Colchester United won't be high on many groundhopping lists, but the club is based in…
Doing the 92: The Homestretch
Greetings from Lincoln, where I am spending four nights in a pretty crappy Holiday Inn. Why? Well, because I am doing the 92, of course.
Fellow groundhoppers will largely understand it, as we all find ourselves going to odd places at odd times to do this odd thing we’ve decided to do. And while Lincoln is a perfectly nice place, with a cathedral on the hill and a castle and some old buildings and a canal dug by the Romans and a Wagamama, I never would have come here but for this quest I am on.
Oh, and the four nights are because of rail strikes, which are now as much a part of British life as football itself. I didn’t want to run the risk of not being able to get here, after all, so four nights at the Holiday Inn it is!
Yes, but why am I here? The same reason that in the last nine years I’ve been to Barrow, Barnsley, Harrogate, Exeter, Wigan, Cheltenham, Gillingham, Carlisle, Nailsworth (seriously) and who knows where else: Because they have a Football League club. And I’m going to all of them.
The 92 Club: Most Exclusive Club in Football?
As with any perfectly normal hobby — going to games even when you don’t support either team playing — we humans have turned #groundhopping into an obsession, a competition, an exclusive club, and something to argue about on the internet.
You like going to games? Why not go to a game at all 92 clubs currently in the top four divisions of English Football? Makes perfect sense to me. The rest of it, not so much, especially on night three in Lincoln. Or when I’m coming back on an 11 p.m. train from Stoke.
According to Wikipedia, the 92 Club was founded in 1978 by a Bristol Rovers fan called Gordon Pearce. The rules are simple in one sense — you have to have seen a game at all of the current 92 grounds — and also utterly byzantine. To wit, from the OG website: “In the case of clubs moving grounds, either the original ground or the new ground can be counted during the first two seasons following the move. Once the club has played at the new ground for two seasons then the original ground becomes invalid and thereafter only the new ground can be counted within the 92.”
It is also quite mysterious: Who is in it? Who runs it? How many members are there? How, exactly, do you apply? Who makes these decisions? Is there a headquarters? No one seems to know. I guess you’re in it if you say you’re in it. I was hoping there was at least a members-only bar somewhere, an old man with scrolls, a secret handshake. I think there’s a badge and a tee shirt, but hey, I’m not a nerd or anything.
You see, I’m about to be in the 92 Club. I might be the first American to ever be in it. I will also almost certainly never know if I am.
The Devilish Details
A more modern 92 Club website offers a slimmed-down set of rules. Basically, you have to see a football game at the club’s current ground, from inside the stadium (I love that bit!). No other event there counts — stadium tour? Come on! — nor does driving by it. I hope that was a joke, but it’s literally in the rules.
It’s also okay if you see a game there before they are promoted to the League, or when they are in the League but then get relegated and come back. This wasn’t always the case, but apparently a members vote of 127 to 14 — so there are votes? — removed the old rule saying you had to have been since they were promoted. This is why I don’t need to go back to Grimsby Town, who were League Two when I was there, are League Two now, but were non-league in between. I’m not entirely disappointed about this, although the fish and chips there are excellent, and it’s a proper old ground where I practically had to hug a post while watching the game.
Contrary to much chatter online, a goalless game still counts, and you don’t need a pin badge or a program, although the demise of the match program at smaller clubs is a constant source of apocalyptic moaning in certain grey-haired quarters of England. I watched a poor Peterborough fan at Mansfield Town ask the club shop attendant three times to confirm they really didn’t have a program — this while I was waiting to buy a pin badge, which disappointingly didn’t have a club crest on it. So who am I to judge?
Also unclear: Does a women’s game count? A reserves game? Cup games? What if you leave early? Do you have to touch the crossbar? Do I have to go back to the clubs who didn’t have badges for sale? Probably, lest any otherwise-attained badges be tainted. Did I actually take a train one day to Oxford so I could get a badge, since they didn’t have one at the game I saw? I’m afraid so. Did I do the same at West Brom? Perhaps.
There is, of course, a Guinness World Record for doing the 92: 89 days! Somebody did this in 89 freaking days, meaning of course multiple days with two games. And to complete that record, you have to see a league game (no cups); you have to have a written statement from a club official saying you where there for the whole game; and you have to also see a game at Berwick Rangers, an English club that is so far north it plays in the Scottish leagues. I am not joking this time. Literally no one knows why this is the case.
I once kicked a Facebook hornet’s nest with this question: What if you’re an idiot, get confused about the kickoff time, and miss the first half? I may have facilitated the end of some friendships with that one, but lucky for me, the club involved, Scunthorpe, got relegated out of the League that season, anyway. They went down again the next year, for good measure. Assuming they even survive, I won’t have to return to “Sunny Scunny” any time soon. Again, this is not a disaster. I have already walked across the entire place in the rain after watching a goalless half of shit football, because I am an obsessive as well as an idiot.
Ups and Downs, Ins and Outs
I have “finished” the Championship twice, and yet it isn’t done. At Preston North End in 2019, and at their bitter rivals Blackpool two years later when they came up, I checked off the 24th club in the second tier. But then Plymouth Argyle came up from League One, and I haven’t been there yet, because to hear English people tell it, Plymouth is closer to Kansas City than any place in England. More on the Pilgrims in a moment, though. And no, sadly, they don’t wear argyle.
It happens that I am finishing each tier of the Football League in the last three games of my quest: Mansfield Town, which by the way isn’t close to anywhere unless Nottingham counts, finished League Two for me a few nights ago — even though it was a League Cup game, and don’t @ me on Twitter about this. Lincoln City will finish League One for me. And funnily enough, in all these games — well over 200 of them in nine years of visiting the UK — I had never until this week seen Mansfield Town play anywhere. Same for Lincoln City. I have only come across Plymouth Argyle once in my travels, in a Cup game at Liverpool. Somehow I think I’ve seen Bradford City 43 times, though — including once at their place, of course.
I went to Rochdale and Oldham, but they each went down. I went to Notts County, then they went down, but they came back up. Good for me. I was supposed to go to Hartlepool, which apparently is near Stockholm, but the pitch was frozen. And then they got relegated. Whew.
I try to work the upper tiers of the National League each season, as an insurance, but Wrexham last season was problematic. First the Hollywood nonsense made tickets tough. I got one, but the pitch was frozen. I called the club and got another, but there was a rail strike and I couldn’t get there. I called again and got another, but they advanced in the FA Cup to host Sheffield United, and I didn’t even bother trying for that one. This season I snagged one for a League Cup game with Wigan. Whew. And no @’s!
I went to White Hart Lane, but they tore it down, so I saw Spurs at Wembley — just to make sure, since I had also seen England at Wembley — while Tottenham built a new place, and then I went there, too. Brentford built a new place, so I went there (that’s it at the top of this post). West Ham moved into a new one, as well. They shouldn’t have, but they did. And I went there.
My 92 Club Journey: The Home Stretch
This time, when I came over, I stood at 85 grounds. Accrington Stanley was easily done, but then things got confusing. I wanted to do Exeter on the way to Plymouth Argyle, but there was a rail strike, so I switched that day to Lincoln, but then there was another rail strike, and Mansfield Town was proving problematic — again, because it is literally not close to an inhabited place — and also because they and Lincoln were always scheduled at home the same weekend. But I got lucky and both of them got home games in the League Cup! Mansfield got Peterborough, but Lincoln got West Ham, so I couldn’t get a ticket, meaning I had to settle for their league game against Cheltenham Town, which was conveniently just four days later — hence the Holiday Inn. All seems normal to me, but Lincoln on Saturday and Plymouth on Tuesday would give English people legit conniptions.
An aside: Among among the many weird things in my life right now is that when I see club names like Peterborough and Cheltenham, I think to myself, “I’ve been to both of those.”
So my final itinerary for this trip has been as follows: August 5 at Accrington (86), August 8 at Wrexham (87), August 26 at Bradford City (88), September 9 at Exeter City (89), and September 26 at Mansfield Town (90). English people will already consider this exhausting, as they think 200 miles is like crossing the Sahara, but in fact during this time, owing to factors related to work and idiocy, I went to 13 other games, including one run in eight days of Fulham, Millwall, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Glasgow Rangers. That was all between Exeter and Mansfield Town. I groundhop alcoholically.
My Ground No. 92
It should all come to a close at Plymouth Argyle, and that’s for a few reasons. One is that, well, it’s way the hell out there. Another is the American connection, the Mayflower being in their crest. Also, they are the Pilgrims, as am I. They took 9,000 fans to that Liverpool Cup game and held on for a 0-0 that caused Jurgen Klopp to hug their players and clap their fans; this made an impression on me. They wear green, as do my beloved Portland Timbers, so I won’t have to check the away team’s colors to make sure I’m safe in a green hat, like the time I saw West Brom away to … some damn place .. and realized on the way to the ground their away colors are green and yellow. I think that was Blackpool? I spent the game with my hat hidden in my shirt.
Anyway, Plymouth it is, and then who knows? I have to go back to the States two days later, so this better work out. I’m already taking a National Express bus six hours to Heathrow the next day, because of a rail strike. If I go home on 91 clubs I may need a new hobby.
Oh, who am I kidding? We all know by this point I would cross the Atlantic to see Plymouth play. And I’ll be back next season to see whoever comes up from the National League.
I’ve already been to York City, just in case. I want to be in the club, after all.