Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Gone But Not Forgotten - Ninian Park

For the latest in our Gone But Not Forgotten series we're back in Wales, although this time we're taking a trip to Cardiff as Dan Walsh, owner of OneMatchBan.com, tells us about his memories of Ninian Park. You can follow him on twitter @OneMatchBan

If Ninian Park could talk, it would tell tales of Papal visits, world title fights and reggae masters. It would also boast about the days when it would regularly accommodate an audience of 50,000 people. But most of all, it would talk about the football club that resided there for a century, before it was knocked down in 2009.

Situated on Sloper Road, in the Canton area of Cardiff, Ninian Park was the home of Cardiff City FC between the years of 1910 and 2009. The club achieved many things during that time, enjoying many ups and enduring many downs. People travelled from all over the South Wales Valleys to see their team. They saw it as their home and, when the time was right, they could project the noise of a hundred male voice choirs, creating an intimidating atmosphere.

Ninian Park in 1938

The Bluebirds, were a fledgling outfit in 1909 when Walter Bartley Wilson, the father of the club, rented a rubbish tip from the Cardiff City Council. Wilson was desperate to see professional football in South Wales, but had big competition for public attention from the already established sport of rugby.

However, he’d seen the amount of people who’d regularly travel from South Wales to Bristol to watch soccer and knew there was a demand. The unused rubbish tip soon became a football ground and, in its infancy, Cardiff City players would be paid extra for staying behind after training to pick pieces of glass from the playing surface.

When it was knocked down 100 years later, Ninian Park had spent a total of 15 years in the top tier of English professional football. Famously, the ground held the FA Cup in its trophy cabinet during the 1927/28 season (still the only time the cup has left England), it hosted a 1968 European Cup Winner’s Cup semi-final when Cardiff lost to Hamburg and three years after that, witnessed the club's 1-0 win over the great Real Madrid in the quarter-final of the same competition.

In 1959, the record attendance was set at 62,634. That was for a Wales v England friendly game that ended 1-1. The record attendance for a Cardiff City match happened in 1953, when 57,893 fans turned up to watch a goalless draw with Arsenal.

Away from football, Ninian Park hosted a 1967 featherweight world title fight between champion, Vicente Saldivar, and Welsh challenger, Howard Winstone. Saldivar silenced the home crowd when he knocked Winstone down twice in the 14th round and then went on to win on points. The ground was also a stop on Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration Tour in 1976 and it was where Pope John Paul II held a youth rally in front of 33,000 people in 1982.

The Pope at Ninian Park, 1982

Personally speaking, it was a special place. In football terms, I was educated there…
I saw Cardiff play in the lowest tier of professional football.
I saw them beat Premier League opponents on more than one occasion.  
I queued outside the ticket office to get match tickets at 5am many times.
I invaded the pitch more than once.
I used Junior Bluebird vouchers from the South Wales Echo to get through the turnstiles.
I tore up the same newspaper before kick-off and threw the pieces into the sky as the players emerged from the tunnel, as if I was in Italy, Spain or South America.
I sat at the back of the Canton Stand and along with others, repeatedly hammered my fist against the corrugated iron wall, which arrived after the promise of hospitality boxes failed to materialise.
I lost control of my body in the Grange End, when Scott Young scored the winner against Leeds United in the 2002 FA Cup.
I sat wide-eyed in the Grandstand as Nathan Blake scored one of Ninian Park’s greatest goals to beat Manchester City in the 1994 FA Cup.
I was still stood in the ‘Bob Bank’ (Popular Stand) 25 minutes after Cardiff unbelievably threw away a one-goal first-leg lead to Stoke in the 2002 Play-Off Semi Finals…
…And now it’s gone, but never forgotten.

The ex-rubbish tip has made room for houses and the club’s new home is right across the road at the Cardiff City Stadium, a symbol of modern football, with an attached retail park and an exterior which looks like it could have come from an Ikea flat pack.

Traditionalists will argue that it has no personality and the creditors will argue that it has been a risky investment, but the people of Cardiff and the surrounding areas still turn up to watch the team week in week out, just like they did at Ninian Park in 1910. 

Last Gone But Not Forgotten: Roker Park, Sunderland

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