Notes From A Small Island 5 – Isle of Wight

Football came relatively early to the Isle of Wight and, undoubtedly, Cowes were one of the first organised clubs on the island, being formed in 1881. However, the club failed to complete the 1899/1900 Southern League season, disbanding after a home League game against Tottenham Hotspur, which Cowes lost 6-1. The club was resurrected as the existing Cowes White Star club took over the Cowes name in 1903 and bought football back to the Brooklyn Ground in Park Road which boasted a stand to house 700 people. The pitch had a notorious slope but this had been levelled in 1898. Sadly, by 1912 the landlord wanted to build houses at Brooklyn so the club had to look for a new site in the Northwood Park area of the town. The resulting move to their current ground at Westwood Park in 1912 proved hugely beneficial and Cowes saw crowds regularly surpass four figures for Hampshire County Division matches. In 1917 Westwood hosted a match between Cowes and a Portsmouth ladies team, it was agreed the men’s team would play the match with their hands clasped behind their backs!

The current stand at Westwood Park was built in the mid 1920’s, apparently by local shipbuilders who who had been given 24 hours notice to erect it ahead of a match against Newport. Prior to then, a small stand with bench seating had been erected on the opposite side. It is recorded that the 1926 Good Friday match at Westwood against Ryde, attracted 3,400 people. In a smart move Cowes purchased the freehold of Westwood Park in 1945 for £665. In the 1980’s Cowes merged with Whites Sports to become Cowes Sports.

Cowes Sports

Newport were relatively late to the burgeoning growth of football on the island. The first mention of the club comes in January 1888 when they lost a game against Lugley House School. Newport moved to Church Litten, then called Well’s Field, around 1898 and erected a grandstand in 1920. The club bought the ground from Winchester College for £3,000 in 1924. Football was proving so popular the stand had to be extended further in 1928. The ground was big enough to allow 6,000 people to gather for the visit of Watford in the FA Cup in 1956. The pitch was eventually turned around ninety degrees meaning the main stand was behind the goal. By 1988 the club had accepted £2.5 million for the land which became a Morrisons supermarket, and a purpose built ground at St George’s Park. In a remarkable parallel to their Church Litten departure, the St George’s Park ground had only just had it’s 30th birthday, when the club were ousted from it at the end of the 2018/2019 campaign.

St.George’s Park, former home of Newport

The club were promised a new ground by the developers and entered into a temporary groundshare at East Cowes Victoria Athletic. Newport’s new ground, to be called WhiteFibre Park, is to be built near the Racecourse Roundabout between Newport and Wootton Bridge but the start has been delayed due to the global pandemic. The St.George’s Park Stadium lies derelict, a new Asda Superstore has been built next door and McDonald’s and Wickes have stated their intention to open units on the site of the old ground.

East Cowes Victoria Athletic were formed in 1885, and originally played at the Recreation Ground in York Avenue and then at the field near Norris Castle. Similar to Cowes they lost the use of their ground in 1912 and after considering a return to York Avenue they nearly moved to the Tower Road Recreation Ground but objections were raised by the neighbouring hospital. They then secured land at Beatrice Avenue and built a wooden grandstand which was replaced until the current stand in the mid 1990’s.

Newport playing a home game at East Cowes Victoria Athletic’s Beatrice Avenue ground

For clubs that don’t play in mainland leagues, the Isle of Wight league was formed in September 1898 with East Cowes Victoria Athletic being crowned inaugural champions. At that time Cowes, Ryde and Sandown Bay were competing on the mainland as members were of the Southern League. There had been organised football on the island before this with ad hoc leagues operating in both Cowes and Ryde featuring long lost teams such as Osborne Corinthians, Cowes St Mary’s Guild, Newport Excelsiors and St Helen’s Blue Star. It is perhaps also worth noting, as it was reported in the County Press newspaper, that at Christmas 1892 a match had taken place at Appuldurcombe between the Total Abstainers and the Moderate Drinkers!

The Isle of Wight league started with seventeen teams, of which founding members Brading Town, Bembridge and Ventnor still compete in the competition while fellow founders, East Cowes Victoria Athletic and Newport have competed in mainland leagues for many years.

One of the enduring memories of the Isle of Wight League came from Professor Barnes Wallis, inventor of the “Dambuster” bouncing bomb which had such a pivotal impact on World War II. As a young man in the 1920’s he worked for the aircraft manufacturer Saunders-Roe and latter in life he recalled a game involving the works team being played in torrential rain, possibly at Wroxall (his recall wasn’t clear and alas there was no record of whether he played in the game or was a spectator, although island folklore says he definitely played island football in his younger days). During the game the already heavy leather ball had become waterlogged and the pitch so awash with water a hefty clearance saw the ball bounce continuously across the surface of the water. He said the memory stayed with him and recalled how a heavy spherical object had its path controlled by repeatedly striking water was the inspiration for his bouncing bomb.

The league membership has fluctuated greatly over the years with in excess of 500 teams having participated in the competition. Sides like Long Common,Totland Bay, Ryde St John’s, Shanklin Rangers, Royal Ulster Rifles, Saro Sports, Cowes Denmark Road Old Boys and works teams like Plessey (electronics), J.Arthur Dixon (greetings cards), Ratseys (sailmakers) and the British Hovercraft Corporation have come and gone.

Currently the Isle of Wight League consists of two divisions of 23 clubs plus the reserves of Cowes Sports and the “A” team of Newport. Then there are two further Combination Leagues for the reserve and “A” teams of Isle of Wight League teams. Whilst many member clubs play on public parks with spartan facilities in this article I will highlight some of the more interesting grounds from the Isle of Wight League.

Brading Town have played at Vicarage Lane since their formation in 1871 although in the early days they also used a pitch at Beech Grove. Life at Vicarage Lane wasn’t always easy, for season 1938/39 the club had decided to charge admission for the first time, to which the Archdeacon would only give his consent if the club erected a canvas screen to block visibility of the pitch from the graveyard. The club now boast one of the best facilities in the island league mainly due to their lengthy stint in Hampshire/Wessex Leagues between 1973 and 2012. The clubhouse was built in the 1980’s and around the same time the floodlights were acquired from Erith & Belvedere. In more recent years the ramshackle old wooden cover has been replaced with modern modular units on either side of the pitch. In 2008 Vicarage Lane was renamed The Peter Henry Ground following the passing of a club stalwart who had given 62 unbroken years of service to the club.

Brading Town

Ryde Saints are the current incumbents of the Smallbrook Stadium in Ryde, primarily a speedway venue used by the Wight Warriors team. The traditional Ryde team, Ryde Sports, were formed in 1888 and enjoyed lengthy spells in the Hampshire League and a single season, 1898/99, in the Southern League. The club’s demise was precipitated by a move from their traditional home at Partlands which was sold to developers in 1990. The Smallbrook Stadium is somewhat out of town and despite arranging high profile friendlies against the likes of Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday and Southampton, the club struggled financially and failed to complete the 1997/98 season. They were briefly replaced by Ryde ‘98 but they too fell by the wayside. The stadium has one very long shallow stand more suited to watching speedway than football. Ryde Saints also struggle to attract support which must be a concern for of the island’s traditional footballing hotbeds.

Ryde Saints

Whitecroft & Barton Sports play at the Whitecroft Sports Ground and have won the last five completed Division One titles. Their ground, opened in 1904, is situated off Sandy Lane and boasts a sizeable clubhouse with a shallow seated stand attached to it. The ground has fine views of the listed clocktower of the former Whitecroft asylum.

Whitecroft & Barton Sports

Moving to the south of the island and the town of Ventnor provides stunning vistas of the English Channel. Ventnor FC play at the Watcombe Bottom Sports Centre which also provides facilities for Ventnor Rugby Club and Rew Valley Youth Football Club. Although Ventnor was used as a venue in the 1993 Island Games it wasn’t used during the 2011 Games, despite the football pitch having decent cover on the sizeable banking.

Ventnor

The best of the grounds to the east of the island is to be found in Seaview. The club are one of the oldest on the island with a history dating back to 1890 when they played on a field off Seagrove Manor Road before moving to Holgate Farm in 1935. The old wooden pavilion at the current ground, Seaview Park, was destroyed by fire in December 1974 and the current Seagrove Pavilion was opened the following year with the help of a fund-raising match against Portsmouth. It is a quite magnificent and well maintained structure, and the ground is augmented further by a large covered stand which replaced a smaller wooden stand. As if this venue couldn’t be any more perfect the far end provides stunning views of the English Channel.

Seaview

The western town of Freshwater has been represented by a number of clubs in the Isle of Wight League including Royal Garrison Artillery Freshwater and Freshwater Royal Artillery who were champions in 1906/07. However, the best known town team is West Wight who started life at Freshwater Comrades. In 1922 the club were asked by the Freshwater British Legion to drop the Comrades suffix as the Comrades of the Great War Society from where they had taken their name, had amalgamated with other associations to become the Royal British Legion. The club elected to change the name to West Wight Athletic. The Camp Road ground was railed off with a decent stand, largely due to a stint in the Hampshire League from the mid 1980’s. The old stand has since been replaced with a more modest structure, but one that will still keep spectators dry when needed.

West Wight

Other Isle of Wight League venues worthy of mention despite their lack of spectator accommodation are Shanklin’s County Ground, a substantial railed off venue which recently saw upgrading work being carried out to the clubhouse. Oakfield’s Recreation Ground is also a railed off pitch but has the added bonus of a dramatic backdrop of hillside houses. Sandown & Lake now use the Fairway Sports Complex having lost their traditional ground at Fairway Park which boasted a sizeable wooden grandstand.

Oakfield
Shanklin’s County Ground

While most other clubs play in public parks, the Clatterford Recreation Ground, home to Carisbrooke United, is no ordinary public park. While it is bereft of any football furniture of note it affords quite stunning views of the neighbouring castle parts of which date back to the twelfth century.

Carisbrooke United

A version of this article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Groundtastic Magazine (Issue No.103)

The Barley Man (St.Johnstone)

St. Johnstone were officially formed in 1884 although their first recorded match was not until February 1885. A Perth cricketer called John Colborn decided to form a new football club after some fellow cricketers kicked a ball around South Inch, the large public park situated on the banks of the River Tay.

Although Perth already had its own football teams including Erin Rovers, Fair City Athletic and the Perth Railway team called Caledonian. However it was Colborn’s new team that gained popularity ostensibly a by clever choice of name. Perth was known as “St. John’s Toun” as the biggest church in the area was dedicated to John the Baptist.

The club initially played at the Recreation Ground adjacent to South Inch and opposite the town’s prison . The site suffered greatly from periodic flooding when the swell of the Tay in flood would prove ruinous. So in 1924 the club upped sticks and moved across town to a new ground called Muirton Park on the northern outskirts of Perth. Judicious selection had tram links already in place and the field’s location in Dunkeld Road meant getting to the new ground would be easy.

The ground was set out with one big main stand and three sides of uncovered terracing. The entire project cost £13,194 with nearly £10,000 of the expenditure being spent on the construction of the grandstand. Although the board were confident the public would support the move to better facilities they could scarcely have anticipated the 11,000 crowd that assembled for the first game against Queen’s Park on Christmas Day 1924.

The ground must have been bursting at the seams when in February 1951 a colossal gate of 29,972 gathered for a Scottish Cup tie against near neighbours Dundee. It was to be the all time record crowd for Muirton Park.

Apart from the addition of floodlights in 1964, the ground had scarcely changed when the Bradford fire disaster in 1985 bought about the publication of the Safety of Sports Ground Act. Lack of investment at the ground saw the North Stand and part of the Centre Stand immediately closed and a seated capacity restriction of 500 imposed. The club found themselves forcibly relegated due to the state of the ground. The future of the Saints looked bleak indeed when out of the blue the Asda supermarket chain offered to buy the site and the adjacent ice rink for a new supermarket, funding a replacement stadium as part of the deal. The club played its last game at Muirton Park against Ayr United in April 1989 before moving to the brand new McDairmid Park.

At a modest budget of £4.9 million architect Percy Johnson-Marshall provided the club with everything they needed in a new ground. A capacity of 10,600 and ultra modern facilities saw the club in prime condition to climb back up the divisions.

The site of the new stadium was on a field used for growing barley and was owned by Bruce McDairmid. The kindly landowner donated the land free of charge to “the people of Perth”. The club insisted on giving him a 20% stake-holding and naming the new stadium after him in acknowledgement of his generous act of philanthropy.

Sadly today there is no vestige of Muirton Park left, though interestingly as part of the planning agreement Asda originally had to agree to paint the store royal blue as a nod to its historic past. Disappointingly the store nowadays sports the standard green livery.

Tonight’s game sees a charge of £23 to get in which doubtless contributed, along with live television coverage, to a modest turned out on Halloween night. Rain arrived just before kick off and poured down unrelentingly for the duration of the match. The visitors from Motherwell began in the ascendancy and when Michael O’Halloran casually lost possession in his own half, within seconds Lionel Ainsworth was dispatching the ball past Alan Mannus in the home goal. The errant striker would make amends however with two classy goals, the second nine minutes from time sealing a welcome victory for the Perthshire men.

stjohn (1)

Friday October 31st 2014 – SPFL Premiership

St.Johnstone (1) 2 (O’Halloran 40,81)
Motherwell (1) 1 (Ainsworth 14)

Attendance: 2,531 (164 away) at McDairmid Park

St.Johnstone:

1. Alan Mannus, 2. David Mackay (c), 5. Frazer Wright, 6. Steven Anderson, 7. Chris Millar, 8. Gary McDonald, 14. Brian Graham, 17. James McFadden, 22. Lee Croft, 24. Brian Easton, 29. Michael O’Halloran.

Subs: 15. Steve Banks, 11. Adam Morgan, 16. Liam Caddis (for 17,85 mins), 19. Gary Miller (for 22,89 mins), 20. Scott Brown, 38. Ally Gilchrist, 31. Dylan Easton.

Motherwell:

12. Dan Twardzik, 3. Steven Hammell, 5. Simon Ramsden, 6. Stephen McManus, 7. Lionel Ainsworth, 9. John Sutton, 11. Iain Vigurs, 14. Keith Lasley (c), 17. Zaine Francis-Angol, 20. Fraser Kerr, 24. Henrik Ojamaa.

Subs: 13. Gunnar Neilson, 2. Craig Reid, 4. Stuart Carswell, 15. Mark O’Brien (for 3,85 mins), 16. Robert McHugh, 18. Josh Law (for 11,88 mins), 19. Lee Erwin (for 17,82 mins).

Yellow Cards: Ojamaa, Vigurs (both Motherwell)

Gallery

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Saints prog