The Dell went out with a bang. A thunderously emotional bang. That immaculately executed Matthew Le Tissier goal a little over a minute before that “final whistle” will, courtesy of YouTube, be bringing a tear to the eyes of Saints supporters for generations.
We miss The Dell; of course we miss The Dell. While it was not among the most spectator friendly of arenas it was fabulously atmospheric – even after becoming an all-seater stadium with a capacity a little over 15,000.
Matty’s goal should have brought the curtain down. It didn’t. A week’s worth of events had been organised, culminating with the visit of Division Two champions Brighton & Hove Albion – “Division Two” being the old Division Three, which is presently being marketed as “League One”. Southampton FC had followed up a suggestion from a supporter that the Seagulls would be appropriate final opponents, as they had been the first opponents to grace the ground, way back on Saturday 3 September 1898. As it happened, the side defeated 4-1 that day were Brighton United, who went belly up half way through the 1899-1900 season. Albion , however, did the occasion proud. Saints won 1-0. The scorer was Uwe Rösler.
In the beginning
The Dell is now a housing estate. It predates football by several millennia. It was carved by Rollsbrook, which continues to meander from the Common to Southampton Water. These days much of its route is subterranean. Sometime during the 1880s “the dell” had been excavated to accommodate railway lines and sidings for an aborted railway project. Sometime in the 1890s it was bought by wealthy fishmonger and Saints’ director George Thomas, who spent £9,000 transforming it into a football ground.
Although modest in size, the estimated capacity was 24,500, the new ground was impressive in terms of facilities. Rollsbrook was channelled through a 4’6” high, 2’ wide culvert connected to 13,000 feet of agricultural piping to ensure the proper drainage of the pitch. Other wonders of the plumbing arts could be seen under the West Stand, including hot a water central heating system and showers, ordinary baths and plunge baths in the dressing rooms.
The spectator accommodation included covered stands on both sides of the ground seating 4,000, and, for those choosing to stand, planked terracing. Most Football League grounds of the era consisted of four compacted cinder banks and a grandstand plonked on one side of the pitch close to the halfway line.
After much haggling Mr Thomas rented the new ground to the Southampton Football & Athletic Company for £250 a season. His satisfaction with this deal may be deduced by his decisions in the immediate aftermath to resign from the board of directors and then withdraw as a guarantor of the Club’s overdraft – which was considerable.
The Saints bought The Dell from George Thomas’s widow in 1926. They then secured the services of Archibald Leitch to build a new West Stand and extend the East Stand. The new West Stand was opened with full municipal pomp on 7 January 1928 – prior to a Football League Division Two fixture with Leeds United. Saints lost 4-1.
Quite when the refurbished East Stand was opened appears to have eluded the local press, but its demise was front page news. On the last day of the 1928-29 season, Saturday 4 May, following a 3-0 defeat of Swansea Town, it burnt down. It was a quite a conflagration. Archibald Leitch was summoned once again. The new East Stand was built in prefabricated sections in Liverpool.
All lit up
The next structural change came in the late 1940s, when the raised blocks of terracing known as the “Chocolate Boxes” were erected on the Milton Road end. That done the Club now reckoned The Dell’s capacity at 32,000. There had been a nationwide boom in football attendances after World War Two and Saints were promotion contenders in 1948, ’49 and ’50, but even after the Chocolate Boxes were completed gates in excess of 25,000 were followed by tidal waves of complaints – to the Club and the Southern Daily Echo – from disgruntled patrons who had failed to see much or anything of the action.
More idiosyncratic than innovative, being the only example of raised standing terraces in the Football League, the Chocolate Boxes (also known as the Ash Trays) are more readily recalled, both by visitors and Old Dellites, than the most dramatic and enduring technical advance Southampton FC introduced to British football: floodlighting.
Common enough at sporting arena on the Continent and in the Americas, floodlights were installed at The Dell in 1950 to facilitate the evening training of youth players. They were unveiled to 10,000 curious onlookers on the evening of 31 October 1950, for a 30-minute each way friendly against Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic (since re-branded AFC Bournemouth). The first example I can find of evening soccer being played under a permanent floodlighting instillation. The experiment, despite thick fog rolling across the pitch, was regarded as a success by the Club, the Echo and the congregation of soccer cognoscenti present. The football establishment was less enthusiastic. Following the first competitive football match to be played under lights in the United Kingdom, a Football Combination (reserve) fixture between Saints and Tottenham Hotspur on the evening of October 1, 1951, the FA and the League called a moratorium on their use. It was not until 1955 that they were legalised, but only for re-arranged fixtures. By this time Saints were in Division Three (South).
By 1960, when Saints returned to Division Two, floodlit football was no longer a novelty. The Dell’s lighting system was radically modernised by the addition of catwalks and light mountings across the stand roofs. It was upgraded again in 1966, on promotion to Division One.
The Dell’s attendance record was broken for the last time on the evening of 8 October 1969, when 31,044 shoehorned themselves into the ground to see Manchester United defeat Saints 3-0. (That the world record for cramming a telephone box is not held by Saints supporters continues to strike me as incredible.) Thereafter, all “improvements” led to a diminution of capacity.
Given that The Dell occupied such a small site expansion had not been economically viable since the building of the East and West stands. Relocation had rarely been far from the agenda since the 1930s, with the most fancied site being on the reclaimed land beyond the Western Esplanade – which would have been a splendid name for a stadium. Following the 1976 FA Cup triumph it wasn’t just the Club and its fans who wanted a move, there was enormous public backing for a “New Dell” in and around the Southampton area. No politician dared openly demure. There was much talk before the media lost interest, and quite a bit after, but nothing of substance emerged.
Between the defeat of Manchester United at Wembley in ’76 and the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in 1989: bench seating was introduced under the stands in the late 1970s, the Archers end was reshaped a couple of times – latterly to accommodate anti-hooligan pens – and, in 1981, the Chocolate Boxes made way for the “Piano Lid”.
The extended goodbye
It was a succession of football related disasters, Bradford, Heysel and, in particular, Hillsborough that passed the death sentence on The Dell. To be more precise, Lord Justice Taylor’s Reports on the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster, published in 1989 and 1990. His stipulation that all soccer stadiums in the top four divisions (later moderated to the top two divisions) should be all-seater revolutionised the beautiful game – which wasn’t that beautiful at the time.
It was a requirement that continues to upset many traditionalists. Not me. While I will defend the right of anyone to stand in the pouring rain gingerly handling a thin plastic cup of scalding Bovril while being jostled violently in a tightly packed crowd, I see no reason they should expect to be able to snatch glimpses of football while they do it; particularly if they are occupying a space that could comfortably seat people who take an interest in football as a spectacle. Since the Taylor Report the matchday experience has improved immeasurably, especially in Southampton.
Of course, post-Taylor, while Saints remained at The Dell, the matchday experience became an increasingly exclusive one. Great credit must be extended to the board of the time for modernising The Dell as well and as imaginatively as they did, while sustaining a First Division / Premiership team. It’s difficult to imagine how they could have done a better job. The tradition of combining thrift with shrewd business decisions continued after the Club was transformed from a limited company to a PLC in January 1997.
Throughout The Dell’s last decade relocation became an increasing imperative with each change. Did the roofed, all-seater Archers Road and Milton Road ends ever pay for themselves? One would doubt it.
In March 1991 the City Council identified Monksbrook Playing Fields at Stoneham as the most suitable available location for a “community stadium” and “regional sporting centre”. A major problem was that part of the site was in the jurisdiction of Eastleigh. The stance of Eastleigh Borough Council and Hampshire County Council shifted and switched enigmatically with the political wind for eight years. Saints could have been forgiven for cordoning off The Archers and Milton ends off and letting them rot, but The Dell, bijou as it was, despite the bladder bursting dearth of toilet facilities, remained a credit to the Club if not the City or the region.
In July 1998 Southampton City Council proposed that Saints move to the site of the decommissioned Northam Gasworks. Before the month was out the Club had agreed to cut their losses on Stoneham. City Council Leader John Lloyd was not particularly happy about the turn of events: “Whatever is done at Britannia Road,” he told the Echo on 30 July, “will not be the first-class regional facilities were working for at Stoneham.” Club Chairman Rupert Lowe was of the same mind. The Echo noted on 11 September ’98 that Southampton Leisure Holdings PLC had “written off £697,000 worth of costs associated with the beleaguered Stoneham scheme.”
But it all came right in the end. The stadium would be built. Saints would be able to compete with the big shots of the Premier League at long last. What could go wrong?
Back at The Dell at 4.49-ish on Saturday 19 May 2001, as Matty swept Saints into a 3-2 lead over Arsenal, it seemed that the world was our pearl bearing mollusc.
Saints v Arsenal 19 May 2001:
Above: an exciting goalmouth incident at the Milton End from the West Stand.
Right: An exciting goalmouth incident at the Archers end seen from the West Stand
The Dell’s Milton Road facade.
“… the fine new enclosure of the Southampton F.C.” Opens for business, 3 September 1898. Opponents: Brighton United
The original West Stand. The house in the corner, Glenside, was incorporated into the ground and accommodated the boardroom.
The new west stand under construction in 1927.
I’ve no idea who the band are, but it’s certainly not Bon Jovi.
The full Southern Daily Echo headline on Monday 6 May was “Fiery Finale to Saints’ Season”.
The aerial photograph was taken before the East Stand was re-built.
A new home!
Not while Tory County Councillors in Church Crookham and New Milton had breath in their bodies.
Above: The floodlighting instillation above the West Stand in the early ’90s. The “hut” is the television commentary box, erected during summer of 1978.
Right: sitting comfortably – under the West Stand 1991
Alan Shearer converts a penalty to secure a win over Queen’s Park Rangers on 4 April 1992. And the Milton end enthuses.
Supporters linger in The Dell following the last league match. © Shirley Gaulton-Wagg
As if visiting