Memorial Ground (Bristol Rovers)

I’ll confess to not knowing much about Bristol Rovers before my visit here. Marcus Stewart used to play for them, they play in blue and white and that’s about it.

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I visited the Memorial Ground as part of my FA Cup project (cuprunnings.com) rather than a comedy-related visit and I have to say I loved it. The club have plans to move a couple of miles away to a new stadium, but this is a perfect blend of old school and new and it’ll be a shame when they move on.

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Wedged in with terraced houses on every side, the club is using every bit of space possible, so it’s easy to see why they need to move, but that won’t make it any sadder when they do.

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Indeed, one of the stands exits straight into a street and just takes you back to a magical era when a football ground was slap bang in the middle of a community rather than a retail park.

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The stadium itself is a mish-mash of old and new. There’s a terraced “home” end for Gasheads fans opposite the temporary seating behind the other goal that houses away fans. Then one touchline hugs a monster of an old stand (maybe not that old) with impressive views across the city.

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Opposite is a beautiful newer stand, a thing of real beauty. The two look entirely different, don’t compliment each other whatsoever, yet it all adds up to make a most charming home.

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This is what football is about. Stadiums built over time – so much time that the stands themselves act as a timeline to the club’s evolution. You can see when they’ve added to the ground as they’ve went along and I absolutely love it.

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Everyone connected to the club seems lovely as well, and as an added bonus the stadium announcer brings the team on to the booming announcement of “I smell gas!”. Brilliant.

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If you’re in the Bristol area I’d get a trip to the Memorial down on your to do list.

 

 

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Heritage Park (Bishop Auckland)

This was a flying visit made one morning on a drive much further south and I’m reasonably undecided on it.

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Bishop moved from their Kingsway ground to here in 2010 and it’s an immaculate stadium but also fairly devoid of real character. The main stand seems wonderful and there’s a lovely covered terrace behind one of the goals, but that’s about it. Maybe how new it is means the club hasn’t quite grown around its new home yet and made it its own.

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One thing that is worth noting is the optimist who thought that uncovered seating behind the other goal was definitely a good idea. No offence to County Durham and your wonderful weather, but I suspect those seats must be in fairly new condition.

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As it is, an immaculate surface, that covered terrace and some friendly staff (one of whom I frightened half to death as she turned a corner to find me there taking some photos) save this.

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Yes, there’s the horrible sight of a Sainsbury’s looking over the ground, and it’s out of town, but it’s homely and well kept if a little nondescript.

 

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Emirates Stadium (Arsenal)

After covering Arsenal’s former home last week, it seemed only right to bump Heritage Park, home of Bishop Auckland, back a week.

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So we find ourselves at the magnificent Emirates Stadium. An arena with so much thought put into it that you struggle to believe this is just 60,000 seats plonked around a patch of grass.

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There are statues everywhere – Tony Adams, Thierry Henry, Herbert Chapman – and tributes to former players on every wall. At one corner stands a team photo that includes every single player to have played for Arsenal ever. It’s remarkable.

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Yet at the same time, it’s stunningly dull. The stadium itself is beautiful. Genuinely wonderful, a perfect circle towering into the sky, full of glass and steel at breathtaking angles. Every inch of it is poetry, a perfectly symmetrical piece of art.

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And maybe the symmetry is where I have a problem. Once you go beyond the cladding tributes to David O’Leary and Pat Rice, the Emirates looks the same from virtually every angle. Beyond its architectural majesty, there’s nothing of interest to look at.

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Any classic football ground has four different stands, full of different character, each with their own tale to tell. Sure, Arsenal might have moved the clock from the Clock End of Highbury, but other than that, you strip away the tributes and every side of the Emirates looks the same.

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I can’t mark it down for that, because in fairness every inch of the ground is a testament to its past, and even on a quiet Sunday morning the area is full of tourists posing for photos and digesting the information on show for them. But compared to its predecessor, it’s a bit underwhelming, even if it is magnificent.

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Highbury (Arsenal 1913 – 2006)

Okay, so this might be a controversial one, but there’s no denying Highbury used to be a stadium and Arsenal have kept their former home in some sort of condition.

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After moving to the Emirates Stadium, it would have been easy to sell off Highbury and turn it into an anonymous housing estate as seems to happen to most grounds now.

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To fans it’s devastating; there’s so many memories, so much emotion all within the confines of that stadium. Turning it to rubble might not erase those memories but it’s bloody horrible. You won’t get many Southampton fans wistfully walking through the housing estate where The Dell once stood.

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Arsenal seem to be a different kettle of fish though. They’ve converted Highbury into flats. They’ve knocked down the two stands behind each goal and replaced them with fancy apartment blocks, but the two monsters that hugged the touch line have retained their shells. It makes for a fantastically unique building to live in, and also means Highbury still lives on.

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It also means you can sort of have a wander on the Highbury pitch. Not completely, as the pitch area has been turned into a private garden for residents, which is totally fair enough, but you can have a stroll where the goals were, close your eyes and semi-imagine what it must have been like to play there.

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I can only imagine it’s sheer heaven for Gunners and hats off to Arsenal Football Club for a truly remarkable project.

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