Ground Nº 70 – Belle Vue
04/10/97 Doncaster 1 Brighton 3 League Div 3
I’ve called this Part One as I’m going to Belle Vue for one of the last games there; to watch Brighton on 25th November (2006). I’ll take some pictures of the ground for Part 2 and also mention the rise of the Rovers from their near-death experience, which was happening the last time I went. They’re moving to their new stadium very soon; in fact, I think the game with us on 25th is their 3rd last at the Belle Vue. A picture of their new place can be seen here.
Existing pictures of Belle Vue taken by other people can be seen here. When I hear or see the words Doncaster Rovers, I remember staring aghast at the BBC Vidi-printer in the mid-eighties watching the score Doncaster 7(SEVEN) Reading 5 coming through. It’s still to this day the most goals in a league game in recent years.
Something else about them is that they were involved in the longest game ever with Stockport County at Edgeley Park on March 30th 1946. I found details on Wikipedia. After 30 minutes of extra time it carried on for a further 203 minutes. This line amuses me: Stories abound of fans leaving the game, going home for their tea, and coming back to watch the end of the game! Doncaster was the first game for a few years that I went to with someone other than my brother Andy, or alone. Well, finding other Albion fans in Staffordshire is pretty difficult! I’d found a bloke called Martin. He was a 32 year old Man City fan I met through work. He’d have to do We shared a passion for all things football, so after a week or so of meeting him, I tentatively suggested he come to the 3rd division relegation-to-the-conference dogfight at Doncaster, expecting a knockback. Hardly a tempting proposition, even for a football fanatic, but come along he did. (After this game we had a hazy agreement to alternately go to Brighton and Man City games, which was how I picked up Maine Road and the City Ground.)
We faced Doncaster at a time when both clubs were in the midst of appalling crises. The fixture today was like the meeting of a couple of down-and-outs over a bottle of cheap whisky, in an alleyway. Both had reached rock bottom… and had started to dig; bitter at their respective ill treatment and abuse at the hands of their masters. Our ‘master’, chairman Bill Archer, had sold the Goldstone Ground from under us (not bad for an initial investment of £57), to make a profit and thus making us homeless, facing the embarrassment and shame of sharing the ground of a team in Kent, awkward to get to by either car or public transport; either option taking a good 2 hours.
Doncaster still had a home, at least, but their ‘master’, chairman Ken Richardson, was busy trying to burn it down, having just the previous week, been implicated in the recent fire which destroyed a large section of their main stand. It was a sad, sad time for both clubs; proud clubs with a long history. Almost inevitably we occupied the bottom two positions of the whole league, looking up at the rest from a stinking, sinking quagmire of bad football and corruption.
Ironically, a few months previously, our last ever match at the Goldstone was a 1-0 win over Doncaster which lifted us off the bottom of the table for the first time in months; giving us the initiative going into our last day showdown with the then bottom club Hereford, where we just avoided the drop to the conference by the skin of our teeth (thanks to a 63rd minute equaliser at Edgar Street by Robbie Reinelt; commemorative shirts with Reinelt 63 have been available since). We were now settling rather uncomfortably, but not unexpectedly, into another 91st place position, cushioned from non-league this time only due to the even worse plight of the club we were playing today, Doncaster. It was the nadir for our club. Almost certainly theirs too. It was difficult to believe it was happening to us; the Albion, who when I started supporting them as a child were in the top flight, in an FA Cup final, and boasting 2 England Internationals in Peter Ward and Steve Foster, playing to 20,000 odd fans (sometimes 30,000) in the wonderful stadium that was The Goldstone.
I saw Dean Saunders, Martin Keown, Danny Wilson, Steves Penny and Foster, Jimmy Case, Mick Ferguson, Garry Nelson, Kevin Bremner and many other famous and memorable names in British football. Those days seemed like another age.
This fixture was the least attractive of the league program that Saturday, but the day was remarkably memorable nonetheless, mostly for the wrong reasons, but partly because of the fans, often overlooked by the bosses, but still the only constant for any football club and the most important. The Doncaster fans were brilliant, so were we. It was a good day for fans but not much else.
The weirdest thing about the actual football match, though, was undoubtedly Doncaster’s keeper. After half-time all of us in the away section (‘all’ being no more than about 300 – times were really bad) stared in bewilderment at the keeper waddling towards us to the goal we stood behind; about six stone overweight with a sizeable beer belly, looking like Mr Greedy. He’d played in the first half too, but as he was at the far end we hadn’t really noticed him. Now we knew why the Albion players had kept taking pot shots at him in the first half. He looked like a Sunday League player. In fact, he didn’t look that good. The highest praise you could bestow upon him, if pressed, would be that he was a shot-stopper. Half the shots fired at him literally bounced off his belly before he could get his hands to it – it was comical and bordering on surreal, as if this saturday needed any more surreality. It just added the element of farce to a game that was desperately attempting to be taken seriously, but failing.
It later transpired that ‘Fatty’ Smith was none other than the Doncaster Manager, Mark Weaver’s, next–door-neighbour. Mark had heard he played in some league or other and, on a whim, dropped the first choice keeper in favour of ‘Fatty’. Smith obviously didn’t specify that the league he played in was an under 11s lads-n-dads league. He was so unnerved by the whole experience that he never returned to Belle Vue. We won 3-1 in the end, something of an achievement, as away wins for the Albion at this time were about as frequent as sightings of ball lightning. From Doncaster’s perspective, letting in 3 goals at home to constituted a dire performance, dodgy keeper or not. To lose to us meant you were very bad indeed! How shit must you be – we’re winning away. Their goal, however, was a moment of magic in an otherwise forgettable performance – a volley from outside the area in to the top corner, via a minor deflection off our keeper.
The ground wasn’t what I was expecting. I envisaged one of the big old South Yorkshire grounds, like Bramall Lane, Oakwell or Leeds Road. I had this idea of it having great swathes of terracing covered in those shed-like wooden stands with the v shaped corrugated roofs. Whether it ever was something matching that description I’m not sure. Their biggest crowd was 37,149 v Hull City in Division 3 North on 2 October 1948. That’s quite big, so I suspect there was a bit more of Belle Vue in those days, as even in the days of packing them in there’s no way you could get anything like that number in here.
They had a fairly large main stand that sat in the middle of one side, suitably adorned with ‘Richardson Out’ flags. The away section, behind the goal to the right of the main stand, was a bit of terracing. I say ‘bit’ as, rather peculiarly, it didn’t span the whole width behind the goal, instead just providing a little pocket in the top corner nearest the main stand. The other end was a small home open terrace, and down the other side was a slim and rather industrial looking covered terrace. It seemed like a fairly typical old fashioned lower division ground but I was expecting bigger.
I can’t wait to go back with fresh eyes in a week, almost 9 years to the day, to see a big crowd and a set of happy supporters. It will be in such welcome stark contrast to my first visit.