Saturday, 8 February 2014

Otley 14 Sedgley Park 12

National League, Division Two (North)
Attendance: 302
I rarely watch rugger but the football match I’d planned to see (AFC Darwen v. 1874 Northwich) was postponed and I’d wanted to visit Otley rugby club ever since seeing some pics of its so-called scratching shed which is how I ended up in West Yorkshire rather than the West Pennines and a post about a rugby match ends up on a football blog.

Built in 1921, Cross Green is, in my view, the finest traditional sports ground in Yorkshire, woefully off the radar of football groundhoppers (including until recently this one who only lives 20 miles away). Through the turnstiles is a sort of courtyard area with clubhouse to the left and, immediately in front, a passage towards the grandstand, a superb wooden edifice acquired from Preston North End in 1935. Black and white painted bench seating accommodates 499 spectators. The capacity was reduced from 600 to under 500 by painting over some seats to bring it under the threshold for which extra (and expense incurring) regulations apply. A canny Yorkshire move. Access is via one of the three staircases and there’s a picket fence running along the front.

To your right on reaching the pitch is the beleagured scratching shed with the players’ tunnel. It was constructed from materials salvaged from the former grandstand which explains its jerry-built appearance. Now taped off, the shed – or perhaps barn would be a better description – couldn’t look more condemned if it tried. There are gaping holes in the roof and you feel that if you were to as much as gently lean on one of the timber posts the rest of the stand would collapse like a house of cards. Demolition was announced a fortnight ago and won’t be difficult. Catch it while you can - quite literally perhaps if you stray behind the tape. The Chevin (a wooded hill with great walks) looms scenically above.

At the top of the first terraced corner is a tidy bed containing various ferns and alpines and a scoreboard reached by steps like a giant mounting block. The terraces along the side of the pitch opposite the main stand are stone to start with then timber with chicken wire on the top like a walkway at a waterfowl centre.
Continuing the theme there’s a chicken run behind the stand, the angled green timbers here reminiscent of the hull of shipwreck. The terrace is backed by privet hedges and beech trees with the cricket ground and church spire beyond.

 The north end (above) has nine-step concrete terraces and is backed by a row of tall trees with the sewage works and allotments behind. Then we’re back to the grandstand with a lookout post for the cameraman on the near corner. A circuit is complete by more terraces and a small building housing a bar. The combination of a grand old wooden stand, one rather rickety one and lots of terracing hinting of past glories all reminded me of Crook Town.
The ground was full to capacity for its three most notable matches. About 10,000 packed in to see North Division (featuring Bill Beaumont and Roger Uttley) play the All Blacks here in 1979 (see video at end of this post) and Australia in 1988. Remarkably, the ground also hosted the tie between the USA and Italy in the second World Cup in 1991. Part of the reason that a humble Yorkshire market town was chosen as a venue is that Cross Green is one of the few substantial rugby grounds in the north of England. Few others even have terracing.

The vast clubhouse makes a good job of showcasing the history. It contains a display cabinet containing mementos from the club’s greatest matches including a fixture card from 1893/94. Other cabinets contain trophies, faded and tassled caps and items belonging to the Ilkley & District Motor Club.

Otley finished fifth in the second tier of English rugby as recently as 2005. They would’ve turned down promotion as they couldn’t have afforded it. These days the club plays in the regionalised fourth tier. Divisional rivals include Darlington Mowden Park who currently occupy the Darlington Arena vacated by Darlington FC. What a contrast to Cross Green – although the grounds both have a football connection. Today’s opposition was Sedgley Park (aka The Tigers, based in north Manchester).

Cross Green’s days may be numbered. The route of a proposed new road crosses some of the rugby club’s other pitches. In exchange for the land the council will provide additional land with room for a new stadium which could be built from funds from the sale of the current ground in an enviable town centre location. Lovers of old stadia will hope everything stalls. Character, backdrops, ramshackleness, a grandstand that is precisely that, interest in every corner and plenty of support: I can’t recommend a visit to Cross Green enough regardless of which shaped ball you like seeing kicked around on a Saturday afternoon.

Star turns: Famous former Otley players include ex-England skipper Nigel Melville and Luther Burrell, a loanee, who made his debut for England against France last Saturday.

Credits: Thanks to the old fella who told me some of the ground info at half-time. Apologies if some of the facts are inaccurate.

Programme notes: Sedgeley Park’s first ground “was primitive with a cowshed for changing rooms and a farmyard pump for washing”.

Further viewing: Just down the Wharfe valley from Otley is Ilkey rugby club with its magnificent new clubhouse which is also throughly well worth a visit. Click here for my pics and a short write-up. Below are the full Rugby Special highlights of that match at Otley against the All Blacks, bouncy signature tune, people standing everywhere on roofs, Nigel Starmer-Smith and all.

1 comment:

The Onion Bag said...

Superb report Paul,
The stands look superb and before it goes, yours truly will try and squeeze in a visit. I hear they call it "hopping porn" don't they ?

PS do you know when the stand will be coming down ?