As the famous saying goes: ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know.’ Well in my case on 5th May 2012, it was not a case of ‘who you know’ but ‘who you know that is married to someone who works for Coca Cola, thus ensuring I get free tickets for a Football League match.’ The ticket in question was a ticket for Huddersfield’s end of season clash against Yeovil Town. Essentially, this was a meaningless fixture as Huddersfield had already secured a play-off berth, whilst Yeovil were secure in the league’s mid table. 3 points for Huddersfield would secure them a 4th place finish if MK Dons could also drop points in their final fixture kicking off at the same time; a 4th place finish would mean that Huddersfield would be in the advantageous position of playing the 2nd leg of their incoming Playoff semi-final at home against MK Dons.
My trip to the Galpharm had been 2 years in the pipeline, as I first experienced the ground in September 2010. On a Saturday morning train from Liverpool to Leeds to watch Swansea play at Elland Road, exiting Huddersfield train station I noticed the Galpharm Stadium poking up through some trees to my right – the stadium looked absolutely fantastic and I couldn’t quite believe it was home to a mere League One team. I had seen the place on the TV a couple of times, but it really did look brilliant in the early September sunshine. On the return back from Leeds, having witnessed the Swans lose 2-1, I was even looking forward to just going passed the ground again. I soon decided that I had to visit the stadium; just under 2 years later I finally have.
A short 30 minute train journey from Manchester and we arrived at Huddersfield. As many train stations do these days, Huddersfield station has a pub incorporated into it, so we felt that this was as good a place to start as any. The station itself is a listed grade 1 building and after years of renovation it even won the prestigious Europa Nostra award for its architecture.
The aptly named pub, ‘Head of Steam’, had a peculiar layout in that it consisted of four small square rooms: 2 bar/lounge areas and 2 small dining/cafe areas, serving your usual cafe favourites.. The place was a good place to start the day; the pub also sold my continental beer of choice, Estrella Damm, instantly getting the place a big thumbs up from myself.
After a hasty pint in the ‘Head of Steam’, we began to make our way through the town centre and headed in the general direction of the Galpharm Stadium. Our next port of call, was the George Hotel, a place of great history I was to find out from one of my football companions for the day. At the very hotel bar we were standing in, the game of Rugby League was born, kicking and screaming against the Rugby Union world. Having lived in the North West for the past 2 years and having come from a prominent ‘Union’ area, I have come to understand how popular the sport of Rugby League really is up north. The divide in the game actually came about via the infamous north/south divide that is still referenced in the UK to this day. The schism in the game ‘rugby football’ came about when the more working class northern teams felt that they were being undervalued by the RFU, especially compared to the more middle class club sides in the south and after a pay dispute involving payments for players that missed work through match commitments or injuries (ensuring that ‘League’ became a professional sport along time before ‘Union’).. Two days after an emergency meeting in Manchester, representatives of 21 club sides headed to the George Hote lin Huddersfield to sign an agreement to form the North Rugby Football Union and thus splitting from the RFU; the newly-formed NRFU are now better known as the Rugby Football League (RFL) and would forge the rugby league game that we recognise today.
Anyway, after all that history, our time was short-lived in the place as no-one even came to the bar to serve us. We departed and headed through the market area of Huddersfield town centre with the arches of the Galpharm Stadium looming in the background.
Whilst walking through the town, it dawned on me what a nice town Huddersfield actually seemed. Despite it being the middle of the day on a Saturday afternoon and there being a football match at the nearby stadium, the town was peaceful and calm. The streets are swamped with Victorian architecture with the town actually having the third most listed buildings in the UK. Also, for any history buffs, Harold Wilson was born there. There are large industrial buildings scattered around the town showing the remnants of the town’s large part in the industrial revolution.
We encountered one such large industrial building about 5 minutes walk away from the Galpharm; however, it turned out this building was actually a converted club, called ‘The Gas Club’ (not as sinister as it sounds.) A standard pound entry and offer of tickets for the post match frivolities with a local band playing there and we were in…the only ones in actually, apart from the wannabe mods that were soundchecking on stage for the big after match gig; their soundchecking did go on for far too long though and was irritatingly loud when there is just 3 of you trying to talk, have a pint and watch Football Focus in peace. Not long after we had entered the place, it began to fill out and soon the Gas Club was full of ‘Town’ fans (they all called themselves this) and there was a good atmosphere in the large function room. I soon spotted fans wandering around with trays of food and I realised that I could not hold out for a pie at the ground, so I went in search of the source of the food. In a small room just off the large function room there was a small kitchen area (well a couple of fridges, a cooker and a couple of tables) serving standard matchday food at very good prices – although they did seem to want to put mountains of mushy peas (possibly my most hated food) over absolutely everything. After a couple more pints we headed to the stadium.
The stadium was just as impressive as it looked from the train journey I described at the start of this piece – actually, more impressive. These days all new grounds are made into dull soulless, generic bowls that have absolutely no character; this is not a category the Galpharm Stadium falls under. Despite being a part of post-Hillsborough-new-stadium generation, the Galpharm is a slick, unique stadium full of character. From some angles it does look very similar to Bolton’s Reebok or Wigan’s DW Stadium, but this place is much more eye-catching than the other two grounds mentioned. Although there are four single standing stands rather than the ‘corners filled in’ look of most modern stadiums, it does add to the unique look, as each stand is semi-circular rather than the traditional rectangular shape. As the website Football Ground Guide put it: “from the car park I first thought it looked like a new ride at Alton Towers! It is good to see something different from the architects for a change.” As well as the architecture of the stadium itself, the setting is just as impressive. Like nearly all new stadiums, the Galpharm has a small retail park attached, but unlike most new grounds the Galpharm is not on some out-of-town retail park, but is instead located only 10 minutes walk away from the town centre. Another distinctive feature of the ground is the woodland that circles its way around it with trees towering above the one stand – something I’ve not seen at a football ground before.
Huddersfield have played at the Galpharm stadium since 1994 after the switch from their Leeds Road ground; Huddersfield had been playing at Leeds Road since 1908. In the town where Rugby League was born, getting the locals to follow football in the clubs early years was very difficult. Notably, Manchester United played a home game in the FA Cup at the ground in 1948 during the reconstruction of Old Trafford after the Second World War bombing that decimated it and England even once won at Leeds Roadin a 8-2 victory against the Dutch, only England’s second national game after World War II. In the aftermath of the Taylor Report all grounds capacities dropped to make football stadiums safer environments in the post-Hillsborough world and Leeds Road was no different. The capacity sunk from 52,000 to 31,000 after the 1984 Safety of Sports Grounds Act and then sunk to 14,000 after the Taylor report in 1990, with the Cowshed stand being deemed unsafe. In 1992 planning permission was accepted to build a new stadium and by 1994 Huddersfield were playing in their new ground, although it only had 3 stands for its first season. The ground was originally called the Alfred McAlpine Stadium, after the main construction contractor on the stadium, but when the name run out on their sponsorship deal run out in 2004, Galpharm Healthcare took up the sponsorship deal, hence the stadium becoming the Galpharm Stadium.
Having got my (free) ticket from the ticket office, I headed round the corner for one last pre-match drink in the ‘Rope of Walk’, now by myself after my two companions had ditched me to take their seats with the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’. The pub appeared to be the main meeting place for the Yeovil fans that had made the long haul up from the south-west of the country; a very good effort on their part as the game was pretty meaningless overall with Yeovil safe in mid-table following the return of their former manager, Gary Johnson, to the club. The pub itself was a typical retail park Harvester/Wetherspoons-ish sort of hybrid with some food deals and average tasting and priced beer. The Yeovil fans in the pub were in good spirit and I ended chatting with a table of them about previous games I had witnessed them play in and about one of their players that was local to my hometown of Merthyr Tydfil, Gavin Williams (more on him later). After a quick pint and chat with the west country folk, I headed around the corner to the ground.
I must also give a shout out to the effort put in by a large number of Huddersfield fans that had cycled the 250 mile journey from Yeovil to the Galpharm Satdium to raise money for Yorkshire Air Ambulance. The club celebrated the cyclists’ feat by letting the cyclists ride onto the pitch about 10 minutes before kick off to the applause of the fans in the ground- a class gesture from the club.
My seat was in the upper tier of the memorably named Direct Sport Golf UK Stand, the only two-tiered stand in the ground. After acending several staircases I arrived at the concourse and a very large empty concourse at that. However, it was quite nice to have a nice, quiet, relaxing pint (just over the £3 mark) with the locals reading their local newspapers in peace. I am more used to drunken singing and pint throwing on a stadium concourse than sitting in peace, sipping my pint, which made it one of the more surreal experiences I have had on a stadium concourse 20 minutes before kickoff. The place did have TVs scattered around on the walls though showing Sky Sports News which is always a good thing. After relaxing on the concourse I thought I better head up to my seat.
The view from my seat was brilliant as I was situated right on the halfway line and high enough that I could see the trees looming over the top of the opposite stand. The crowd did look very sparse today, but I guess this was understandable with the game being semi-meaningless and with the locals probably keeping their cash aside for the playoff games and a potential trip to Wembley. Or people were just staying at home to watch the FA Cup final at the ridiculous kick off time of 5.15pm.
The crowd (or lack of) did affect the atmosphere and despite the best efforts of Huddersfield’s drummer in the opposite stand and Yeovil’s drummer and bell-ringer in the stand to my right, it was never exactly bouncing in the Galpharm. I was also left disappointed by Huddersfield’s Jordan Rhodes-less line up, as I had been looking forward to seeing the prolific striker in the flesh, having never seen him playing outside of a TV set before. The striker had scored 37 goals in the season so far and Huddersfield had turned down several bids (some people were even claiming that there were bids up to £6m!) for the striker who was deemed surplus to requirements under Roy Keane at Ipswich.
The pleasant atmosphere on the concourse had seeped over into he stands and the game itself. The game was not exactly being played at a breakneck speed but nonetheless it was still a very enjoyable game with some neat, tidy football from both sides. Just before the end of the first half, Lee Novak scored the opening goal for the Terriers with a sweetly placed header into the bottom corner, after a cross from Jack Hunt.
Jack Hunt, the unfortunately named right back, was the star of the show. I had never even heard of him before the game but by the 2nd minuite I was almost out of my seat for his every touch. Everything he seemed to do was spot on, as he played like a young English Dani Alves, having the beating of the Yeovil left back every time (funnily enough as I write this, he has just scored Huddersfield’s 2nd goal on my TV screen in the Playoff Semi Final). The assist for the first goal was the least he deserved from the game. He was by a country mile the Man of the Match.
A minute before the close of the 2nd half Yeovil midfielder Gavin Williams, entered the pitch. I have taken particular interest in Williams’s career over the years as he is a Merthyr boy and went to the same school as me (he was actually in the same year as my brother, whilst I was in the same year as his younger brother, Lewis, who now plays for Pontypridd RFC). Williams made his name at Yeovil before earning his big move to West Ham, then in the Championship. Williams played well at West Ham, but struggled to get a first team place following their promotion to the Premier League and eventually left for Ipswich Town, followed by stints at Bristol City and Rovers. Swansea (and Cardiff) fans may remember him best for his ‘ayatollah’ gesture towards the Vetch’s North Bank whilst at Yeovil earning him instant ‘scum bastard’ status. After several moves in the Football League Williams has now returned to paly for his old manager, Gary Johnson, at his old club, Yeovil Town. In this clash against Huddersfield, I felt that he was actually Yeovil’s best player, showing lots of composure on the ball and a willingness to keep the ball; his frustration was clear as many of his teammates repeatedly took the wrong options in the second half.
The second half was a similar affair to the 1st half, although the crowd were a bit livelier as they began to get excited about their quest for promotion in the upcoming Playoffs. Yeovil did force veteran goalkeeper Ian Bennett in to action, as the 40-year-old made a fine double save towards the start of the half. In the 72nd minute Huddersfield made it 2-0 through ex-Bolton prospect Danny Ward, after a jinking burst towards the box and a neat finish from 18 yards into the bottom corner.
The game was effectively over and Yeovil showed no intention of trying to mount a comeback. Simon Grayson decided to give Rhodes a run out for the last 15 minutes, but he had little to do and the game petered out towards the 90th minute. At the final whistle, I did get to witness the worst and perhaps most inappropriate pitch ‘invasion’ I’ve ever seen, as about 20-30 of Huddersfield’s over-excitable teens needlessly run onto the pitch, ignoring repeated calls over the stadium’s public address system (not tannoy, that’s a brand name) not to. After applauding the players off, I headed for the exit, where most of the talk was about the young boy Hunt who had been exceptional and, of course, the ensuing Playoff fixtures. MK Dons lost their final fixture, ensuring that Huddersfield finished 4th and meaning that Huddersfield had claimed the second leg home advantage.
I made my way back through the town towards the train station where I was hoping to watch the 1st half of the FA Cup final in the Head of Steam. I made it for kick off and I had the pleasure of watching it with a drunken Wigan fan who on finding out I was a Swansea City thanked me repeatedly for ‘giving them’ Roberto Martinez.
I have to say that the Galpharm Stadium is perhaps one of the best new build stadiums I have visited and certainly one of the best stadiums in the Football League at the moment. The location of it is great, the Huddersfield fans all seemed very friendly and there was a real good vibe around the place (although this may have been the Playoff optimism in the air). The only disappointment really was that I was at the ground for a fixture that nobody really cared about, which certainly impacted on the attendance and atmosphere. However, I would like to visit the place again soon for a ‘real’ fixture, which could well be in the second tier of English football.
Highlights: Good pub in the train station, The Gas Club, attractive stadium, free ticket, stadium in a good location, Huddersfield seems like a very nice town, spacious concourses
Low Points: Lack of atmosphere (on that day anyway – I have seen the Galpharm on TV and I know the place bounces when there is a big game on there), no-one serves you at the historic George Hotel, piles of mushy peas on food!!