By Ian Plenderleith
Once a month, World Soccer, When Saturday Comes and Soccer America drop on to my door mat. They’re all great magazines in their own way, even if World Soccer has still not responded to the letter I sent them a decade ago when I was living in Zurich, offering to be their Swiss correspondent (a country about which they publish maybe six paragraphs per issue - at the time, that was my idea of a busy schedule). But none of them set my pulse racing in quite the same way as Groundtastic, which this month published its 50th edition.
Published four times a year, Groundtastic is an unapologetically dork-oriented guide to the construction, renovation and history of soccer stadiums. Its main focus is on the UK, but it reserves the right to share with us the picture of a weed-pocked terrace from Uzbekistan, or a quirkily positioned floodlight from an obscure stadium corner of Nepal. It’s written in the deadpan tones of a trade magazine, except that it’s a trade magazine you actually want to read. Or at least I do. From cover to cover.
Take its review of the new Shrewsbury Town stadium, a team in England’s fourth division that has just moved from its ancient, flood-prone Gay Meadow ground in the town’s center to a new but functional stadium on the outskirts of Shrewsbury, next to a retail park. The magazine makes it clear, without being overtly critical, that it doesn’t think much of the new ground’s faceless, cookie-cutter design, and the fact that, despite moving out of town, there’s no parking for fans, and no viable public transport links (sounds like England’s going the way of MLS).
What other magazine in the world, I ask you, would be brave enough to stand up and ask the tough questions that need to be asked about Shrewsbury Town’s new ground? Where else would I find out that Fleetwood Town of the Northern Premier League has unveiled "ambitious plans" for a £2 million upgrade of Highbury Avenue, including a 1,000-seater stand and new covered terraces at the northern end? Which other publication will tell me that Kentish Town of the Spartan South Midlands League, following groundshares with Haringey Borough and Hendon, have agreed a deal to play at Barnet Copthall Athletics Stadium for the coming season?
Historical features are no less detailed, and the magazine is prepared to risk the ire of homeowners to find the exact location of a long since demolished venue. Often its photographers, armed with a century-old map, will show up in somebody’s back garden because 70 years previously Norwich City called what is now partly a vegetable patch its home. Can you still just make out the shape of a terrace, over there where the runner beans are climbing out of the very spot where men in flat caps once cheered and cursed?
The magazine’s longing for a golden age of improvised stand designs, and grounds squeezed into unlikely urban settings, is palpable through every old and grainy black and white picture of a packed stand, juxtaposed with the modern day shot of a parking garage or an anonymous wall on a grey English afternoon. It welcomes new stadiums that show signs of originality, and which incorporate both the community and the environment into their design. It mourns the razing of historical venues to make way for yet another supermarket or housing estate.
In that respect, its list of stadiums that eager groundhoppers should be sure to visit before the bulldozers come makes for a depressing read, especially from a distance of several thousand miles. If you’ve yet to see a soccer game at Cambridge City’s Milton Road ground, or if life so far has denied you the pleasures of an afternoon at Arnold Town’s Gedling Road venue, now is the time to book your flight to the UK. Both are in the ‘Red’ section of the ‘Endangered Grounds’ list, meaning their end is imminent.
Groundtastic is social history charted through trends in soccer stadium design and location. World Soccer recently jumped on the bandwagon by starting a dull feature on individual cities and their venues. But they can’t fool us. Groundtastic has been catering to the ground geek market for years. They know what we want to know and what we want to see. You can stick your bland interviews with Sepp Blatter. What we want are stands of differing dimensions from all around the world.