Tuesday, 13 January 2015

From World Champions to Broken Dreams: The Sorry State of Gypsies Green

"Are those harbour lights on the near horizon?" Northern League chairman Mike Amos asked in a weekend blogpost alluding to the chances of South Shields FC - based in Peterlee since "circumstances compelled their exile" in June 2013 - returning to the town to play at Gypsies Green.   When the periapetic Mariners first turned out at the seafront ground in the late-1940s it was "little more than a hollow in the hillside"; by 1963 an athletics track and velodrome had been added, 10,000 attending the central events of a Sports Week comprising a dizzyingly eclectic programme of pram races, homing pigeons, the Scottish Pipe Band Association,  five-a-side-football,  jazz parades, judo, a former world record holder in the Men's Mile and cycling's Hugh Porter, a competitor at the following year's Tokyo Olympic Games.

An even more improbable visitor turned up in July 1977, world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (in town to have his wedding blessed at the local mosque) taking on and defeating Alan 'The Rhondda Legend' Evans at darts after parading through South Tyneside on an open-top bus.  The rules limited Welsh champion Evans to only scoring on trebles, Ali finishing the contest with a bullseye and proclaiming himself the greatest darts player in the world.

In the early-1980s, when youth football tournaments and car rallies were regular events and the Great North Run marked out its finish line a few hundred metres up the road, the revamped stadium had its own brick changing block, floodlight poles and a ring of stone steps neatly cut into the grass banking above a cycling track used by Joe Waugh, two-time Olympian and Commonwealth gold medallist in 1982.   “I used to cycle there when I was a teenager and that's where my passion for the sport was founded," he told the Shields Gazette in 2012, "so you could say I owe my career to Gypsies Green."

Today, the stadium - still used by youth football teams and as a training venue for the South Shields Harriers Athletics Club  - is forlorn and semi-decrepit, weeds sprouting through what remains of the velodrome, black bin liners covering the sandpit and an abandoned traffic cone squatting on top of the changing block roof. The floodlights are smashed out, their coverings left hanging above an athletics oval formed of mud, small stones and puddles.

Things had deteriorated in 2004, when South Tyneside Council began public consultations into how the site could be regenerated. "Whatever goes on the site must be paid for as we don't have significant resources to develop and run any major proposal by itself," deputy council leader Iain Malcolm warned. A new running track or "attracting a high profile visitor centre such as the History Experience Park" were two ideas, "using the ground as a new base for South Shields FC" a third, though the eventual choice was to sell the land to Tavistock Leisure, councillors supporting the construction of a 104-bed hotel and conference centre.  Protesters raised more than 9,000 signatures in opposition and ran a coordinated campaign to preserve the stadium's recreational use. "Gypsies Green is an asset to the town.  It is synonymous with South Shields," a member of the Save Our Seafront group explained.  "We can't just throw that away".  When the hotel scheme was dropped in 2009 development plans stalled along with it.  Three years on, with an eye on Olympic legacy funds, councillors were still "examining a range of options to maximise its potential" while admitting they were "unlikely" to find the private financing needed to renovate a velodrome whose size made it "unsuitable for any competition activity".  The Gazette lamented "another false dawn (for the) run-down stadium".  "To save it would be brilliant,"  Joe Waugh told the paper, "but you have to be pragmatic. The only option would be to start completely from scratch." 

Starting all over is a far from unfamiliar concept for South Shields FC.  The town supported a Football League team between 1919 and 1930 but has twice had its club uprooted to Gateshead, the third and current incarnation spending 17 years on a council-owned pitch it shared with a local cricket club before relocating to an industrial estate in neighbouring Jarrow.  In 2013, the Mariners left the borough altogether after failing to raise enough cash to buy Filtrona Park, its home ground since 1992.  Now based twenty miles down the coast at Peterlee, a club which once sold an English international for a world record transfer fee attracts average crowds of just 70 people.

"It's imperative that the club returns to the town," supporters' chairman Stephen Ramsey told the Shields Gazette a year ago. "I'm not saying it's the council's responsibility to find the club a new home but it's in their power to save us".  If a move to Gypsies Green is eventually agreed, the stadium's junior-sized pitch would have to be extended over the current running track and the decaying facilities significantly upgraded to match the ground grading requirements of the Northern League.  If not, a club which once finished above Leeds, Leicester City, Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace could soon be staring at oblivion. 

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