Dudley Town
The Dell Stadium

Ground No. 190
Visited - Wednesday 26th August 2009
Result - Dudley Town 1-1 Gornal Athletic
Competition - West Midlands (Regional) League, Premier Division
Attendance - 54 (h/c)

It’s not unusual to hear people ask why Dudley, with a population of 195,000, has never had a professional team. The answers are varied, partly down to the population figure not quite being representative of the town, but predominantly it’s due to the dominance of the two Black Country giants, Wolves and Albion who have the town carved in half in terms of support, yet for most who ask the question, what many don’t know is that Dudley once boasted the largest ground outside the Football League. To be fair that is a somewhat disputed claim, Romford and Tooting & Mitcham would certainly argue for their own previous grounds, but with a reputed 30,000 capacity then it was a big one, bigger than many Football League venues at the time, and indeed both Molineux and the Hawthorns in their modern forms.

Overlooked by the castle, ‘The Sports Ground’ was built by the council in 1931 to provide work for people in the depression. An 1800 seat grandstand was surrounded by large banks of terracing on three sides, and formed part of a larger arena with Dudley Cricket Ground next door, a venue which played host to first class cricket thanks to Worcestershire CCC utilising it on numerous occasions. Unfortunately though, it was a bad choice of location from the start. Dudley is of course famous for its mining heritage (The Black Country name is reputed to have been born from the coal seam that emerged from the ground here), and cave-ins are still not uncommon to this day. Castle Hill, which the ground stands at the foot of is virtually hollow, (you can take canal boat tours underneath it) and in May 1985, the inevitable happened when the groundsman for the cricket club turned up to prepare for a match only to find a hole some 40ft in diameter providing him with a slight challenge to get the game on that afternoon! It wasn’t the first time it had happened, and the council eventually opted to abandon the site, with it sitting derelict for years until Castlegate Business Park was eventually built there in the late 90s, but for Dudley Town FC, it was a disaster. The club, a member of the Southern League Premier, could in later years pinpoint it as the start of their demise, falling down the pyramid to where they currently reside in the West Midlands (Regional) League, further away from the Football League dream than ever before. They’ve shared at numerous grounds since, but with no help from the council to build a permanent home, ala Dartford, then they continue to lead a nomadic existence, The Dell Stadium being their latest abode.

When I’d told a friend, a former sporadic visitor to the club in years gone by that that was their current home then it was met with a depressing sigh and a remark of “oh not that ‘hole?”, so I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic at the prospect of visiting, especially with the knowledge that it’s primary purpose is as an athletics venue. Situated in Brierley Hill, then the Dell is only just down the road from work, so I’d opted for a night match, particularly whilst the evenings are still light, and the local derby with Gornal Athletic stood out.

Before the game, I made my way straight into Dudley after work for a pint before heading off to the ground, the 222 bus going right past. As with their former home, the Dell is part of a sports complex, albeit not with any provision for cricket, however there are a number of astro-turf pitches as you walk down Bryce Road towards the main stadium. From the outside, there isn’t a great deal to see, and unfortunately, much the same can be said once inside. The changing rooms and ‘clubhouse’ are situated inside the main block, a typical municipal leisure centre type building of which the club has managed to section off a small room to put a few chairs and tables in for fans to sit down (don’t expect a pint), whilst the ground itself is fairly unremarkable. The only cover is down the near side, and it’s difficult to call it a stand at all, with a large metal cover, some 20 yards in length housing four rows of collapsible decking with wooden benches on. A full Olympic sized athletics track separates spectators from the pitch, whilst grass banking makes up the other three sides, although access seems, if not restricted, then not obvious, with the metal perimeter fence having no path behind it except on the near side. There do seem to be a number of park type benches on the far bank, above and behind the dugouts, but no one was sitting in them for tonights game. Gornal were the visitors, and their ground, which I’d visited at the end of last season, couldn’t have been more different, a true football venue with large scale terracing and stands close up to the pitch.

Having taken a few pictures (of what little there was to take), then I settled down ready for the game to begin. 24 hours previously I’d been at Molineux to watch a terminally boring League Cup tie between Wolves’ reserves and Swindon which had ended 0-0 after 120 minutes, the assembled group of transfer listed and youth players in gold shirts eventually winning 6-5 on penalties. It had been poor stuff on show, the sort which really makes you question the point of the ailing competition, so after another 45 minutes of equally dull football on display here then I was on the verge of leaving at half time. There really was little to talk about in the first half, neither side had really been able to muster a shot on goal, Gornal looking just about the most dangerous, yet after the break it was the hosts who nearly took the lead when Craig Frost hit a free-kick from all of 40 yards only to see it rattle the bar. It seemed like I was destined for another 0-0, but as Dudley started to take a grip on the game, they eventually opened the scoring in the 61st minute thanks to Marvin Nisbett who danced through the Gornal defence, before rounding the keeper and tapping home to relieve the boredom. The game really seemed to start after that, with Gornal being reduced to 10 men soon after, but despite the set-back in the 74th minute they were back on level terms. From a corner, a shot towards the goal seemed to have crossed the line before being headed out, but as everyone looked to the linesman, David Meese settled the doubt by smashing the ball home to make it 1-1. Both sides had chances late on, and Gornal keeper Mark Fullwood in particular had to make a number of good saves, but despite the pressure from both teams, neither could find another goal in them, and it finished a point a piece.

After leaving, I made my way home, getting back fairly easily with the bus from the ground going straight home with no need to change, another ground ticked off as I get closer towards the landmark 200 figure.

Overall, it had been a trip with mixed feelings. I’d wanted to come as much to see a famous old name in action as to visit the ground itself, having already known what to expect, but that still didn’t help me from leaving feeling a little bit disappointed. At one time the club used to attract crowds in their thousands, 16,500 being present at the opening of their former home, but the headcount of 54 (and likelihood of a lower official number), leaves a depressing feel for the future. To be fair, with Wolves having played the night before, and Albion at home the same evening, then it was never going to be a big attendance, but even so you feel that this ground isn’t where the club needs to be in the long term. Mentioning Dartford again, it’s easy to see what the help from the council in building Princes Park has done for them and one feels that Dudley MBC really should be helping to pursue a similar dream. The largest non-league ground in the country was once born out of a shaky economic climate, and perhaps we’ll see the pattern repeated, the town certainly needs the sort of regeneration that a new development like that could bring, but with sport in the borough somewhat neglected (Cradley Heathens speedway are another club searching for a new home after their Dudley Wood Stadium was sold off for housing in the 90s) then it probably isn’t advisable to hold your breath until it happens. To finish on a positive note, the programme was well produced, and the club shop better stocked than many clubs two or three levels higher, so with the right people in charge, hopefully the club can move forward and get back to a level that a town of this size should be able to support.

Welcome to the Dell

Outside the Ground

Rear of the Main Stand

The Main Stand

Seating in the stand

The Far End

The Far Side

The Near End/Side

More Seating

Ready for Kick Off

After Dark

The Main Stand

The Dell Stadium Panoramic

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