They’ll miss this place when it’s gone. When its shabby tin-roofed grandstands are torn down. When the hallowed turf is ripped-up and its acreage – parcelled in the neat postage-stamp plots of suburbia – is sold to the Smiths and the Joneses. When the fabled Wide-to-West route is marked not by the full-throated roar of passionate fans, but by a trim black-on-white sign labelled simply, Stadium Drive.
Yes, they’ll miss this place those fans raised on its concrete terraces, who stand and strain every sinew as they live each pass and tackle of every game.
They’ll miss its warmth, its character, its welcoming camaraderie when they have to fill some soulless bowl in the corner of a Tesco car park.
You see, for all its so obvious failings, Knowsley Road is a gem. A raw, vibrant, tradition that is as much a part of the rugby league heritage as The George or any number of gifted and dedicated past players.
Now, as I sit at the press bench at the back of the stand on a cool but pleasant June evening, I cannot help but wonder: perhaps it is a treasure we ought to be preserving, not one we’re rushing to jilt.
If only the finances were there to invest in renovation and repair; to turn the place into a museum and a hall of fame. It would be a fitting monument to the game’s roots and a community stadium to grace the amateur sporting scene in St. Helens; rugby, football, even hockey could easily be accommodated.
For that matter it’s not beyond the wit of the architects to put a glossy new front – executive swagger, corporate seating and all – on the Dunriding Lane end. Do that and replace the seated stand with a tasteful old school alternative and you have a stadium fit for Super League, but rooted firmly in the rugby league tradition. Just don’t forget to fix the toilets and the plumbing and oh .. the electrics.
But seriously, where is the game’s heritage now? Fartown, gone. Central Park, gone. Hilton Park, gone. Wilderspool, gone. The Boulevard, gone. Headingley changed out of all recognition. And Knowsley Road soon to follow.
In these days of Lottery Funding and EU grants and sponsorship cash, it’s hard to believe that no one can find a way to make that happen. The RFL could have made it a real selling point; an administrative and coaching centre for the game on the right side of the Pennines, to make up for any misplaced Red Rose perception that there’s a closed-shop in Leeds.
Of course we know the game has to progress and that time takes its toll on all things. Yet there is a place for remembering. For tradition and soul. For acknowledging that a stadium is more than bricks and mortar, concrete and steel. It is a complex web of emotional ties and memories and shared experiences. It’s a place my dad brought me as a boy, where my own two sons bring their mates; where grandchildren and grand parents learn the old and the new ways.
It’s a place to forget the world and believe that anything is possible; a place to hope. Because you’ve seen the impossible happen, you remember it and so it can happen again. The lucky bounce, the last minute try, the last gasp tackle, the stunning comeback, the heartrending loss. The memories, like ghosts, never leave the fabric.
And that doesn’t just apply to rugby league, either, but perhaps other sports acknowledge it better. The two most revered sporting venues in America are the ancient creaking ballparks in Chicago (Wrigley Field) and Boston (Fenway Park). As prime Major League Baseball franchises both the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox could make millions more in revenue in glitzy new super stadia, yet they dare not, perhaps would not, make the decision to tear down the museums to the game that they call home.
I think there’s a place for that sentiment.
I stood outside the ground for a long time, too timid to enter. The crowds milled around. It was cold that Saturday and damp. At eleven it was my first solo venture to Knowsley Road. Eventually in I went fumbling with change and seeking a quiet place to stand to take it all in.
Undeterred by cold rain dripping from corrugated iron rooves, by dishwater tea masquerading as coffee, by open air conveniences and gruff men in flat caps, I was swept up in thrill of the game.
That little boy’s heart lingers there still.
I see him now as I peer through the fence. The empty terraces cold and grey in the tungsten floodlit night. It’s long after final whistle, my report is filed and yet I am loathe to leave.
We’ll miss it when its gone.