12 abandoned Football League grounds
Background image: HJ Vannes, CC BY-SA 3.0
The UK’s football landscape changed markedly in recent decades and not just in cultural terms. The money, media hype and pampered players all turned the game into more of a television show than a sport but the most striking change is physical. The stadiums of old with their sweeping vistas of concrete terraces, rickety wooden enclosures with paddocks tacked on the front or lovingly designed cantilever stands are fast disappearing to be replaced by the concrete and steel identikit all-seater venues.
The Taylor report, other safety regulations and clubs' increasing desire to milk the maximum ticket money possible from their fans [harder to do when punters are allowed to stand] converted historic venues beyond all recognition. Watching a match at any professional club in the modern era seems centuries removed from the experience of yesteryear. Long gone are the men in flat caps, relaxing after a hard week’s graft down the mines or up the mill, smoking their pipes and eating their meat pies on the terraces. It’s probably for the best. Had they turned up at the ground to find standing was no longer permitted, stewards would evict them for offensive language and pasties now cost £4.50, they’d have marched off to find some rugby to watch.
But even after the nets were taken down, the snack bar shuttered and the gates locked for the final time, a few monuments to those long-lost days of old school football linger. The gritty colosseums where 11 hardened men once kicked a pig liver about before as many as 100,000 crammed-in spectators are mostly gone, some after standing empty for years, decades even.
Here are a handful, along with one or two more modern structures who share their fate.
When historic club Scarborough FC folded under the weight of millions of pounds of debt in 2007, they left a community in turmoil. At its centre was the Athletic ground, a much loved 6,500 capacity venue. The quirky ground featured one small grandstand, its remaining capacity made up of terracing. The old place boasted a storied past, hosting the Seasiders from 1898 until their dissolution. Highlights included an attendance in excess of 11,000 in the pre-safety-conscious days of 1938, playing host to the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Crystal Palace as well as Red Star Belgrade the year before the Serbian club's famous Champions League win. The stadium also hosted rugby and floodlit cricket matches.
The ground lay abandoned following the club's demise. A new Scarborough Athletic formed in the town the following year but were unable to return to their ancestral home. The Athletic Ground was subject to fires, fly-tipping and a series of break-ins. Sadly, it was demolished in 2011 following four years of continued deterioration and vandalism, replaced by a Lidl supermarket. Scarborough ground-shared with Bridlington Town for more than a decade before opening their marvellously named Flamingo Land Stadium in 2017. Like the Athletic Ground, it was built into the surrounding landscape, set into the side of rolling Yorkshire hills and seating nearly 600 fans.
Bolton’s historic home was a proper old-school venue. Opened in 1895, Burnden Park’s capacity varied between 25,000 and 70,000 and comprised majority step-terracing for most of its history. So emblematic of traditional northern football culture, it inspired local artist L.S. Lowry’s painting Going to the Match.
The stadium hosted hundreds of historic Wanderers games, rugby league, major cup finals and made the silver screen on more than one occasion. It was used as a set for 1960s films A Kind of Loving and The Love Match.
The ground also had its darker side. In 1946, 33 Wanderers fans lost their lives in a crush. Following the Taylor Report, Bolton found themselves in urgent need of an all-seater ground. With costs to deck out the Burnden terraces prohibitive, the club abandoned their historic home, leaving it derelict for two years, during which time it was used as a traveller site.
Bolton subsequently moved to the Reebok Stadium. A more suitable venue perhaps, and one that generates more revenue for the football club. Located six miles outside of town, however, it offers none of the ambience that Burnden Park provided.
Known as the worst club in Britain for perpetually finishing dead-last in Scottish League Two, East Stirling never lived up to old Firs Park which hosted the Shire from 1921 to 2008. The ground was briefly abandoned and partially cannibalised in 1964 when East Stirling merged with Clydebank FC. The new club moved out of the area before a legal challenge forced them to return.
A small venue with only 200 seats, its record attendance was nonetheless 12,000 for a cup tie with Partick Thistle. The final game at the stadium saw East win 3-1 against Montrose, avoiding a sixth consecutive last-place finish. This humble venue was also the place where a renowned manager began his career. Alex Ferguson spent the first few months of his managerial career with East Stirling before leaving to take up the job at St Mirren.
Fir Park was in need of major upgrades by 2008 but the club decided the costs of repair were prohibitive. The ground lay vacant and overgrown for four years before it was demolished to make way for a supermarket. Meanwhile, East Stirling ground-shared with neighbours Stenhousemuir and later Falkirk.
Following the Scottish pyramid's restructuring, the Shire were finally relegated. They now play in the Lowland League.
Nene Park was originally opened in 1969 as home of Northamptonshire side Irthlingbrough Diamonds. It was not until 1992, when Irthlingborough merged with Rushden Town to spawn Rushden & Diamonds, that the stadium really came into its own.
Rebuilt from scratch for nearly £30 million, Nene Park rated among the best facilities in the lower English leagues. With 4,600 seats and standing room to boot, the stadium hosted Olympic training camps, England youth internationals and three seasons of Football League action during Rushden’s golden era, including a League Two playoff semifinal against Rochdale.
But Rushden soon fell from grace, partially due to the cost of running the ground. They dissolved in 2011. The stadium hosted one more season when rivals Kettering Town abandoned their historic Rockingham Road stadium to become tenants. They too sank into administration and the cursed ground remained unused for more than five years, becoming a favoured site for urban explorers alongside the similarly derelict Rockingham Road. Both stadiums were demolished in 2017.
A reformed Rushden & Diamonds began life ground-sharing at various local clubs before returning settling in with Rushden & Highham FC. Land is set aside for the construction of the club’s own ground. Kettering continue as a nomadic outfit, currently tenants at Burton Latimer.
Doncaster’s home since 1922, Belle Vue served as the Rovers’ third stadium, following on from the Intake and Bennetthorpe Grounds. The stadium’s capacity varied, reaching 40,000 in its prime but dropping to 7,000 in later years when old, crumbling stands were torn down for safety reasons.
A new board pledged to build the club a more suitable ground although it was taken a little too far. In 1995, director Ken Richardson hired a private investigator and former SAS soldier to burn the main stand to the ground. The man did so but made two classic blunders, leaving an incriminating 'job done' message on Richardson's voice-mail then dropping his phone at the crime scene. Richardson was convicted five years later and sentenced to four years in prison. His bungling lackey received just a year.
In 2007, the club finally moved out, taking their place at the Keepmoat, a 15,000 all-seater. Still, even abandonment couldn’t save Belle Vue from further degradation. Trespassers caused an explosion at the ground shortly after the club left. Following this dangerous incident, the demolition process was hurried along and the ground was replaced by housing.
The Vetch was another much-loved British football venue that fell victim to increased safety regulations. Swansea City’s historic home opened in 1912. Housing up to 32,000 fans, it was infamous for a hard pitch made from coal cinder. Players wore knee pads for fixtures. One of the quirkier Football League grounds, it's unusual features included an art deco floodlight jutting out over one stand and an underpass leading beneath the pitch.
As well as hosting Swansea for the first 93 years of their existence, the Vetch also hosted 18 Wales international fixtures between 1921 and 1988, a number of FAW Cup finals and rugby league matches, among those a World Cup fixture in 1995. It served as a music venue, hosting acts like Stevie Wonder and The Who.
Another victim of the Taylor Report, Swansea moved to the 20,000 seater Liberty Stadium. The Vetch was put up for sale four years after Swansea moved out. Its demolition came two years later. The site converted to housing and a community orchard. The centre circle, where fans' ashes were once spread, was maintained as a wildflower meadow.
Built in 1912, Wimbledon FC’s historic home was basic. Even after major improvements, capacity hovered around the 15,000 mark. The stadium endured a tough life, bombed during WWII.
Following the Taylor report, Wimbledon abandoned Plough Lane in favour of a ground share agreement at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park. The old ground hosted reserve matches for both clubs until 1998. The stadium then stood derelict for several years and the pitch was used for grazing horses until it was torn down in 2002.
Wimbledon effectively ceased to be, replaced by newly formed club MK Dons. The reformed AFC Wimbledon initially moved to Kingstonian’s ground, Kingsmeadow. The Dons plan to return to their home district. New Plough Lane, a 9,000 capacity all-seater venue, is under construction. Housing now stands on the site of the original Plough Lane.
Originally opened in the 1890s as host to a local church team, Millmoor became home to Rotherham County who would merge with rivals Rotherham Town to form Rotherham United.
The Millers played a number of high-profile games at the ground, including the inaugural Football League Cup final and a derby with Sheffield Wednesday played before 21,000 fans. Millmoor also hosted greyhound racing for a time.
In the mid-2000s, Millmoor’s capacity was a paltry 8,000. The Millers invested in upgrades to the stands but the work was halted before completion. The club fell into a dispute with the landlord, eventually departing for the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield before returning to a new community venue, the New York Stadium.
Bizarrely, the ground still stands, construction work half-finished, presumably never to be completed. A professional rugby club attempted to take up residence in 2011 but the deal fell through. Football is still played at Millmoor. A local youth team hosts their opponents before the deserted stands of a former Football League venue.
Before Third Lanark faded into obscurity in the late 1960s they were a major force in Scottish football. They won the Scottish Cup twice and finished third in the top flight, beaten only by the Old Firm, four years before their liquidation.
From 1903, the club played at Cathkin Park, formerly home of Queen’s Park FC who moved across the road to Hampden Park, the present-day Scottish national stadium. In its heyday, Cathkin Park held over 50,000 people and hosted the first rugby match between Scotland and England as well as the first Glasgow vs Edinburgh football match.
Following Third Lanark’s dissolution, the ground was abandoned and gradually dismantled. While the stand, pavilion and perimeter fencing are long gone, the terracing is still largely intact. Located in a popular park, the ground is freely accessible and occasionally hosts amateur games. Groundhoppers and football history enthusiasts regularly visit to walk the pitch and terraces of the once-great club.
There are plans to revive the ground for use at semi-professional level and open a museum to showcase its history. Local community groups cleared the overgrown terracing and restored the track around the pitch.
Designed by the famed football architect, Archibald Leitch, Ayresome Park was constructed in 1903, close to the site of the town’s first football stadium, Paradise Ground, home to defunct Northern League champions Middlesbrough Ironopolis.
Over 92 years, spectators witnessed highs and lows for the Boro including a record-breaking attendance of 50,000 against Newcastle. One they missed was the club being locked out of the ground after amassing huge debt.
The ground also forged an unlikely bond between Middlesbrough locals and the mysterious people of an isolated nation on the other side of the world. The stadium hosted three matches involving North Korea in 1966, including a famous 1-0 win over Italy. Locals who watched the games developed a strong connection with the Koreans. Surviving members of the team returned to visit the scene of their triumph in 2002 and Middlesbrough Ladies toured the DPRK in 2010.
In 1995, Middlesbrough moved to the new 35,000-seater Riverside on the banks of the Tees. Not nearly as central as its predecessor, the Riverside’s advantage comes from not being hemmed in by housing. It has the potential for expansion to a capacity of 42,000. Ayresome Park meanwhile, lay alone and unloved, slowly dismantled over the course of a year while still seeing some use as a training ground.
A piece of Ayresome Park still stands, though. The gate from the historic venue was incorporated into the new ground.
Originally home to Darlington cricket club, Darlington FC moved into Feethams on their formation in 1883. The ground welcomed more than 8,000 and was well known for its unusual layout which forced fans to walk around the cricket pitch before gaining access to the football ground. Along with hosting countless Football League fixtures for Darlington, Feethams was the venue for an amateur international fixture between England and the Netherlands as well as county-level cricket for Durham CC.
A new owner with lofty aspirations for the club arranged a move in 2003. Darlington relocated to an out-of-town arena seating 25,000. The new stadium proved a disaster with the club averaging attendances around the 1,500 mark. The costs of operating such a cavernous stadium proved too much and Darlington folded in 2012, leaving a rugby club to move into the now empty arena.
Feethams meanwhile lay derelict, the pitch overgrown and the stands falling into disrepair before their eventual demolition in 2006, replaced by a housing estate. Reformed, Darlington ground-shared with Bishop Auckland before returning to the town to play at Darlington Rugby Club’s Blackwell Meadows.
Hull City’s third ground opened in 1946, replacing Anlaby Road which had been damaged by bombing during the Second World War.
Built with help from the Football Association and opened by a detective on a white horse in front of a crowd of more than 20,000, Boothferry initially comprised a single stand but grew to include vast, steeply banked terraces, a cantilever stand and an extensive floodlight system. In later years, when the club began to struggle financially, the ground was monetised with Kwik Save and Iceland supermarkets built inside the stands. There is no word on whether attendance dropped as a result of husbands asked once too often to pick up some groceries on the way home from the match.
On the plus side, a record 55,000 people watched Hull take on Manchester United in 1949. Boothferry also hosted an international fixture between Northern Ireland and Spain as well as rugby league fixtures. Hull later went full circle, returning to Anlaby Road and taking up residence there at the 25,000-seater KC Stadium.
More than five years after Boothferry Park was last used for football, it was finally demolished. While it sat vacant, vandals and arsonists ran amok in the old stands, with the local fire department called out more than a hundred times. Rumours that Manchester United Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward plans to build a new home on the site are unfounded.