Monday 16th July 2018 ko 19.15
Surrey FA Meadowbank Launch Event/ Pre-season Friendly
CHELSEA U18 4 (Ballo 23 38 Wiggett 49 Clark 84)
OXFORD UNITED U18 0
Entry FREE (by advance ticket)
If the visit to Bath City’s Twerton Park was visiting one of the grounds you simply have to see before you die, then back in the day Dorking FC’s Meadowbank Ground was another on that list. Dorking were already struggling following relegation from the Isthmian League and when I visited in 2013 it was to be the club’s last season here. When the ground’s owners, Mole Valley District Council closed Meadowbank down on health and safety grounds, their exile at local rivals Dorking Wanderers’ Westhumble home was to be the death knell for the club.
They struggled on to the end of the 2016/17 season in the lower division of the Combined Counties League before being swallowed up by Dorking Wanderers, the change of badge to include the Dorking (five-toed) chicken the only nod to their existence.
Dorking Wanderers rise had been remarkable. They’d risen from the 3rd division of the Sussex County League in 2007 to the Isthmian League’s Premier Division in 2017. With Meadowbank being demolished a year earlier, I assumed Westhumble would provide the town’s football base, with Meadowbank lost to the usual flats.
Credit then to the council for rebuilding Meadowbank from scratch as a home for Dorking Wanderers. Westhumble’s location in the middle of a conservation area was always going to make it difficult for it to keep up with the club’s rapid progress so a site shared with the Surrey FA (who moved here from Leatherhead) made sense for both parties. This most curious of groundshares did make for an oddity. There were to be 2 opening games at the new Meadowbank, on consecutive days one for the Surrey FA, and one for Dorking Wanderers.
I still have no idea why the Surrey FA decided to pick Chelsea and Oxford United’s youth sides for their opening game. Chelsea made more sense, you’re well within their catchment area here, and there were no lack of blue scarves heading down to Meadowbank. But Oxford United? I’m a fan of long-standing and while we have an excellent youth set up this looked like a massive mismatch even to me!
I was surprised though at the ticketing arrangements, it did seem rather odd to encouraged to “buy” a ticket in advance and print it out at home. I found my inner self saying “But it’s only a youth game” on more than one occasion during the evening! I assume, given the rather exact figure given as the attendance that this game was seen as a “Ramp Up” fixture.
The ground is a fitting replacement for the old Meadowbank, with its stand in exactly the same place as the old version. I’m sure I won’t be the only hopper to line up the spire of St Martin’s church behind to align the new ground with my memories! Other than the main stand the only other areas of cover are 2 small “Arena” terracing stands, elsewhere is just flat hard standing. The most unusual section though is behind the stand where a cafe/ beer patio has been set up. It is, I assume destined to be a hospitality area run by the cafe that is an all-week fixture in the clubhouse.
It was a generous gesture to provide an excellent programme and teamsheets for free, but there was a major irritant. With the arrival of a Premier League team came Premier League-style stewarding. The sad fact is that Premier League Steward training these days seems to accentuate the enforcement of rules and regulations and ignore completely actually helping people. Here my fiancee Robyn was struggling with damage to her feet but was refused entry to the stand “In case someone in hospitality wants a seat,” but when she sat on the asphalt by the clubhouse to ease her pain, was quickly told “You can’t sit here!” Hopefully the stewarding will be a little more sympathetic for Dorking Wanderers games.
Nevertheless it was well worth the effort in coming. The electronic scoreboard is a welcome feature, even if it did suffer some gremlins during the second half. It’s placed in the fence on far side, and since that fence is of the chain link variety you can see that eventually it will need to be replaced as anyone on the outside can see into the ground, including from the houses still further behind.
The game reminded me of another game involving Oxford United’s youth team, the opening of Manchester City’s Academy Stadium in 2014. In both cases I walked in fully expecting the club where money is no object to score double figures against a lower-EFL club. And just like then, it didn’t happen, mainly because the more talented youngsters massively over-elaborated.
Here Chelsea passed and moved well but time after time failed to either shoot, or failed to beat an Oxford United defence that threw absolutely everything at this game. The banks of teenage girls were congregated behind the Chelsea dug-outs for reasons of modern society, but had their reasons for being there been to actually watch the game, they might have reflected on why the future Lampards, Terrys and Drogbas were made to work so hard on what was a relatively straightforward fixture for them.
In the end I suspect everyone got what they wanted. The two sides got a useful workout, the crowd were well entertained, and the people of Dorking have got an excellent facility. I will have to have another look at Meadowbank at some point, if only to see how it works for a typical Isthmian League game. Much of this game Robyn and I found ourselves saying,
“But its only a youth team game!”