Adventures in Football #18: Whaddon Road (aka The Jonny Rocks Stadium – Cheltenham Town FC)
AUGUST 17, 2021
CHELTENHAM TOWN vs. IPSWICH TOWN (League 1)
Cheltenham used to be a mainstay of non-league football, especially when I was going to Rovers in the early 90s. Cheltenham were a Conference team from 1986-1992 and returned in 1997 for two years before making it into the football league in 1999 and they’ve not looked back (bar 2015-16, where they dropped back into non-league but won the National League and came straight back up). They’re now in League 1 for the first time in their history so I got to see the best Cheltenham team of all time.
They’ve had three decent cup runs, making R4 in 2005-06 where Newcastle beat them and last year Man City put them out in R4. In 2001-02 they got to R5 where they lost to West Brom. They’ve played at Whaddon Road since 1932. The club has made a lot of improvements to the ground since. The main stand was built in 1963 and looks like an antique compared to the Colin Farmer stand, from 2001, that houses more fans.
We’re off to a flier today because I forgot the tickets! Luckily Maria was picking me up from work and brought them with her. Josh is also in tow as we go to a game as a family, of sorts. It’s an uneventful drive with the motorists in Gloucestershire being considerably better than those around the Potteries and northern Birmingham for our, frankly terrifying, Port Vale journey. We get there very early and get into the community centre car park, which houses overspill from the ground. The actual ground’s parking is reserved for people who’ve booked it. We paid £6 for parking, which Maria couldn’t help but label as “expensive”. It was a pound more than Port Vale.
Fuck up #2 is not noticing we were parked right next to the Colin Farmer stand and walking all the way back to the front of the stadium, only to be told that we were in the right place to begin with. Still, it was worth the walk to see the front of the stadium, the massive Jonny Rocks sponsorship sign and the club shop where Josh buys a Cheltenham shirt they wore for a charity match against Leyton Orient.
It’s a pink and white number, which is better than either of their current shirts. We neglect to buy a Cheltenham Town cushion, as it’s £14. Josh commits his only major faux pas of the day by loudly saying how much he likes the Norwich shirts from last season while we’re walking past the away end. I guess we won’t be welcome at Portman Road any time soon.
When we’ve successfully negotiated our way back to the entrance where we started, we head into the Colin Farmer stand. The turnstiles are a bit tight. To the point that Maria almost got stuck going through and I hear a “honey, help” from behind me. If you’re a gentleman of sizeable girth, you’ll struggle to get into the Jonny Rocks. We proceed into the concourse, and it occurs to me that I never take photos of the concourse. This is a basic one. There’s toilets and an eatery called the “Grillhouse” that charges big cash for meal deals. Josh had fish and chips; you can see both pictured below. He didn’t eat the chips, but I think he was just being picky.
In the Colin Farmer stand I remember we’re in the front row, which is a fantastic view. There’s actually a row in front of us but due to them banging up an advertising board right in front of it legroom in row A would be minimal.
Having taken our seats, we could take in the surroundings. The Colin Farmer stand is clearly the best the ground has to offer in terms of modernity but I’m a little jealous we’re not in the main stand, the “Autovillage” stand, as it looks proper weird. It’s set back so there is standing room in front of it. It’s up high so there’s a big drop at the front and it doesn’t go all the way down on either side of the ground. It’s just a strange old stand that I assume will get demolished one day but it’s a visual treat for me. Especially off to the left, above the club shop, where there is an old-fashioned announcing tower. It looks like an air traffic controllers tower!
To our left is the away end, the Hazelwood stand, where Ipswich have gathered their fans in significant numbers (995). They have a far greater presence than Sunderland at Port Vale in the Carabao. They make a lot of early noise, causing a bloke behind me to yell “fuck off Ed Sheeran”. As Josh explained to me before the game, Ipswich have celebrity involvement in the form of pop singer/famous ginger man; Ed Sheeran. The Ipswich shirts have his album titles on them. Off to the right is the standing end, which can house 2000+ but isn’t tonight. The Speedy Skips stand is where I’d go if I was on my own. I like standing at the football.
Josh quickly adapts to his support of Cheltenham Town and I see him kissing his badge. As a Chelsea supporter I suppose that’s fair game. They both start “Chel”. We’re right by the 1887 Red Army, which is Cheltenham’s ultra group. They have a drum with them and start chanting early and keep at it. The first half isn’t great for Cheltenham. They peak with the warm ups.
Left back Matt Penney fires Ipswich ahead with a fantastic left foot strike from outside the box. Moments later it should be 2-0 with #18 Macauley Bonne getting past the keeper and looks odds on to nod the ball into an empty net. Panic sets in though and he somehow guides it wise. It’s one of the worst misses I’ve seen live and a 1.6 Ronnie Rosenthal on the easy miss scale. We’re absolutely flabbergasted at that and Ipswich never really recover from it. Despite the skills of winger #29 Kyle Edwards the best chance of the half was squandered.
Into the second half the 1887 Red Army push hard in their support and Cheltenham start causing massive problems from set pieces. Especially the long throws from big man Ben Tozer. While free kicks and corners also contributed to Ipswich’s defensive collapse the Tozer throws were absolutely key. This is Rory Delap territory and the best utilisation of long throws that I’ve seen since those heady heydays of Stoke City. Ipswich’s back line started bumping into each other and having communication breakdowns.
The atmosphere improved throughout and I found myself chanting along with the 1887 lads as Cheltenham rallied. The 4,746 in attendance raised their voices and after a header from Callum Wright got Cheltenham back level there was only one winner. Tozer’s throw in’s continued to cause mayhem. Eventually one dropped for Will Boyle and Cheltenham go ahead on 81’. The last ten minutes the crowd got even louder. After the 2-1 win we walked out in awe of how consistently supportive this crowd was. For the size of the crowd, man for man, it’s one of the loudest crowds I’ve experienced at the football. Chanting and singing and cheering and clapping.
The Ipswich supporters started out noisy and I thought Cheltenham might get embarrassed on and off the pitch. No chance. If a big club gets drawn away at Cheltenham in the cup they’d better bring everything because the Speedy Skips end will suck the ball into the fucking net. Massive credit to the fans of Cheltenham Town. I hope I see them again this season. While I’ve enjoyed every stadium I’ve been to this season the support of the Cheltenham fans is head and shoulders above everything else I’ve seen and heard. They are the twelfth man, that missing X factor, the thing that football missed so dearly during the pandemic.
We survived Covid so we could have nights together like this. Nights where anything is possible. Where little Cheltenham can muscle their way past fancypants Ipswich. Something that, in years gone by, would have been nothing but a dream. The dream is now reality for Cheltenham Town and as we continue to come together to watch football the possibility of glory beyond our wildest imaginations isn’t so impossible anymore. Cheltenham Town may not play the beautiful game in the same way as Pep Guardiola but for thrills and spills I’ll take Ben Tozer’s long throws over tiki-taka on my Tuesday evenings, cheers.
UP THE ROBINS!