Europe’s closest stadium to the sea, Arbroath’s delightfully archaic Gayfield Park, is a rare survival of simpler times, still thriving despite all that the elements can throw at it.
For fans weary of all-seater stadiums’ stifling conformity, Gayfield, with its old-style concrete terraces, is a breath of fresh air, and a bracing one at that.
Diehards who huddle like penguins pitchside witness all kinds of weather-related mayhem: freak waves soaking unsuspecting wingers; gales dispatching goal kicks back to baffled keepers. In winter, as the Bell Rock lighthouse sends fans knowing winks, things can turn nasty.
Gayfield, though, is anything but weather-beaten. Outside, the ground is as spruce as a private beach club, and behind its clean white frontage, every detail is lovingly maintained.
For this writer, who last visited almost 50 years ago, it is disorientating. Viewed from the terraces in spring sunshine, Gayfield today seems unchanged, yet sharp as a new pin.
“There have been vast improvements to the facilities over the past five seasons,” says club social-media manager and fans’ liaison officer, Graham Black. Among them have been new terracing roofs, crash barriers, pie huts and pitchside fences; next up is the ground’s main entrance, players’ tunnel, turnstiles and club shop.
“Most significant,” says Graham, “is the renovation and extension of our hospitality facilities, allowing us to cater for 200 fans on match days, with a package that is now famous in Scottish football.”
A huge part of its appeal is first-team manager Dick Campbell, a man for whom the term ‘larger than life’ might have been invented, who holds court before and after matches.
These days, he has plenty to talk about. As the only part-time side in Scottish football’s second tier, Arbroath have confounded expectations with an improbable promotion charge.
Scottish football’s top flight is now tantalisingly close for a team that began the season as relegation favourites. Yet, even if this wildest of sporting dreams were to falter this time, the club’s sound infrastructure suggests it could soon be realised.
“Are the fans ready to step-up? Absolutely!” says Graham, who’s also club photographer. “There were 4,000-plus fans at our recent Scottish Cup tie with Hibernian and the atmosphere was electric, even though it poured throughout.
“The team has caught the imagination of the town and support is at levels I have not seen before. Until recently, local children were wearing Rangers, Celtic and Manchester United tops as they kicked about in parks, now there are Arbroath shirts everywhere you look.”
Off the park, there have been big strides too. Arbroath FC Community Trust, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, is engaging with all ages and demographics throughout the town. It is, says Graham, proof that club and community are working as one.
Just what the country’s elite players would make of a trip to Gayfield remains to be seen, but its tight pitch and openness to the elements would be a novel experience for many.
“The wind can be a game changer,” Graham reckons. “Even though Arbroath train at Perth twice a week, the players know how to use the conditions to their advantage. Playing into a stiff breeze is arduous but, hitting the right pass when it’s behind you is an art.”
Arbroath have been harnessing the elements since matches were held at Old Gayfield, 50 yards east. When they set a world goalscoring record with a 36-0 win over Bon Accord in 1885, one press report, ominously, described conditions as “unpleasant”.
“Rising sea levels aside, I am confident Gayfield will be here for another 140 years. The directors have been making steady improvements and long it may continue,” says Graham.
“As more and more clubs move to modern, out-of-town stadia, Scottish football loses something of its soul and identity as well as a unique selling point.”
That has yet to happen in Angus with its four fantastic senior grounds. Brechin’s Glebe Park, uniquely, has a hedge as its perimeter wall; Forfar’s Station Park is cheek by jowl with a sheep market; and Links Park, Montrose, sits doucely in a distinguished conservation area.
For many fans, Gayfield’s proximity to the sea gives it the edge. If play slackens, a glance over the perimeter wall brings other rewards – sightings of grey wagtails, dippers, rock pipits, and, out to sea, a local trawler, a distant tanker, a cargo ship bound for the Baltic. More distant still, a pinpoint on the horizon, on deadly Inchcape Reef, is the Bell Rock.
For those of us who can identify an older ground by the pitch of its roofs or the quirks of its crash barriers, Gayfield quickens the senses. For fans of Arbroath FC, regardless of what this season might eventually bring, Gayfield Park is far more precious than silverware.
It is, as they say, in the blood, even if a north-easterly can make that blood run cold. Graham, first taken to games by his father, recalls: “Dad would meet his pals for a blether an hour before kick-off at the ‘Switchie’ end, named after the adjacent Pleasureland arcade.
“It was as if there was an invisible magnet pulling them to that one spot of exposed terrace, and an unseen force field that prevented them from moving. And nothing reminds me of those days more than the warm, reassuring smell of tobacco from old men smoking pipes.
“My dad stood at the back, so being younger I’d find a path through a sea of bodies to the front where you could see the action – but not close enough that you’d get soaked on dreich afternoons!
“The heart of Gayfield will always be its simplicity and its setting. For Arbroath fans, it’s home away from home. It will always be about football, familiarity, friends and family.”
Picture of Gayfield Park courtesy of Laurence Reade