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Belle Vue

1922-2006

In April 1920 Doncaster Rovers FC was revived at a public meeting at the Cleveland Café. Within a matter of weeks, the enthusiasts had secured a place in the Midland League for 1920-21. They had also secured a one-year joint tenancy of the Corporation’s playing fields at Bennetthorpe, a venue they had used at times in their formative years, and they had begun the search for a new, permanent home for the Rovers.

Doncaster Corporation offered Rovers a longish lease on several acres of land on the Low Pasture, opposite the Racecourse. This was rather boggy, low-lying ground and for some time there were arguments between the club and the Corporation over the suitability of the land. Rovers were also keen to extend their stay at Bennetthorpe and to develop the site: The Corporation did not approve of these ideas. Finally, in May 1921 matters were resolved at a meeting between the Rovers directors and the Corporation’s Estates Committee. Rovers would be allowed to remain at Bennetthorpe for season 1921-22 and they would submit plans to develop an area of between 6 and 8 acres on the Low Pasture. The land would be made available to the club on a 21-year lease at an annual rental of £50. Rovers finally had a site for a new, permanent ground.

Construction of the ground was in the hands of Arthur Thomson, a club director and partner in Thomson and Dixon, a firm of local building contractors. Thomson and his workers were assisted by members of the Rovers supporters club, who gave up their time to help level the surface and construct banking on two sides of the ground. The banking was created by using spoil from the local collieries. Work commenced during the summer of 1921 and continued through 1922. As well as the banking, a spacious grandstand, with a seating capacity of 1100, was constructed on the Racecourse side. Further seating capacity (around 700 seats) was added in July 1922 when the main stand from Bennetthorpe, constructed around a year earlier, was moved and re-sited at the Town End of the new ground. In addition, the supporters club had started a fund to pay for a cover over the Popular Side, opposite the grandstand. The cost of the new building work amounted to around £4000, while the cost of re-siting the Bennetthorpe stand had been about £1200.

Rovers’ fans had their first chance to see the ground at a public trial match on Saturday 19th August 1922. After experiencing the cramped conditions at Intake and, more recently, at Bennetthorpe, supporters were struck by the size of the playing area (118 yards by 75 yards) and by the impressive nature of the grandstand. The directors had decided to name the ground “Belle Vue,” even though the Bennetthorpe ground was often known as “Belle Vue Gardens.” The supporters club had proposed alternative names (the “St. Leger Ground” being the most popular choice) and they protested that the name “Belle Vue” was confusing and incorrect. However, “Belle Vue” eventually became accepted.

On Saturday 26th August came the official opening. Rovers had made two unsuccessful applications to join the new Division Three (North) of the Football League while at Bennetthorpe. Keen to impress Football League officials as to the fine standard of the ground, the directors had invited John McKenna, President of the Football League, to perform the opening ceremony. McKenna was unable to attend, but Charles Sutcliffe, a senior member of the League management committee, took on the pleasant duty. The ceremony was performed at the door leading to the home dressing room. Afterwards, Mr Sutcliffe made a speech in which he paid tribute to the work the directors and supporters had put into the building of the ground. He was “surprised and delighted” by what he had seen, and he felt sure that future generations would be proud of Belle Vue. He also hinted that an application to join the Football League in 1923-24 would be looked upon very favourably.

After the pleasantries, there just remained the business on the field to be completed. Rovers’ first opponents were Gainsborough Trinity, old adversaries from Rovers’ days in Division Two. The only goal came in the seventh minute when Arthur Charlesworth headed in a cross from the left from Bobby Rintoul. Nevertheless, it was a good, well-contested game and the crowd, reckoned at around 10,000 went home happy. Not only had they seen Rovers win, they had also witnessed history in the making.

 

Rovers’ first season at Belle Vue was played out in the Midland League. Nevertheless, it was a good season, with the team finishing runners-up and only suffering defeat once at their new home. Rovers applied for one of the two vacancies in the Northern Section of Division Three for 1923-24 and were duly elected along with New Brighton. Belle Vue’s first Football League fixture was on 25th August 1923 when 10,923 witnessed a 0-0 draw with Wigan Borough. The first League goal came just over a week later, during Rovers’ 2-1 win over Ashington; the scorer was Tom Keetley. A cover was erected over the Popular Side, opposite the Main Stand, in 1924. This cover was extended in the summer of 1927 as part of the investment in ground improvements financed by a grant of £1500 from the Supporters’ Club. The Main Stand was also extended as part of this investment and was now able to hold 6,000 spectators. The official opening of the new facilities took place on the opening day of the 1927-28 season and was performed by the Secretary of the FA, Sir Frederick Wall. Rovers were rewarded with a better-than-average crowd of 8,451 and a 3-0 victory over Lincoln City. Before the commencement of the 1928-29 season the Popular Terrace and Spion Kop (better known to fans now as the Rossington End) were concreted. Previously spectators had stood on ash banking, and this ground improvement was also financed by the Supporters’ Club.

Following Rovers’ promotion to Division Two in 1934-35 work was required so that Belle Vue could cope with the anticipated higher attendances. New turnstiles, fencing and gates were installed in the close season of 1935 and the main stand was extended at a cost of over £700. The terracing and banking on the Popular Side and the Spion Kop (aka the Rossington End) were extended during the 1935-36 season. This programme of ground improvements continued throughout the latter part of the 1930s. In the summer of 1937, funded by donations from the Supporters’ Club, Rovers re-concreted the terracing on the Popular Side and a year later the cover was taken down and re-erected so that additional terracing could be laid down. By the end of the 1930s Belle Vue could accommodate around 40,000 people, a staggering figure in today’s terms.

In 1938 Rovers’ board acted to secure the future of the club at Belle Vue. They negotiated a 21-year extension on the lease with the council and provided further investment in the ground by building a concrete wall running the length of the Popular Side to replace the wooden fencing. The players were also backed with the provision of a running track around the pitch to be used for training purposes. After modest ground improvements in the summer of 1939 there were no major changes to the ground due to World War Two. Non-essential building works were not allowed as a result of the wartime and post-war restrictions As Belle Vue had escaped damage during the war, the ground remained much as it had been before hostilities.

On 2nd October 1948 Belle Vue witnessed its record crowd when 37,099 people packed the ground to the rafters to witness a 0-0 draw between Rovers and Hull City, who finished Champions of Division Three (North) for 1948-49. Rovers won the title a year later, under the stewardship of Player-Manager Peter Doherty and remained in Division Two until 1958, their longest unbroken run at that level.

Doherty was a great innovator and developed a scouting network both locally and in his native Ireland. So that he could assess aspiring players, he initiated a series of floodlit trials, commencing in 1949 and played under arc lights that had been fitted to the roof of the Main Stand. When the FA lifted its ban on matches being played under lights in 1950, Doherty was one of the first people to realise the potential on offer. He persuaded the Board to invest over £2000 in floodlighting and four towers were erected, each 35 feet high, at the corners of Belle Vue. The heights were restricted by the proximity of Doncaster Airport and the club had to get permission from the government to erect the lights. After a series of practice matches, Rovers took the bold step of arranging the first floodlit match outside the south of England. The Scottish Champions, Hibernian, were invited to Belle Vue on 4th March 1952 and a crowd of 18,474 witnessed the game that Hibs won 3-0. Further floodlit friendlies followed in 1952-53, including matches against an International XI and Celtic and these fixtures attracted higher average crowds than the regular League fixtures. Finally, the FA and Football League allowed lights to be used for competitive matches and in January 1956 an FA Cup 4th Round replay with Bristol Rovers became the first competitive game to be played under Belle Vue’s floodlights. A better than usual crowd of 22,093 saw Bert Tindill’s goal give Rovers a 1-0 win.

 

Despite the investment in the floodlights, there were few changes to the fabric of Belle Vue during the 1950s. Like most football directorates, the Rovers’ Board saw little point in improving what was a more than adequate ground at a time when attendances were booming. With hindsight, a major opportunity was missed and the failure to improve facilities then ensured that many grounds appeared dilapidated at the time that attendances began to fall and paying customers demanded better standards of accommodation.

By 1964 the once-pioneering lights had become obsolete and Rovers were told by the Football League that they would have to improve their lighting system if they were to be allowed to play floodlit games. The club had to raise £15,000 and then gain permission from the War Office (because of the proximity of the old Doncaster Airport) to erect the four 120 feet tall pylons. Work began in May 1965 and the new floodlights were first used in the home game with Hartlepools United in August 1965.

Despite winning the Division Four Championship in both 1965-66 and 1969-70, the 1970s found Rovers stuck back in the bottom division and often playing in front of crowds of below 2,000. However, one game in January 1974 showed how vibrant a place Belle Vue could be. Rovers were drawn away to the Football League Champions Liverpool in the FA Cup and goals from young strikers Peter Kitchen and Brendan O’Callaghan secured a 2-2 draw and a replay. Because of power restrictions the match had to be played on a Tuesday afternoon, but 22,499 packed into Belle Vue to see the eventual FA Cup winners triumph 2-0. The power crisis brought about a Belle Vue first on 27th January 1974 when the match with Colchester became Rovers’ first home game to be played on a Sunday. Admission was by programme and the above average crowd of 4,285 saw goals by Kitchen and Ray Ternent give Rovers a 2-0 win.

Belle Vue itself saw only cosmetic changes during the 1970s. Part of the under-used Rossington End was given up to a five-a-side training pitch and a clock was added to the façade of the “Cowshed” or “Bob Stand” (the old main stand from Bennetthorpe) at the Town End of the ground. The floodlights were upgraded in 1977 when the existing bulbs in the towers (which had stood since 1965) were replaced by quartz halogen bulbs. The new lamps saw duty for the first time in the 2-1 win over Southport in September 1977. After much wrangling with the local council, Rovers finally gained permission to build a social club on the Belle Vue site, a facility that now serves as the club house for Doncaster Town Moor Golf Club. In 1980 manager Billy Bremner decided that having the biggest pitch in the Football League was not to Rovers’ advantage and he reduced the size from 119 yards by 79 yards to 110 yards by 77.

By 1984-85 Bremner had got Rovers promoted to Division Three twice and that season’s team was one of the most entertaining that has played at Belle Vue since the 1950s, yet they never were able to achieve their full potential. In part this was a result of inconsistency and ill luck with injuries. The biggest problems, though, came off the field and were in many ways outside the club’s control. Rovers finished 14th in Division Three having led the table for a while in early season, but the highlight was a 1-0 victory over First Division side QPR in the Third Round of the FA Cup, when. 10,583 saw David Harle’s late goal secure victory. The hammer blows came at the end of the season: following the Bradford Fire Disaster Belle Vue’s capacity was reduced to 9,900 and £100,000 had to be spent on anti-fire precautions in the Main Stand. Worse, the wooden North Stand at the Town End had to be demolished. Add in the fact that Ian and Glynn Snodin were sold, respectively to Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday, and you can see that the summer of 1985 was a miserable time for Rovers and their supporters.

Things got worse in May 1987, as before the final home game of the season, against Middlesbrough, mining subsidence was discovered on the Popular Side. The cover and terracing were condemned as unsafe and closed, and the ground capacity was reduced to 4,859. The 1987-88 season started with a three-sided ground but eventually an uncovered Popular Side was reopened, and the capacity increased to 8,259, although with average League crowds of 1,913 this was unlikely to be tested. In 1989 the aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster saw Belle Vue’s capacity reduced to 7,294 but one positive benefit was the removal of some of the ugly fencing at the Rossington End. The following season saw the erection of a cover over the much-denuded Popular Side at a cost of £50,000. More significantly for the future, Rovers opened talks with the council and Doncaster Rugby League Club about selling Belle Vue and moving to a new stadium. As they say, this one would run and run.

Belle Vue came to dominate matters in the 1990s. Not because of the memorable games or excellent football played there, or because of significant ground improvements. Rather it was because the future of the ground and the club became linked in such a way that both almost went into extinction. The directors’ favoured solution to the financial problems was to move to a new, purpose-built stadium. For that, they would need money from the sale of Belle Vue, which was not theirs to sell. The council was reluctant to approve the change of land use that would enable the Belle Vue site to be developed for non-sporting purposes and to spend ratepayers’ money on supporting a private club. This impasse continued with tragic consequences for the Rovers. During the 1991-92 season Rovers had to resort to fundraising to install new floodlights and pylons after a crack discovered in one of the old 1965 pylons meant that Rovers could not use their floodlights.

During the 1992-93 season, another one of on-field struggle, the Board announced that there would be a new share issue, although as this mainly converted existing loans into shares it did not bring much fresh money into the club. It did, though, pave the way for the club to be taken over by the Isle of Man based company Dinard Trading. Their self-styled “Football Consultant” was Ken Richardson, the man behind the recent rise of non-League side Bridlington Town. Richardson proved to be a “hands-on” man, taking charge of player recruitment and appointing a new Board consisting mainly of his family and business associates. Richardson opened negotiations with the council, using a softly-softly approach at this stage. However, fans might have learned something by watching goings-on at Bridlington. There Richardson was in dispute with the council over the use of Town’s Queensgate ground. As a result, he moved Town to Belle Vue to ground-share with Rovers during 1993-94. Before long, the Bridlington club passed out of existence.

The following season, frustrated by a lack of progress with the council, who suspected his motives, Richardson tried brinkmanship, threatening to withdraw Rovers from the Football League. The threat was only rescinded at the eleventh hour after the council reluctantly agreed to talks, but team morale seemed to suffer, and Rovers missed out on the play-offs. Then on the night of 28th to 29th June 1995, the main stand at Belle Vue was badly damaged by a mysterious fire. Fortunately, the fire brigade was soon on the scene and they found some interesting evidence among the debris. In March 1996 Richardson was arrested by police and the club’s offices were raided. Subsequently the “Football Consultant” was charged with conspiracy to cause arson, charges he denied, and which took a long time to reach court. In the meantime, Richardson was proposing to rebuild Belle Vue one side at a time, a plan considered and rejected as impractical by the previous board. By now the council had withdrawn from talks with Richardson about a move from Belle Vue.

Richardson had also stopped spending money on the team and in 1997-98 Rovers finished bottom of the Football League and were relegated to the Football Conference. They won only four games all season and picked up only 20 points. Belle Vue experienced its lowest-ever crowd for a Football League game, 739 for the March visit of Barnet. The final game came on May 2nd, 1998 when Rovers, with relegation already long confirmed met Colchester United. It was an emotional day and the crowd of 3,572 was a season’s best. A mock funeral procession carried the coffin of Doncaster Rovers FC to Belle Vue before the game and a bugler played the Last Post. Rovers’ Football League career was at an end: very possibly so was their very existence as a football club.

In the summer of 1998 Richardson finally sold the club to an Irish based consortium named Westferry. They were not much interested in the football side of things, more in the land value of Belle Vue, but they proved to be much more benevolent than the previous regime. During the 1998-99 season the Doncaster Dragons Rugby League side moved in to share Belle Vue, John Ryan became Chairman and Ken Richardson was found guilty of conspiring to commit arson and jailed for four years. In 2001 a couple of significant improvements took place at Belle Vue, with the derelict Town End being resurfaced and partially re-opened and a new social club, the “Rovers Return” being opened at the Rossington End of the ground. Belle Vue was again a four-sided ground, for the first time since the mid-1990s. On 7th September 2002 Rovers beat Dagenham & Redbridge 5-1 in front of the Sky TV cameras in the first match to be televised live from Belle Vue. The two sides met in the play-off final at Stoke in May 2003 to determine which one would go into the Football League. Francis Tierney’s extra time golden goal meant that Rovers returned to the League after a five-year absence.

Much work was needed to improve Belle Vue in order to satisfy the demands of the League and the anticipated higher crowds. The Town End was fully concreted in July 2003 and the Rossington End was substantially extended to allow more room for visiting fans. As a result, Belle Vue’s capacity was increased from 7,400 to over 10,000. In addition, the old wooden seats in the Main Stand, some of them present since 1922, were removed and replaced. Rovers ended the 2003-04 season as Champions of Division Three and their successes on the field were made all the sweeter by news that the council, led by elected Mayor Martin Winter, had approved plans for Rovers to move to a new community stadium in the Lakeside area. This would mean leaving Belle Vue, but it would enable the club to secure its future in a way not possible before. Nevertheless, there was still work to be done at Belle Vue in order to maximise commercial opportunities. New executive boxes were opened at the Town End before the 2004-05 season and an office block and social club was opened during the season.

 

The 2005-06 season saw Rovers match their achievement of 30 years previously in reaching the Fifth Round of the Football League Cup. A win on penalties over Premiership Manchester City in Round two was good, but the Fourth-Round demolition of another top-flight side, Aston Villa, surpassed even that. Watched by 10,590 and the Sky cameras Rovers won 3-0 and in the Fifth Round, again at home, they were seconds away from knocking out Arsenal before a last gasp leveller sent the game to a penalty shoot-out which Rovers lost. Those Carling Cup nights served to remind all Rovers fans of the wonderful days Belle Vue has witnessed. The final game at Belle Vue came on 23rd December 2006 when Rovers beat Nottingham Forest 1-0 in front of a crowd of 8,923, defender Theo Streete having the honour of scoring Rovers’ final goal there. After lying derelict for several years, house building commenced on the Belle Vue site and it is now hard to find many traces of what was once a magnificent, vibrant football ground, a place where memories were made and cherished.

 

JOHN COYLE