So we have covered Merseyside and Manchester in my English football travels and in my best Christopher Eccleston mode, I shall endeavour to cover the remaining ‘Friends in the North’ that I have visited. Four of them to be exact. We’ll start west and move east. I may have mentioned some of my lads’ youth teams playing in the annual Easter Blackpool Cup tournament which of course opened up options. Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road needed to be visited and I still have touches of guilt on hoping various youth matches would finish early enough to enable us to get down to the ground.
Easter, 10th April 2004 and we rattled down to Bloomfield Road. The main things I remember are firstly the Jimmy Armfield statue outside the ground. These are a growing feature of grounds, especially as new ones are built and it is something you can’t get wrong. Armfield was the perfect man here – understated and all the more aura for it. I was delighted to have seen him as I spent most of my life listening to him on the radio. I also remember Mickey Walsh’s BBC goal of the season in 1975 I think which came to mind. Worth a look on YouTube.
The match was against Brighton and Hove Albion and it was a 3-1 win for a mediocre home team. The ground was in a state of redevelopment but there was a healthy Sussex gathering there and as you might expect in a coastal resort on a public holiday. I am fairly sure there was some anti-Oyston sentiment knocking about the home fans who were not happy with their owner. Players of note that I remember were Jason Wilcox, ex Blackburn for Blackpool and for Brighton, future punters on Saturday nights’ TV with Colin Murray – Adam Virgo and Chris Iwelumo. Leon Knight I noted as well in Brighton’s forward line was later to spend some time with Glentoran.
The same background circumstances also brought me to Deepdale two years later – home of Preston North End – another behemoth of the fifties who were playing a Glenn Hoddle managed Wolves. I tend to remember more about surrounding features of the game such as the Football League Museum at the time which was there and also that this was the home of two great gods of the game – Tom Finney and Bob Shankly. The ground was being rebuilt at the time but once again I was delighted to see the Tom Finney statue which was more than appropriate, having just come out of the Football League museum which of course covered the likes of the great man. The gangly Brett Ormerod scored for the team in a 2-0 win and the only other players of note I remember were Kenny Miller, more famous north of the border perhaps and Joleon Lescott – both playing for Wolves.
Before we move out of Lancashire, my last visit there was in September of 2013 in the hometown of ‘The Verve’ and it included a little bit of history. This was Wigan Athletic’s first home game in Europe following their FA Cup victory the previous May over Manchester City. A 3-1 victory with one goal from that Cup hero Ben Watson and two from Nick Powell who I see is still there ensured Maribor returned to Slovenia empty-handed. Interestingly enough their ground I had visited as well via a Northern Ireland international three years previously. Like a lot of modern grounds such as Coventry or Milton Keynes, for example, it was stuck in the middle of an industrial/ retail park environment. It was walkable from the train station along the canal and that was good enough for me.
The last ground that will be featured in this ‘North‘ series is perhaps one of the kings. Leeds United’s Elland Road. Elland Road then and Elland Road now. Not a place to mess around with. Again I could have stared at Billy Bremner’s statue all day – a man who was sending studs through the Shoot and Goal magazine pages I read as a kid. I expected him to get off his plinth and set off to the changing room ready to wage Yorkshire war with anybody. Some player though. Working in England in the summer of 1994 I had occasion to head over the Pennines to watch an early season August midweek joust v Arsenal. I marvelled at the size of the huge stand and as always thought of some of the legends who had played here.
It has always been a big match through the years and an 89th minute Noel Whelan goal was a bit harsh on Arsenal if I remember to claim a 1-0 win. The classic back four of Dixon, Winterburn, Bould and Adams was in place and we also had Alan Smith and Ian Wright up front with an interesting midfield of Merson, Schwarz and Jensen all held together by Seaman at the back. Leeds who had been Champions two years earlier had Speed, the ageless Strachan, Gary McAllister, Rod Wallace and ex-Gunner John Lukic in their white ranks.
My last visit there was not quite the same in many ways. September 2001 and Leeds were already starting their financial dance with the devil playing Bolton Wanderers that day in a grim 0-0. Rio Ferdinand, Harry Kewell, Ian Harte, Mark Viduka, Gary Kelly, David Batty and Olivier Dacourt were now holding the white rose up despite Peter Ridsdale’s best efforts to destroy it. I think Sam Allardyce was in charge of Bolton and Kevin Nolan and goalie Jaaskelainen are the only Bolton lads I remember.
Still, all good northern grounds to get under the belt and the two that do burn a bit of a hole in me still are Burnley and Blackburn. Will see what we can do there. Next on our Albion Travels will be the North East.