‘Welcome to the Hive’ read the garish black and amber sign set alongside a busy suburban road. To the uninitiated there’s nothing special about Barnet football club in north London. But this was my Golden Fleece, my Emerald City at the end of a long and winding road. Because after a quarter of a century of traipsing across the country I was about to join a select club. The Hive was my final visit. The 92nd ground of the 92 clubs in the top four leagues of English football.
From Accrington Stanley’s brilliantly named ‘Wham’ stadium in Lancashire to the post-modern opulence of Arsenal’s ‘Emirates,’ from Meadow Lane to Molineux, Valley Parade to Vicarage Road, I had watched a game of football in them all. We call ourselves ‘ground hoppers’ and those hardy fans who have visited every ground have their own club and website. The ‘92 Club’ even has its own ties and badges. Roger Titford, a Reading fan, was one of the club’s early members. He describes ‘doing the 92’ as, "the sticker album for grown-ups.”
My own quest started when I took my wife and son Chester to Edgeley Park to watch Stockport County play. (They’re not even in the league now). We met up with old college friends after the match and got to see some of the North West. That was it. I’d caught the ground hopping bug and the sporting away days became cultural days out. As a family we’ve visited almost every Norman cathedral in England, via football. There was Exeter, Norwich and Carlisle. We pored over St Chad’s Gospel in Lichfield on the way back from Sheffield, (United not Wednesday you understand), were amazed by the medieval ceiling in Peterborough and wondered at the Magna Carta in Winchester Cathedral, on our way home from Southampton. Football though has its own cathedrals – its stadiums. Archibald Leitch was the doyen of 20th century stadium architecture, and one of his masterpieces, Craven Cottage, is still home to Fulham FC. The list does go on. Football, the 92, have allowed me, obliged me, to explore the whole country.
It would be easy to dismiss us ground hoppers as a little sad; anoraks, obesessionals with nothing better to do with our Saturdays. But hold on, I don’t own an anorak. This round Britain quest has been much more to me than ticking off football grounds. I make a point of talking to people on the way to, from and inside the ground. Hutch, a reformed hooligan in Sunderland, befriended us outside the Stadium of Light. “I’ll walk you all to the ground” he said, “just in case.” In Nottingham we met Andy and stayed with his family when we went to watch Forest. It’s been a social as much as a footballing journey
This being football though there’s always an argument over the rules of the game. Some members of the club expect you to note the attendance, the date of the game and the opposition at every game you watch. My ground hopping pal David Collins from Cardiff opined, “I’ve watched Arsenal youth play at the Emirates. Does that count?” I think so David.
But what of my final curtain, the game at Barnet? There was a nice irony that the Bees were 92nd out of all 92 teams, at the very bottom and in danger of falling out of the football league altogether. It was a do or die match against Notts County, whose main claim to fame is that they are the oldest football team in the league. After 92 minutes it was still nil nil and then a thunderbolt of a shot from Barnet’s Alex Nicholls sealed it for the home side.
So, what shall I do with my Saturdays now that my collection of football grounds is complete? Well, Spurs move to a new stadium next season, and two teams come up from the National League offering fresh opportunities to travel. Here we go again!
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