A gentleman by the name of Lloyd Thompson is writing a book about football clubs that have moved grounds, and fans’ reflections on their old and new homes: “Football’s Leaving Home”. Having a bit of a thing for Saltergate, I threw my hat into the ring. Lloyd appears to have taken pity on me and says that the following entry will be included in the book (apart from the hyperlinks; they don’t tend to work well on the printed page). Hurray!
Chesterfield FC left Saltergate nearly four years ago now, and I still catch myself thinking or saying ‘Saltergate’ when talking about home games, rather than ‘the B2net’ or ‘the ProAct’ (two names in less than four years…).
My first time at Saltergate was 1988-ish with my Dad (of course), to see us play Doncaster Rovers. I can’t be certain of the facts, but my memory tells me we either lost 1-0 or drew 1-1. I’m almost entirely certain however that Rovers’ Lee Turnbull, later to play for us, was booked (I refuse to verify or refute these memories on the internet; that’s not the point). That first match was spent in the wooden seats of the centre stand, the best stand, even (or especially) including the redeveloped Compton Street side, with its fresh concrete and blue plastic seats of the early 2000s.
Over the years, my Dad and I spent time in each of the three home sections. In fact we spent a good number of years making a half-time migration from the Compton Street side to the Kop, or vice versa depending on which way we were kicking. For one match we had to make a pre-match migration from the centre stand to the Kop: we were playing promotion rivals Carlisle and all the centre stands tickets had gone before we got there, so we managed to get into the Kop. Several of those who couldn’t get in ended up watching a 21-game unbeaten run come to an end from the roof of the church behind the away end.
For the last few years at Saltergate we were back in the centre stand, with the added security of season tickets, my Dad in seat M26 and me in M25. This gave us a halfway line view of the dug-outs, the Kop’s inflatable spire, and a hole in the corrugated iron roof above our heads which was there for a very, very long time. An electronic clock was installed on the facing Compton Street side, which was a real step forward. It meant that frequent, desperate checks of the wrist watch became a thing of the past… until it stopped working and was left unrepaired, when they started up again. This felt somehow fitting, given that Saltergate was the last league ground in the country to get floodlights (my Dad occasionally mentions 1960s 3:00 Tuesday afternoon kick-offs) – and they were second-hand ones at that.
One of the relative luxuries of the centre stand were the indoor, covered, moderately hygienic toilets. By contrast, the Kop’s toilets were legendary: an open-air, brick-walled facility which consisted of pissing into a narrow trough on the floor and trying not to walk in it at any point.
Our spot in the centre stand also meant we were near whichever poor scouts were sent to watch the teams, or (less likely) individual players. We did occasionally pick up some interesting asides. My favourite was the assessment of our midfielder Steve Gaughan as “very pedestrian”. Right on cue, a minute later he burst forward from midfield, outpaced the defence and scored.
Speaking of individual players, I loved a huge number of the Town players I saw at Saltergate. Some particular favourites were Billy Mercer (England’s number 1), Tony Lormor (ooh ooh), Steve Blatherwick (the very definition of a centre half), and Jack Lester (outrageously talented for the fourth division, and an uncanny winner of penalties).
My most vivid memories of Saltergate are from that seat in the centre stand: the ludicrous, odds-defying win over Luton to stay up on the last day of 2004/05; that 5-2 win over Mansfield; the time a young Kevin Davies performed a sliding tackle out on the touchline and took out the teenage lad carrying boxes of pies round the edge of the pitch. Another favourite memory is of the FA Cup quarter-final win over Wrexham and Chris Beaumont’s lob which took us to the semi-final against Middlesbrough. For no particular reason, I’m suddenly reminded of shocking refereeing performances: Andy D’Urso in the Auto Windscreens Shield against Hereford, and Darren Deadman in the league against Southend, take a bow.
The last-ever match at Saltergate, against Bournemouth, obviously deserves a mention. At 1-1 and with little or no time left, the ball fell to the less-than-reliable shooting boot of Derek Niven, who was not only the longest-serving player at the club but had also recovered from cancer to resume his place in midfield. One swing of his right boot later, we had our dream ending and the inevitable pitch invasion – which featured a 20-yard dash from the disabled enclosure onto the pitch by a lad in a wheelchair. His carer eventually caught up with him, and directed him back off the pitch, giving him a clip round the ear for his troubles.
At the end of the game everyone ended up on the pitch, and it was a physical wrench to leave. I was doubly devastated when I discovered that the photos and videos I had painstakingly shot from my seat, to record that special perspective for posterity, had somehow failed to save to the camera. As such I often look to the film ‘The Damned United’ to catch a glimpse of Saltergate. Filmed in the mid-2000s, they needed a location to recreate Derby’s Baseball Ground in the mid-1970s. Naturally Saltergate fitted the bill, and even needed a lick of paint to bring it up to scratch. So while the film shows Brian Clough discussing the finer points of football ownership and management with Sam Longson, or Leeds kicking lumps out of Derby, I’m straining to soak up every last shot of the ground.
Although it was only stone and steel, Saltergate became a huge part of my life. As an out-of-towner, I’ve been quite insulated from the trauma of it being pulled down to build new houses. I’ve just made the mistake of looking for it on Google Maps; it’s not there any more and that’s just plain wrong.
We undoubtedly have a more modern, more professional, and more ‘fit for purpose’ football ground. We’re embracing the need to ensure a healthy income outside match days, with weddings and music concerts. But I’ll never love the new ground the way I loved (and still love) Saltergate, with its wooden seats, flaky PA system, and, just occasionally, its ability to be the greatest place in the world.
We’ll always sing “Flying high up in the sky, We’ll keep the blue flag flying high, From Saltergate to Wembley, We’ll keep the blue flag flying high”, because deep inside, that’s what we’ll always being doing.