variety. Simon Inglis gave credibility to the study of stadia architecture, providing a degree of insight about something that had always been taken for granted. His first edition was followed by at least three updates and coverage of Scotland as well as Europe.
A critical examination of sports stadia became topical in the wake of the 1985 Valley Parade Fire Disaster and Inglis found himself invited to participate in radio phone-ins and regularly quoted in the media about the state of British grounds. To read his books now is a reminder of how much has changed in the last 35 years or so.
I have always been of the opinion that a town can invariably be judged by its football ground and its railway station. (It probably speaks volumes about my historic sensitivity about what is to be found in Bradford, particularly with regards the latter category.) During my journeys across the British Isles and whilst holidaying in Scotland I have always looked out for floodlight pylons and where possible tried to sneak a view. It seems to be a basic curiosity possessed by any football fan to see where other clubs play, even if they are not direct rivals.
British Football’s Greatest Grounds: One Hundred Must-See Football Venues by Mike Bayly (Pitch Publishing, 2020) does not attempt to replicate the original work of Simon Inglis but comparisons are inevitable. For a start, Bayly’s selection is not confined to the senior tiers of British football and nor does his book aim to provide the same sort of historic detail about the grounds that he features. Nonetheless I found his book equally impactful as those of Inglis in the 1980s, a reminder of the sheer diversity of British football grounds. The standard of photography goes a long way to emphasise this point.
Whilst Stuart Roy Clarke’s Homes of Football project is similarly notable for its images, that of Bayly is complemented by a detailed narrative that tells the story of how and why the respective grounds came to be that way. Unlike Clarke, the photos in Bayly’s book are exclusively of grounds themselves rather than including those of supporters.
During the seven years that Bayly has worked on the book a number of stadia have been abandoned (including that of Bootham Crescent which is featured) but otherwise the content is of existing venues. The mix is eclectic which adds to the charm of the publication and the surprises as you turn the pages. Westfield Lane, Frickley (where I recall watching City in a pre-season friendly maybe forty years ago) sits between Cappilow, Greenock Morton and Claggan Park, Fort William and you turn from The Emirates to the home of Buxton FC. (Yorkshire grounds covered are: Halifax, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Huddersfield, York (Bootham Crescent), Frickley, Stocksbridge, Richmond, Hallam and Beeston, LS11.)
I particularly enjoyed the coverage of Scottish league and English non-league grounds with the quaint stands and facilities no longer to be found in the EFL (and long since forgotten in the Premier League). It is a reminder that many of the stadia that we visit are far more non-descript than those of times long gone. In fact more often than not they are pretty boring, Glanford Park vs The Old Show Ground of Scunthorpe being the prime example.
Bayly alludes to the fact that the photographs in his book provoke a certain nostalgia for old grounds. His words are particularly incisive: ‘Nostalgia is addictive and generational. And constant can be an antidote to the uncertainty of change. While there is a cautious note of sugar-coating for former times the continued – and on occasion, potentially unnecessary – modernisation of our game means older grounds will always occupy a tender place in our hearts.’ It is a sentiment that I can identify with but also something that I am uneasy with. My nostalgia for the character of the Valley Parade of old for example is tempered by experience of the disaster and the recognition that well before 1985 the ground was both decrepit and no longer fit for purpose.
I thoroughly recommend British Football’s Greatest Grounds: One Hundred Must-See Football Venues and I am sure that, like the books of Simon Inglis, this will be another to accurately record the era we live in for posterity. His feature of the new White Hart Lane stadium for example is a reminder that yet further modernisation of stadia is to be expected among the largest clubs at least. The design and layout is excellent and is another classic by Pitch Publishing that follows The Beautiful Badge: The Stories Behind the Football Club Badge by Martyn Routledge in 2018.
My only gripe about the book is the standard of paper on which it is printed, far more flimsy than might be expected but the consequence of publishing economics of which I am only too familiar.
Details of how to buy the book from this link.
You can read my other book reviews from here.
Details of my forthcoming book, a collaboration with George Chilvers: Wool City Rivals: A History in Colour