Along with many other sports, the game of football since it’s codification in 1863 has had a huge impact on our surroundings. Public space has been utterly changed in many urban, suburban and rural areas by the appearance of everything from the most basically well-laid (and sometimes not-so-well-laid) pitch, tin-roof, and fence to superstadia like Wembley, the San Siro, the Bernabéu, or the Nou Camp. Old Trafford is now known as ‘the theatre of dreams’, but such a moniker could be affixed to just about any ground on which football (or any game for that matter) is played.
For Welsh historian Daryl Leeworthy ‘the everyday sporting landscape does not surrender its history easily’, but, he writes ‘behind each playground lies a story of struggle, jubilation, and sometimes sadness.’ He continues on to say ‘the making of the historic sporting environment is therefore a story not just of the hallowed turf upon which Wales defeated England many years ago but also, an more importantly, the people who made it.’ For Mike Cronin and Roisín Higgins, writing of the sports ground in Ireland ‘what all sporting sites have in common, whether for players or spectators, is that they are part of the fabric of Irish history and society.’ Their book, as they rightly say, shows ‘sporting sites are not necessarily important for their architectural styles or the magnificence of the building, but rather are important venues for mass social activity’.
For Leif Jerram, in order to gain a proper understanding of Europe’s history in the twentieth century he writes ‘if we want to find the point of encounter, and witness the rendezvous between big and small, we have to start thinking about where the twentieth century happened. We have to look at its streetlife’. Part of that streetlife, is the football ground. And so, here I offer a number of great football grounds, great not because the grass has been graced by the world’s best players necessarily, but because they get to the heart of what makes the football ground great, its history interesting, and so close to the hearts of the people who fill the stands in every kind of weather.
4. Dalymount Park
The home of Irish football. It originally began its life as Pisser Dignam’s Field, but by 1901 it was transformed in Bohemians Football Club’s famous home ground. Innumerable games have been played on that space, heroes and villains created, fascism defeated, cups and championships won and lost. People have stood on banks, on the roof of the stands, piled well over the touchline as they watched the history of Irish football, international and domestic, unfold in front of their frequently stunned eyes. Though it’s best years are almost certainly behind it, inits day fewer football grounds can have said to rival it for atmosphere. Standing there today, you feel the weight of history in the air. The grounds grandstand was extended under the stewardship of Archibald Leitch, probably most famously the architect behind great stadia like Celtic Park, Ibrox and many more.
In fact, one of Leitch’s other great triumphs was Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club. What makes Anfield so special though, aside from the stadium itself, is the section of the ground now known popularly as The Kop. Without those who people football grounds then they are unlikely to acquire their greatness. Although not the original football ground to be described as resembling the Spion Kop, it is certainly the most famous one since it was first described that way in 1906. The fans who roar on Liverpool from their position on The Kop have been a huge part in what makes not only Anfield, but Liverpool Football Club, so special.
2. Estadio Municipal de Braga
By some distance the most famously insane looking football ground on the planet, Estadio Municipal de Braga is built into a quarry in northern Portugal. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it is listed as one of Europe’s top 10 football stadiums to see by Lonely Planet, and frankly, we’d be stupid to disagree with them. Take a look:
1. The Local Park
Sentimental? Perhaps. But as Jerram has noted about the building of the great football grounds of Europe ‘this spatial dimension of building transformed football from a participatory sport into an entertainment business’. Again Daryl Leeworthy writes that ‘the story of ordinary spaces, in ordinary communities, deserves to be told in order to complement the many histories of those [more famous] fields of play’. And so here’s to the original, and best, theatre of dreams – the local park, where young boys and girls win world cups, nutmeg Pele and Lionel Messi, scoring a last minute clincher in front of improbable crowds of hundreds of thousands in their heads.
Mike Cronin and Roisín Higgins, Places We Play: Ireland’s Sporting Heritage, Cork: Collins Press 2011
Simon Inglis, Sightlines: A Stadium Odyssey, London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2001
Simon Inglis, Football Grounds of Britain 3rd Edition, London: HarperCollins, 1996
Leif Jerram, Streetlife: The Untold History of Europe’s Twentieth Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011
Daryl Leeworthy, Fields of Play: The Sporting Heritage of Wales, Aberystwyth: Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 2012
John A. Murphy, Where Finbarr Played: A Concise Illustrated History of Sport in University College Cork, 1911-2011, Cork: UCC 2011