Since we were last in the North-East we’ll stick to that side of the country as we continue my trawl through my visits to English football grounds. Heading south down the A1 then there are a few we need to get through here, as with relatives on either side of the Midlands it’s a fertile area. Not only that but there are one or two who have moved grounds which cause chaos amongst us casual ground – hoppers. Where to start then? September 1989 is as good a place as any.
A lot of today’s generation won’t know about the Baseball Ground in Derby but they really need to as it more than has its place in English football history. Before we get to that what a name anyway! Sounds like something out of south-central Detroit, doesn’t it? However, in 1972 and 1975 it was the home to the League Champions and in the first instance where Brian Clough created his aura. Prior to my visit, I had watched so many games on TV where the pitch was just about capable of hosting top flight football and was always heavily sanded. The other thing was the low terracing alongside the touchline which hosted fans and was indeed where I ended up watching Derby host the team who would end up Champions that season, Liverpool. Goals by Barnes, Rush and Beardsley will tell you all you need to know about the strength of that side. Derby players of note who played that day were Peter Shilton, Mark Wright and Dean Saunders.
My second visit to see the Rams was eighteen years later at the now suburb – located Pride Park. It was my first experience of seeing a club in a new, smarter, more comfortable but ultimately soulless arena that are prevalent nowadays. The Baseball Ground like many others might have had its drawbacks but it did not lack character. However, this October day in 1997 Pride Park was host to one of the teams of the time – Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and what a game it was. Derby, two up by halftime were pegged back by goals from Sheringham and Cole. It typified the team at the time and would be repeated again many times most famously in Barcelona at the end of the following season. I also notice how all these years later Derby still more or less house the thirty thousand crowd present that day but now a division below. Mart Poom, Chris Powell and that inimitable Costa Rican Paolo Wanchope all featured for Derby well refereed, of course by Graham Poll.
Another powerhouse of the East Midlands football scene is Leicester City and my first visit there was in October 1996. The changing face of football was starting to show now as Chelsea had seven different nationalities on show. Filbert Street was a unique sort of ground with its low – roofed stand alongside the pitch but I liked its central location. Another fascinating thing that day was the different management styles of Martin O’Neill and Ruud Gullit. O’Neill was agitation personified all match whilst Gullit, perhaps knowing all along his team would win 3-1 with goals from Vialli, Di Matteo and Mark Hughes, sat with his feet up on a stool all match. Brilliant! A young Emile Heskey scored for Leicester.
November 2016 saw my return to the city to watch Leicester in the Champions’ League no less. Again, despite a traffic-harassed trip to the city centre I thoroughly enjoyed the noisy Leicester support watch a decent 2-1 win over Club Brugge. N’Golo Kante aside, it was good to see this fabled Leicester side that had won the league six months previously. An underrated but key player in that side scored the first goal in the shape of Shinji Okazaki, followed by Mahrez dispatching a penalty. It’s worth mentioning as well how I enjoyed seeing a city enjoy their team so much and reminded me amidst all the hoopla what the game is all about.
If you are going to watch Derby, one really needs to see Nottingham Forest as well just to maintain the Brian Clough equilibrium as I have very clear memories of that team. It was a crisp Boxing Day in 2012 that had me along to watch them against Leeds United and what a pleasant spot it was by the Trent. I was taken by the old rickety stand trying to hold its own against all the new ones all around it. It was a lively game finishing 4-2 to Forest and was significant for the sacking of manager Sean O’ Driscoll that evening. Happy Christmas Sean eh? The Leeds fans were most entertaining as they bobbed about putting on a show in their blue and white Santa outfits but it was just the sort of game you need on the day after Christmas. Fresh air and goals – perfect!
It could have been tasty with Neil Warnock as Leeds manager and El-Hadji Diouf in his forward line and lower league goal king Billy Sharp scoring twice for Forest, but everyone was observing the season of goodwill.
My final East Midlands visit was to Coventry in March 2015 and I found it a fairly sad one as I remember Coventry having much better times. Stuck in the Ricoh Arena surrounded by a shopping centre and pretty much being the junior tenant to Wasps RFC, the statue of Jimmy Hill was the only thing that warmed my reflective heart. Still, it was good to see the BBC’s irrepressible Mark ‘Clem’ Clemmit hovering around Tony Mowbray at the ground to state all was well. Five goals and an away win for Port Vale meant it was not dull, but nine and a half thousand odd souls did knock around the big stadium a bit. Some ex NI caps were on show as Adam Barton appeared for Coventry and present Linfield player Ryan McGivern and Michael O’Connor were on the pitch for Vale with the latter scoring the winner.
Next time we’ll cross the divide and do the West Midlands. “Alroyt?”