Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Incredible Vanishing Football Ground

Thursdays are probably the most difficult day of the week for me to write something for this. Especially on Champions League weeks. After all, everybody writes about the Champions League. I don't think that there's anything that I could say about it that isn't being said somewhere else in the world, and in altogether. The same old faces, trotting out the same old nonsense every Wednesday for weeks and weeks, until one major conglomerate beats another conglomerate. Tonight, though, I have something different to bring you. An entirely collapsible football ground. And not only that, I can confirm exactly how collapsible it is.

I work in West Sussex, near a village called Upper Beeding. It's a tiny, tiny place, in the middle of nowhere. On my journey to work, I pass two small football grounds, the homes of Southwick FC and Shoreham FC. They're small - tiny, in fact - but they are recognisable as football grounds. They have floodlights, goalposts, and small, somewhat rickety looking grandstands. At Shoreham, there's even a little bit of cover behind the goal, which is more than can be said for Clarence Park, St Albans. I occasionally make rash promises to go and watch one r the other of them, without seeing it through. However, whilst flicking around on the internet this morning before I started work, I came across a little curio that demanded my further attention.

There's not a lot to do in Upper Beeding, to be honest. You can go to the pub, go to the petrol station, or... that's about it, really. I've been working there for four months, and I more or less exhausted the lunchtime entertainment possibilities within a week. However, today I found myself something to do. I hold Pyramid Passion responsible for this. It's a non-league football ground directory and, as you can probably see from its front page, its pretty exhaustive. They've just published a book about dug-outs, for goodness' sake. It's the sister site of Nomad Online, the near-legendary website about non-league football in Sussex. The team behind both sites are "ground-hoppers". They're the sporting equivalent of train-spotters. They visit non-league football grounds. As many as they possibly can - occasionally when there isn't even a game on. I should make it clear that, as a man in his 30s, I will not mock these people. I understand them. I suspect that I may even be a ground-hopper-in-waiting. Pyramid Passion and Nomad fill a void on the internet, and has proved to be an invaluable directory for me. I while away far too much of my time looking at it, learning all sorts of almost distressingly unnecessary information. This morning, I stumbled across Upper Beeding FC, and I can't help but think that, somewhere in the universe, a small hole was torn in the space/time continuum.

Now, I had no idea that Upper Beeding had a football team, and this is unsurprising, considering that their ground "
has to be ‘assembled’ on match days - visit at any other time and there will be little evidence that County League football takes place". The concept of a flat-pack football ground hadn't really occurred to me before. My primary school backed onto a village football ground, and it was demonstrably a football ground. You could tell it was. Even the vast majority of park pitches have goalposts up all week. At this place, though... nothing? Really? I had to investigate. So, I wandered up into the village and followed the sign-post (yes, just the one) to the Memorial Playing Field and, there was nothing there. It was a public park, with a cricket wicket (at least I think it was a wicket) roped off, a large black shed and nothing else. It was only as I walked across it that I realised that I had walked across an extremely faintly painted touchline and onto the pitch. Until I hear of somewhere less like a football ground, I'm calling The Memorial Playing Field, Upper Beeding as England's Smallest Football Ground.

This raises all sorts of questions. What is it's capacity? Presumably, you could calculate it as many people could stand safely around it at any one time (a number which I, having been to more music festivals and open-air gigs) would calculate at about 30,000. Secondly, Nomad Online notes that the average crowd at Upper Beeding last season was 30. Down 31% on the season before. How, without turnstiles, do they calculate this? Do they have a man with a counter that runs up a rough estimate that they work from? Finally, that drop in crowds looks serious. Where have those other fourteen people gone? Was there one club playing in the West Sussex County Football League two years ago that had a large away following? Did the League make a hash of the bank holiday fixtures? Is there a possibility of a breakaway club called AFC Beeding (Upper), playing on an even more invisible pitch in front of fourteen spectators?

Given that I work one Saturday in five, the temptation is now there for me to answer most of these questions by going to watch Upper Beeding one Saturday. Fortunately, they have their own site so I can keep an eye on them from now on (they had a particularly good win against the spectacularly-named Horsham Baptists Reserves a few weeks ago). Goodness. Crawley Town vs St Albans City on Saturday had better be a good match. The Saints could have new competition for my affections.


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