We all scoff at the thought of Groundhopping, yet hands up who peers longingly out of the train window for the hope of the sight of a floodlight or two. And when we do, we are straight on Google Maps to find out what ground it was? Hmm…so only me. Oh, and Mike Bayly. Well, Mike can tell you all about it.
Groundspotting, in lay terms, is the spotting of football grounds whilst travelling. Etymologically, Groundspotting would appear to be a hybrid of Trainspotting and Groundhopping, which sets all sorts of social alarm bells ringing. In truth it is a million miles from such a yolk stained, carrier bag fondling world. For a start, most people don’t have a preset agenda with Groundspotting. It is highly unlikely someone will deliberately drive down the M1, or pop on the London to Brighton line on the off chance they might spot a ground. The beauty of Groundspotting is stumbling across the unknown at the least expected moment, or waiting in anticipation as your route passes through a town you know has a football team.
Groundspotting is popular by car, particularly as you can take diversions to drive by a ground. Obviously this is a more deliberate strategy and reduces the surprise element. However on longer journeys, the car has severe limitations. Dual carriageways and motorways were designed to bypass much of the built environment, whereas railways tend to have the historic advantage of cutting right through the centre of many urban and rural conurbations. As a seasoned train traveller and blagger of lifts, the train always delivers the more satisfying experience.
Whilst everyone likes to bask in the architectural splendour of Wembley or The Emirates, there is very little mystery in it. Once you’ve seen it a couple of times – plus countless occasions on TV – it loses a degree of mystique. By contrast, non-league stadiums are far more esoteric. One of the real joys of Groundspotting is discovering a ground and having no idea who it belongs to. I experienced this on my regular commute from London to Sheffield when passing a small ground on the outskirts of Leicester. For years I had no idea who played there, until a member of a non-league forum recognised my sketchy description and revealed it to be Friar Lane & Epworth of the Leicestershire Senior League.
Perhaps the biggest single change to the football landscape in recent years – and one that has left its mark on the Groundspotting fraternity – is the decreasing number of floodlights in stadiums. Aside from making grounds harder to find, it is also a cultural tragedy. If seeing a distant stadium is football porn, then floodlights are the money shot. Sometimes just catching sight of them and nothing else gets the pulse racing, like a Victorian lady flashing a piece of ankle. Floodlights are totemic in football culture; they symbolise not only a place of worship but act like an urban lighthouse. In extreme cases, the sight of floodlights on a train depot or industrial estate can cause faint arousal, like a dog salivating at the sound of a tin opener. And this, above all, is why Groundspotting is an infatuation I have little control over.
A football fan once described seeing a new ground from a car or train like a form of orgasm (slightly different to former French manager Claude Le Roy who once described football as “a permanent orgasm” – surely no man could hold a face that stupid for so long?). It is a feeling of intense pleasure and fixation that makes you stop everything and stare uncontrollably until the rapidly shifting vista has moved beyond the natural craning of one’s neck. In truth, the feeling is indescribable, as it is for so many of life’s phenomena. You could have two liberally oiled women fornicating in the seats opposite, but show me a football ground flash by the Virgin Voyager and I am lost in a hypnotic trance.
Despite appearing a very English fetish, it would be hard to imagine our counterparts around the globe being any different. Groundspotting is a mere extension of the unfathomable depths to which our addiction – and I use that word carefully – takes us. Yet final word should probably go to the fans of Arezzo in Italy who took the concept to a whole new level. In response to authorities banning them from Figline Valdarno’s ground, it was reported Arezzo’s supporters decided to watch the entire game from a train stationed behind one of Figline’s terraces. Given the frequency with which stock breaks down in England, it can only be a matter of time before a similar feat is achieved over here.