Joining the 92 Club
I'm in Shropshire for my in-laws' diamond wedding celebrations this weekend, and while I'm there I'll reach a somewhat less auspicious landmark of my own. Saturday afternoon at The New Meadow for Shrewsbury v Dagenham and Redbridge will mean I've seen games at all 92 current league grounds.
It's taken me almost half a diamond wedding term to get there - Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough was the only ground I went to from age six until my mid-teens when I was first allowed to go further afield (Feethams, Darlington) without adult supervision. That was 1979 and it was only when John Motson was completing his 92 grounds a few years ago that I worked out I'd been to 70 odd myself, mostly watching Boro on away trips up and down the divisions, with a few others collected on various work trips.
Unfortunately, my making a concerted effort to visit the remainder has coincided with the advent of two-up, two-down from the Conference (Blue Square Premier) and numerous clubs moving to new grounds. If you don't employ the easier yardstick of having visited every club at home (a wussy cop-out in my book) then it's become a bit like painting the Forth Bridge.
I have to confess Morecambe's arrival in the league via the play-offs was unwelcome, only in as much as I'd already been to Exeter, the club they beat! I hasten to add, though, that an overnight October midweek trip with Lance Hardy, the editor of Final Score, to Morecambe's win over Stockport was a really enjoyable outing. Dagenham, the other promoted club, was easier: an excursion from West London to Essex for their first-ever league victory, 1-0 v Lincoln.
I didn't manage to get to Accrington Stanley in their first season back in the league (and my exacting criteria don't count editing their live FA Cup victory over Huddersfield from a van in the car park) so I went to a Friday night game with Wrexham recently. There were two new grounds for existing League clubs this season - MK Dons (a midweek win over Grimsby) and now Shrewsbury. And pretty soon there'll be a new ground at Colchester, then Everton, Cardiff and others, and maybe Forest Green, Stevenage or Burton will be promoted to the League. It was all much simpler in the old days!
From a professional point of view, the BBC's acquisition of Football League rights from 2009 is going to bring us into welcome week-to-week contact with everyone in the Championship and Leagues One and Two. At present, though Football Focus and Score regularly feature the Football League, Match of the Day only deals with its 72 clubs on an occasional basis in the FA Cup. We're visiting two of them for our live games in the Third Round - Burnley v Arsenal and Stoke v Newcastle - along with the all-Premiership clash between Aston Villa and Manchester United.
Incidentally, some respondents to my last blog claimed that we've shown this last tie live on the three previous occasions it has come out of the hat in recent years. This is actually not true: we were at the 2-3 classic (from 2-0 to Villa) in 2002 and last year's late win for United at Old Trafford, but the one in between (2004 at Villa Park) actually happened while we were showing Yeovil v Liverpool live. I'm sure there'll be plenty of dissent, but we think Villa, Burnley and Stoke aren't a bad trio of live games.
We picked our live games before Chasetown beat Port Vale in a replay this week. Watch out for a terrific "access all areas" feature around that game on Football Focus this week, and if you read my last blog you'll know how much we enjoyed presenting MOTD live from their tie with Oldham a couple of years ago. They have Cardiff at home next and, provided they're allowed to play at the Scholars Ground on Third Round Saturday, we would like to make it a featured highlights match. We'll round up every game played that weekend in any case.
Sadly, Shrewsbury are already out of the Cup (courtesy of Chasetown's near-neighbours, Walsall) so the only way I'll get to see them - this season at least - is to go in person. Their old ground, Gay Meadow, was a kind of lower division Highbury: historic, wonderfully atmospheric, but increasingly unsustainable in a competitive 21st Century environment. I look forward to visiting the New Meadow on Saturday. The club are doing OK in League Two and presumably have no plans to move again for a while, so it should be one ground out of the 92 I can safely tick off for a while!