Last year I went to the Pirelli Stadium for the cup game with Sunday's opponents Burton. I was born in Burton and have followed them with a mildly diverting interest. By reputation, they seem the model of a non-league club done good. I was anticipating a well-run, neat, atmospheric stadium but, as much as we like to romanticise non-league grounds and their warm homeliness the reality was quite different.
Our ground comes under constant attack; its missing stand, its location in a soulless out of town entertainment complex. It's been a favourite topic of Swindon fans in the last week or so. A counter to our moral victory over Constableageddon. So, perhaps its time to defend the Kassam Stadium.
So, let’s deal with the most obvious point first. It’s only got three sides. We know. It’s not like we’ve just noticed, slapping our foreheads in disbelief in the realisation that, in fact, a whole side of the ground is missing.
We know it's not ideal, three sided stadium design never really caught on. But let’s understand why we have three sides. Firoz Kassam took over the club and the carcass of three stands built during the Robin Herd years. The ground has ample capacity for a side in the bottom tier and is, in fact, still amongst the biggest in the division. Quite simply, there has never been a good reason to build a fourth stand with crowds exceeding 12,000 on only two occasions in the last decade.
The claim from some Swindon fans that we should have foreseen the need for a fourth stand in order to cater for their needs on the 3rd March. The decision for a fourth stand should was based on the financial rewards such an iniative offers, not the so-called rights of other clubs' fans.
Without the prospect of a three sided, half built stadium to move to, we probably wouldn’t have been taken over by Firoz Kassam. Good, say many, but that means we may not have survived the financial crisis we were in at the time. Either way, if we had we stayed at the Manor without Kassam’s money, chances are we would have fallen into decline comparable to someone like, say, Cambridge United. The idea that we would have attracted the kind of ownership also seems unlikely. We would have been stuck in the bog. Perhaps, then, we should consider the missing side a scar that is a constant reminder of our survival.
The stadium lacks atmosphere. Modern stadiums do, not just the three sided ones. They’re highly rationalised like they’ve been built to a kit. That’s because they’re designed specifically for mature professional sporting institutions. The previous era of stadia evolved as teams grew from their traditional roots – no stands became small stands, small stands became big stands, big terraces got seats. Stadia developed in a piecemeal fashion. You could read a stadium as a historical document. Now they’re finished when they start.
We have romantic notions of old stadia – The Manor had its sloping pitch and baying London Road End. But it wasn’t always like that. It was great when it was good. When Manchester United or Arsenal came, or when we beat Peterborough to go up in 1996. The Glory Years. But I can tell you that when it was awful, it was truly awful. Standing on a cold, empty terrace watching us getting tanked is as bad as sitting in an new three sided stadium getting tanked. So please don't pretend that the Manor or any other stadium is the nirvana that some claim.
It’s all so soulless. It certainly is if you come for a one off humdrum league game. But football is a game of boredom punctuated by moments of magic. If you stick around you'll come across lots of magic - beating Swindon in the cup, Yemi's second goal against Dagenham, James Constable's last minute winner against Wrexham, last minutes against York, the play-off semi-final,Tom Craddock's last minute goal against Port Vale, Peter Leven's goal from the half-way line, even the relegation game against Orient - a fourth stand couldn't have enhanced the atmosphere on that game. Each additional memory adds to the soul of the place. Stick around long enough and you'll begin to love it.
Above all, reading The Boys From Up The Hill my first game series, it becomes abundantly clear that, for a huge number of people, The Manor is no more than a faded historical memory. The Kassam Stadium, therefore, should be cherished because it's just about the only place that many have known as our home.