Farewell to Fellows Park

Tuesday 1 May 1990

Walsall 1 Rotherham United 1

this’ll be the last time

The context

As someone who is still 10 short of the present 92 League grounds despite having been to well over a hundred, it’s hard not to yearn for the 33 years from 1955 when not a single one was built – especially when so many these days look much the same. In 1988 the club breaking this mould was Scunthorpe, proudly unveiling the monumentally dull Glanford Park as the first new ground since Southend left the Kursaal. Ironically the next – Walsall’s Bescot Stadium – took only two years to come along. And it was pretty much identical in size, shape and dullness.

Bescot Stadium

Scunthorpe left the Old Show Ground because Safeway made them an offer too good to refuse. Fellows Park also ended up as a supermarket – a Morrisons – but the precise circumstances are rather less clear. The Saddlers had been owned through the 80s firstly by scrap dealer Ken Wheldon – who made himself enormously unpopular by trying to sell the ground and move Walsall in with Birmingham City – and then by the flash but latterly cash-strapped Terry Ramsden. Now, the traditional “consortium of businessmen” was shifting them to a brownfield site – quite literally, as it had previously been a sewage works – underneath the M6. And by a stroke of good fortune one of them owned a building company.

Fellows Park

For all that Walsall were leaving it for a shoebox, it can’t be denied that by 1989 Fellows Park was a bit of a rathole. The perimeter wall at the uncovered visitors’ end collapsed in 1983 (fortunately without serious injury to anyone) during an improbable League Cup semi final with Liverpool: by the end of its life that end of the ground resembled nothing more than a zoo, from which anything approaching a decent view was impossible. Even by 1980s standards the toilets were the stuff of legend, and the corrugated iron roof of the Hilary Street end flapped in high winds and showered fans with rusty water during matches on wet days.

Despite its shortcomings, however, for Walsall’s 6000 or so regular fans Fellows Park was home. In simpler times, that support base combined local diehards and to a lesser extent followers of the “bigger” local sides, many of whom regarded Walsall as a second team. They had endured a torrid couple of years. Promoted against the odds to the second tier in 1988, Walsall had barely won a game since. By the time the last game at Fellows Park came around it was certain that the Saddlers would start life at Bescot in Division 4 for only the second time since 1960.

The last match

As the dawning of a new era, therefore, the long-awaited “Farewell to Fellows Park” felt slightly lacking. The game – against a Rotherham side safely in mid-table and  not really that bothered, who brought a travelling support of 15 – was one of those rearranged matches that used to get tagged onto the end of the season after the rest had finished. 5,697 showed up to see Andy Dornan give Walsall the lead at the Street End only for Rotherham – in fetching pale lemon and sky blue – to equalise with the last-ever League goal at the old place. My main recollections – apart from the Millers’ shirts – are that it was a beautiful spring evening, the pies ran out, and the crowd refused to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Street End v Rotherham: picture Ian Tipper

That last one has stayed with me as a warning of the risks of trying to choreograph football fans. Walsall, bless them, tried to make it an occasion with the limited means at their disposal. There was a special programme (“sponsored by Hazelwood Snacks of Wednesbury”) in which, for £1, you could have your name printed (I did). There was the Eureka Jazz Band. There were cheerleaders (the Summer Gold Dance Group). There were 1000 Balloons (Released From The Pitch). And then the crowd were expected to sing. By that stage, though, most of them were too busy booing the stewards and police who were keeping them off the pitch when all they wanted to do was run about a bit and dig up the penalty spot.

we were there

More than this, though, and more than any of us completely realised, the game marked the end of an era. Many of the things we took for granted that night were on borrowed time. To an extent we knew it, and that made us more sad than leaving a ramshackle old ground ought to have done. Toilets in trenches, pay on the gate and inadequate pie planning are best consigned to history. But part of me does miss the simplicity of it all.

“a ramshackle old ground”

I am grateful to Alex Mowbray for permission to use some of the pictures in this article. They originally appeared on www.fellowspark.wordpress.com