Ground Nº 114 – Marston Road
Tuesday 13th Mar 2007
Conference Stafford Rangers 3 Gravesend & Northfleet 1 HT 2-0 Att: 524
(Admission: £12, Programme £2 (Only the outside cover was in colour and inside it was a bit monochrome in all aspects. Poor Value), Snack Bar: Excellent food & drinks and speedy service, Coffee: 65p.)
I had one of what Newman & Baddiel called a ‘Naked Lunch Moment’, while heading for Marston Road last night. It’s when you are suddenly bathed in lucidity, and can see yourself from an objective standpoint, wondering what on earth it is you are doing. I would imagine it is a common feeling among those who do battle re-enactments.
It happened heading down the unlit A34 from Stoke, having had nothing to eat, and having made my excuses to leave early from my evening class. (Thank God the tutor didn’t ask me why. Imagine the embarrassment when it was wheedled out of me that I didn’t support Stafford OR Gravesend – it would be enough to induce a near fatal flashback to school).
At times like these you wonder whether groundhopping is actually a disease, like alcoholism. However, approaching Marston Road, to the north of Stafford town centre, the glow of the floodlights illuminated my dark thoughts, and suddenly I realised that, for whatever reason, I love it. And it doesn’t come with the hangover.
Stafford Rangers date back to 1876. They are one of the better known and successful non-league clubs. 1971/2 was their best year, winning a treble of the Northern Premier, the FA Trophy and the Staffs Senior Cup. Their best league finish is 6th in the Conference in 1992/3. In 1975 they got to the 4th Round of the FA Cup and pulled in 31,160 fans against Peterborough at the Victoria Ground, Stoke. The round before they got their best ever Marston Road gate of 8,536, when they beat Rotherham.
Gravesend & Northfleet FC have existed since 1946, which I was surprised about. I thought their’s was a much more recent marriage. They had been going independently before that for a good 60 years. The club have turned full time this season, which strikes me as odd considering their crowds. You may remember they got to the third round of the FA Cup in 1995/6 where they took 7000 fans to Villa Park. I expect Northfleet have the same trouble as Hove in terms of always getting ignored. I bet they go drinking together, meeting up with Hersham and Redbridge, waxing self-piteous – I can’t remember the last time my name appeared in a league table. Well at least you get shortened to Dag and Red…ours is just Gravesend!
Coming into this game Stafford were dangling perilously above the drop zone, not helped by seven straight home league defeats, the last being a 4-0 drubbing by local rivals, Tamworth, last Saturday. Their last home point came on 25th November against St Albans – and even that was courtesy of a last minute equaliser. If it wasn’t for their conversely excellent away form, including a recent draw at runaway leaders Dag & Red, they’d have one foot in the Conference North. Today’s visitors, on the other hand, were tantalisingly close to the play-off zone and came here expecting to inflict home defeat number eight on the trot for their hosts. However the first time they met Stafford won 4-1 at Stonebridge Road.
After 20 minutes of rubbish football all round, Stafford came good with a bullet header into the top corner, from a cross into the box, by David McNiven (who, incidentally, in a parallel universe, is an actor and plays James McBond). Stafford dominated the game from then on, with Gravesend getting absolutely nowhere. They looked like they had the potential for great skill, but too many hoofs up field and too much unwarranted impatience left them floundering. Credit to Stafford, though, for making it difficult and comprehensively breaking their home hoodoo with a great hat-trick from McNiven. His third goal was a masterpiece; being played offside with the ball bouncing, he controlled it with his head before delicately and precisely chipping the keeper with a volley – pure class.
It’s a shame only 524 turned up. That’s a crowd even Forest Green Rovers fans could comfortably laugh at. Obviously, some of the regulars were still smarting from the derby demolition a few days previously and couldn’t face it. Shame – they missed a classic. It was difficult to believe that Gravesend were the ones at the top end of the table, and that Stafford had been so woeful at home for so long. Something had to give and it did. Stafford played well and could and should have had more, although I could see in their defence a certain wing and prayer aspect to it. To Northfleet’s credit, they started showing potential late on and their goal was a belter, Varney bundlling past two defenders and then hammering the ball over the keeper and into the far top corner from the edge of the area.
I liked Marston Road. Stafford have been playing there for 111 years, which must be one of the longest current occupencies of any ground. It looked 111 years old, too. Scanning around the four sides from just inside the entrance it’s a shock when you finish up seeing the bright blue seats in the main stand, just after your eyes have adjusted to the sepia hue of the rest of the ground. It brings you back, if not into the 21st century, at least into the 20th.
According to their website it holds 4000, with 530 seated in the main stand, which has a very steep elevation, about 13 rows up and 40 across. Behind the goal is a covered terrace with unusually large steps.
There are only four steps but they are each about two metres wide. This seems to be a recurring feature at Marston Road. Carrying on round is the side terrace, which at first also has four very large steps, then half way along becomes 12 more standard sized steps. The away fans were segregated at the far end of this terrace near the small behind-the-goal end. There were about 30 of them tonight, which considering it’s a Tuesday night and they’ve come from the other side of the M25 is pretty impressive.
The long covered side stand (see above two pics) was a beauty, unashamedly wooden, the design clever and pleasing to the eye – made in the days of true craftsmen. The wooden front posts were painted the Rangers colours of black and white, giving it an almost tudor feel. This colour co-ordination was evident in most parts of the ground, but was particularly gruesome in the gents where I peed into a huge black trough of death. I think whoever designed their flared steps on the terrace had a hand in their toilets too – the trough was a mass of black sombre-looking concrete – there’s a lot to be said for white porcelain.
As you first enter the ground there is a covered area especially for wheelchairs which was great to see and practical; on the other side of the concourse was the excellent snack bar and programme hut. To the left of where you come in is the smallest side, which is basically at just one level and backed by a fairly ugly green building.
Generally speaking I was well impressed with Marston Road – it was my kind of stadium. Old, basically. I imagine it wouldn’t impress those fans who like a bit of comfort and modernity, but to those who appreciate a bit of wood craft, corrugated iron roofs and great swathes of concrete terracing it’s a must see.
For Sticky’s report of their previous game vs Tamworth and his experiences click here