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THOSE WERE THE DAYS MY FRIEND: An ode to The Grove and the Town.



WE ARE STAYING UP!

 It is Sunday the 13th March 2018. There is glorious sunshine overhead. The gilet is becoming more of a regrettable choice of jacket by the second. There is a twenty-five minute walk ahead of me; the same twenty-five minute walk I’ve been making at approximately 2.30pm on every other Saturday afternoon for eleven years.

My destination – the John Smith’s Stadium. My departure point – The Grove, Huddersfield.

I pause by the leisure centre, an imposingly modern building that was a flat car park eleven years previous, and turn to take a photograph, probably for the first time on this walk. For I will return to the John Smith’s Stadium again in August, but I can’t be certain that I can say the same for The Grove.



"Out of the Blue" and Ceefax


I grew up in a football family on both sides. My mother was a keen Liverpool supporter who used to be at Anfield every home game prior to becoming a parent. My father was a Huddersfield Town fan who still went every Saturday to the late Leeds Road stadium. It was here that I was propped up on the terraces, alongside my older brother, for my first taste of professional football.

This became a regular Saturday outing and it was through this support I made my one and only trip to the old Wembley stadium in 1994 to see us lose in the Autoglass Trophy Final. The season afterwards saw Huddersfield Town move to their current home of the Kirklees Stadium and along with it my first season ticket.

In my late teenage years my loyalty to the Terriers began to waver. Increasing disdain for my father led to mentally blocking associations with him. Huddersfield Town represented the years when I looked up to the man who helped create me. As our relationship weakened so did my ties to the football club. I stopped attending games, barely checking the score on Ceefax, and my football support was placed elsewhere.

It took until my last year at university (the 2007-2008 season) for me to return to Kirklees Stadium; now under sponsorship from Galpharm Pharmaceuticals. The return coincided with a period of change for the Town. It became the first season the club’s ambitions were moving away from mere survival in English football’s League One and we were looking towards the Playoffs at last. Lifelong Huddersfield fan and Card Factory founder Dean Hoyle was about to join the board and make a great deal of change in our fortunes.

The biggest change for me though came in the match-day experience. Gone were the days of parking the car near KFC and walking straight to the ground. We were now all adults. We could all have a pre-match booze and we did so at The Grove. 



Keg Beers and Third Measures 


For many fans, football is about the matchday rituals and experience as much as it about the 3pm Saturday kick-off. For my father and I the routine became embedded – the Grove at 1pm. It stopped requiring organisation with others coming from elsewhere. The texts about attendance weren’t necessary. We were in the Grove at 1pm.

Though it was a very different British beer scene in 2007, The Grove was still unique in its selection and choice. Cask was always prevalent of course, but they were often unusual, unseen beers. Here was the first place I came across Beer Menus; bible-like folders spread around the pub listing the hundreds of bottles in the cellar. Every now and then a football game may have begun with a Chimay Blue or a Schlenkerla Marzen. As time went on, more cask lines were added. The “Keg Board” appeared, housing a few unusual numbers. “It comes from a… a sort-of lager tap. But it’s not lager.”

We began to know the staff, as long as they worked the Saturday early shift. Whether by luck, coincidence or a strong recruitment process, The Grove staff we have encountered have only been wonderful. Many still work in the beer industry – Head brewers, administration staff, etc – whilst others are good friends it is a pleasure to meet up with now and then. We were always in the room on the left where the more famous artwork is kept; for six years at the same table, for the previous five always at the same spot at the bar. The three pints to warm up became nine different thirds. The regular greetings with staff became instant beer recommendations.

It remained a permanent feature in the transient times watching Huddersfield Town. The Grove was there through the turgid football of Stan Ternent and Chris Powell. The Grove was there when we missed out on the playoffs three times, before making it the next three seasons, finally promoted on the third attempt. The Grove was there when we finally made it to The Championship, as I shed tears as we drew with Barnsley to avoid relegation on the final day of the 2012/2013 season, as David Wagner was given the manager’s job.

The Grove was there as we turned up every other Saturday of the 2016/2017 season increasingly perplexed and confused that we remained in contention for promotion to the Premier League.

The Grove was also there to witness and embrace the rise in the UK beer scene around it. It held the launch night of a local brewery named Magic Rock Brewing. It became the first place I knew to have dedicated lines to Jaipur or cask Buxton amongst others. It became one of the first places I knew to dump its two permanent Brewdog keg lines when the Scottish brewery starting failing deliveries and increasing prices rapidly. It became the first place I knew with 19 cask lines and 15 keg.

In my youth, the connection between Huddersfield Town and my father became resentful. As an adult it represented the last bond between us. We often didn’t speak, even when I lived under the same roof, apart from every other Saturday. I’ve no doubt that one of the last feelings of proud parenthood he had was watching his sons grow into Huddersfield Town fans and taking them to the ground with him.

When he sensibly stopped driving to The Grove, another match-day ritual joined: meeting at Stalybridge Buffet Bar at 12pm for a pint before making the 12:25pm train across the Pennines, thus creating another pub love affair. It has remained part of my own match-day process, even when it meant going back on myself for a period. My relationship with my father faded and eventually he was too ill to make the games anyway. But I was still in the Buffet Bar for 12pm, The Grove for 1pm. 


The Promised Land


On May 29th 2017 the unimaginable happened, an event dismissed many times over beers in The Grove. We are who we are and we will never play Premier League football. But we did. And for the very first time in August 2017, our pre-match beers in The Grove were in preparation for a Premier League football fixture at the Kirklees Stadium, now sponsored by John Smith’s. We were there and so was The Grove, but of course, it was always there.

Until the other unimaginable event happened: The Grove was put up for sale.

I’ve had a few discussions about the importance of match day rituals to football fans, not least after this Guardian article about West Ham fans who are struggling to adapt to their new home. Beer enthusiasts think they should be jumping for joy at having Craft Beer bars and breweries nearby. No, if I became a West Ham fan tomorrow I’d be happy with the location but a lot of fans will not. The Grove is part of my match day because I like it there. But for other fans, their place is the Gas Club, The Head of Steam, The Cherry Tree... They aren’t wrong.

Huddersfield town centre is not short of good places for beer. I am sure there are many who will shrug their shoulders believing that a certain Craft Beer pilgrimage bar should instantly install itself as our new home for pre-match beers. But it isn’t the same. Not for match-days (and we have tried it a couple of times.) The concept of change doesn’t frighten me, but it does sadden me. 


Don't worry about a thing, because every little thing...


Ever since the sale announcement, the introductory Premier League season of 2017/2018 became all too serious for Huddersfield Town. A season of acceptance and a little Que Será had been over-inflated into disbelief and over-ambition by the early season antics. Now they were falling into bitterness and disappointment as the reality of this being a single season at the top began to sink in. It looked to be going to the final day of the season – a home game against Arsenal.

For me personally, the fate of The Grove felt tied to the team’s fate. As a football club we had reached our maximum and now the only way was down. We’d reached it alongside the greatest drinking establishment in the country and now that would fade away too. We would rebuild but match-day would be forever changed. 

I would leave The Grove for the final day of the season knowing I may never return to it for pre-match drinks. I would leave knowing that this may be the final time I saw Premier League football played at The Kirklees Stadium. 
 
Then the final whistle came against Chelsea. Safety. Safety with a game to spare. We are Premier League for another season. The final game of the season was now a celebration rather than an afternoon of potential heartbreak and finality. 

This changed the perspective of leaving The Grove for that final time. The pub that had run parallel with our rise amongst the divisions may not be there for future seasons, but I am grateful to have started so many football matches in the greatest Beer pub in the country. I am happy to have met some great people on the way and had so many incredible beers. 

The pub may be sold as a licensed premises and remain in some format. They may well try to keep some of the aesthetic and some of the pumps. We don’t know. My feeling tells me it will never be the same.

But then I never thought I’d see Huddersfield Town play Premier League football. I certainly never thought I’d see a second season here. Stranger things have happened on a Saturday in this West Yorkshire town and I should know to expect the unexpected. If that was to be my farewell to The Grove then, like all good football fans, it is simply time to sing Three Little Birds for the next few months. After that, like all good Huddersfield fans, I can sing Those Were the Days with great fondness. Thank you to Ian and Taya for the last eleven seasons. We are staying up!



Comments

Huish Hugh said…
Generally preferred the trips North on the Lancashire side of the Pennines to those on the Yorkshire side since YTFC has been in the Football League - nicer towns and more openly friendly people. However Huddersfield is a bit on an exception. It won't win any beauty contests, but hasn't the blatant aggressiveness of a Leeds, the sullen threat of a Barnsley, the decaying seediness of a Rotherham, the chip-on-the-shoulder of a Doncaster, or the sleeping giant pretentions of the Sheffields. The locals have the gloomy resignation that if something can go wrong it will go wrong one finds amongst football supporters everywhere - but seems to be cultivated to perfection as a way of life by those from Huddersfield ;-). It is also a great beer town. Discovered The Grove towards the end of our visits - a superb pub. After a brief convergence our clubs have diverged again in different directions, and Huddersfield is one of the dates in the season miss the most.

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