Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Gone But Not Forgotten - Belle Vue

This week we're charging up the flux capacitor and jumping into the DeLorean for a visit to Doncaster's Belle Vue. In the driving seat is Tony Greenall. You can follow him on Twitter @TonyCSGreenall.

Belle Vue, the former home of Doncaster Rovers, began life in 1922 with a Midland League match against Gainsborough Trinity. However my arrival would have to wait for another 54 years when my Dad took me, as a five-year-old, to see a Division Four fixture against Stockport County. Memories of that game may have faded into the foggy past, but Belle Vue would provide many more until its explosive demise three years ago.

Belle Vue was the venue for my TV debut, stood behind the goal on Match of the Day as David Harle scored the winning goal in an FA Cup third round victory over then First Division Queens Park Rangers in 1984. Pictured with my arms aloft and wearing my parka, my celebrations brought equal parts derision and hero worship at school the following week.

But what makes the ground great is not just the memories of fantastic games such as the incredible 7-5 against Reading almost 30 years ago, or a 5-4 epic against Yeovil Town during Rovers' sojourn in the Conference.

Nor is it only the players who graced the Belle Vue turf, (considered so good, it was taken to be used at Wembley), such as subsequent Manchester United legend Harry Gregg, Irishman Peter Doherty, tough tackling comedian Charlie Williams, (described by Michael Parkinson as having a tackle like a bear trap), later Orient hero Peter Kitchen, the Snodin brothers or the man considered the greatest by Rovers fans, Alick Jeffrey.

What really stays in my memory are the other events, both small and momentous. The occurrences which brought the emotion of being a football fan to the fore, the tears, the anger, the laughter. Tears flowed on the day Rovers dropped out of the League against Colchester United and fans marched from the town centre carrying a coffin and laying a wreath behind the goal signifying the death of their beloved club.

Anger came during the reign of Ken Richardson, the corrupt chairman eventually imprisoned for his part in an attempt to burn down the main stand. On-field protests took place at every game and the chants of "Richardson Out" along with the singing of Prodigy's "Firestarter" still echo through Rovers history.

Laughter is always quick to erupt at any football match with terrace banter, but no comments to a referee can ever beat those of former WWE wrestler Raven. On the pitch at half-time of a game in 2004 to promote a show in town that night, he offered to take that day's poor official out back for a beating, much to the enjoyment of the crowd.

The main stand after it was destroyed by a gas explosion

Opposing managers were often the target too, but the mighty Brian Clough gave the perfect reply in 1985. During a testimonial match against Forest for long serving Rovers' keeper Denis Peacock, Clough became tired of the abuse coming from a fan stood on the terrace behind him. Clough walked up onto the terrace, (followed by a policeman), stood with the fan and asked him "How many European Cups have you won young man?" The fan was speechless for the first time that afternoon. "Good", said Clough, "let's see if you can stay that quiet for the rest of the game shall we?"

The end of Belle Vue came in 2008 with a 1-0 win against Nottingham Forest, bringing the curtain down on the ramshackle but atmospheric old ground before the move to the new 15,000 seat Keepmoat Stadium - a modern concrete and plastic community arena to be shared with Doncaster Belles and Doncaster RLFC.

Despite the improved facilities and promotion to the Championship, Rovers' new home has so far failed to capture the imagination of fans, its sterile expanse dispersing most of the atmosphere. Perhaps the tears, anger and laughter of several seasons will improve things and make the Keepmoat feel like home.

Belle Vue would not limp into the past though, preferring to go out with a bang. A few weeks after the final match, two men broke into the old ground. In attempting to steal copper pipes, they caused a gas explosion which totally destroyed the main stand, blowing the roof across the road to the racecourse. It left a derelict, overgrown patch of wasteground, but every time I pass by, I can still hear the roar of the crowd and the singing of "Rovers 'til I die!"

Last Gone But Not Forgotten: Plough Lane, Wimbledon

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