As Middlesbrough and Luton Town opened the English Football League season earlier this month, the match also marked the first time the two teams had met since April 1995 in the last league match at Ayresome Park. To mark the 25th anniversary of the famous old ground’s last season, Manchester Metropolitan University historian and Boro fan Dr Tosh Warwick looks back to the stadium’s early days and the ways in which planning archives and oral histories can reveal rich sources for exploring the sporting past:
The EFL season kicked off earlier this month as Middlesbrough headed to newly-promoted Luton Town’s historic Kenilworth Road to contest a 3-3 draw in front of the Sky TV cameras. The thrilling match was also the first time the two sides had met since the Boro’s last league match at the Archibald Leitch-designed Ayresome Park, the Teesside club’s home of 92 years. On 30th April 1995, Middlesbrough ran out 2-1 winners courtesy of a John Hendrie brace that ultimately meant life in the club’s new 30,000 capacity all-seater Riverside Stadium, then the largest new football stadium built in the UK in the post-war era, would begin in the FA Carling Premiership.
With the new 2019/2020 campaign marking the 25 years since the last season, the anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on the heritage of Ayresome Park. Led by a group of historians, archaeologists, community groups and sporting organisations, it is hoped that in highlighting its history and seeking funding to develop further activity can help uncover the memorabilia, memories and matches associated with the (now relatively) long-lost ground. The anniversary activity takes inspiration from the outstanding ‘Breaking Ground’ project at Bradford Park Avenue that explored the history of the lost ground, as well as previous work to celebrate Ayresome Park’s past.
Initial research making use of the local records held in Teesside Archives has provided some unique insights into the early days of Ayresome Park, most notably from planning records and oral history recordings. The plans held in the collection include the original plans produced by famed football stadium architect Archibald Leitch. In minute detail, the drawings reveal the structure of Ayresome Park, allow comparisons with modern stadia and provide a visually high-impact way to engage people with the ground’s early days.
However, plans and even contemporary press material do little to reveal the experience of visiting Ayresome Park as a supporter in the early days. A number of recordings held in Teesside Archives’ 700+ listings in the oral history collection, mainly dating from the 1980s, reference memories of attending Ayresome Park across the decades. Of particular note is that of shopkeeper George Guymer, born in Middlesbrough in 1895. Guymer’s memories reference attending the first league match held at Ayresome Park against local rivals Sunderland on 12th September 1903 (Boro had contested a friendly with Glasgow Celtic earlier that month). His memories provide some insights into the football club’s move from their former Linthorpe Road Ground, life living near to Ayresome and some early Boro stars:
“The first match we played was with Sunderland at Ayresome Park, and it was threepence, threepence!..It was very handy and if I hadn’t enough money to go in, I used to wait till ten minutes before time when they used to open the gates, and see the last ten minutes of the match…we went in, most times there was a boys’ part where we could go, and I followed them ever since, I’ve had a season ticket even when I went to live in Scarborough I came to Middlesbrough for the football matches after I retired.”
Recalling some of his Ayresome heroes, Guymer highlights George Camsell’s fifty-nine goal record during the 1926-27 promotion season when Boro scored 122 goals, and makes comparisons to later twentieth century football. Amongst other Boro memories in the oral history collection include Jack Taylor, born in 1912, who recounts joining friends in walking the not insignificant 18-mile round trip along the ‘Black Path’ in the shadow of the steelworks from Redcar to Ayresome Park, as well as those of Jack Evans who lived in Clive Road next to Ayresome Park. Evans describes the experience of living near the ground on matchday as ‘heavenly’, recalls going in the wooden stand transferred from the club’s former Linthorpe Road Ground, seeing world record signing Alf Common play for Middlesbrough, and reminiscing about the wider social and family associations of going to the match:
“You used to go there, and you could go there as a family, and you could stand there and have a joke…crack a joke, and a laugh…and it was fun to go and see a football match”.
The oral histories provide an opportunity to access a world of sporting memories (and misremembering at points too!) and it is clear that, just like many supporters who head to the Riverside over a century later, the fans who trudged along the Black Path and packed into Ayresome Park loved the ground and experience it brought. During the course of this season as Ayresome Park’s history comes under the spotlight, fascinating stories and continued connections to the famous old ground are sure to be uncovered.
Furthermore, with many clubs having notable anniversaries of lost grounds on the horizon such as Bolton Wanderers, Derby County and Sunderland who all followed Middlesbrough’s lead in moving to state-of-the-art venues, the activities around Boro’s past can help develop a framework for football clubs and the wider community to engage with the spaces and stories of lost grounds. In doing so, it is hoped that the emotional attachments to old homes of football and activities on their former sites can be harnessed for education, local pride, place promotion and well-being purposes that reach out to football supporters and have wider beneficial impact.
***Those interested in learning more about plans to celebrate Ayresome Park’s heritage or in sharing memorabilia or memories can contact Dr Tosh Warwick at firstname.lastname@example.org. This blog has been adapted from an article published by Remember When (Teesside) in August 2019.***
 Jason Wood and Neville Gabie, ‘The Football Ground and Visual Culture: Recapturing Place, Memory and Meaning at Ayresome Park’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol.28, Nos.8-9 (2011)
 Middlesbrough Football Club plans (1903), Teesside Archives (TA), CB/M/PL/297B
 George Guymer, TA, OA/400
 Jack Taylor, TA, OA/403
 Jack Evans, TA, OA/522