At Stadium in His Backyard, He Stands Alone
At Stadium in His Backyard, He Stands Alone:
East End Shed Man Enjoys a Mostly Unobstructed View at Bristol City F.C.
Courtesy of the New York Times:
BRISTOL, England — English soccer clubs began to enclose their stadiums and charge admission in the last quarter of the 19th century. While the fans came in considerable numbers, there were those who could not pay or would not pay, or those who just spotted an opportunity to watch the games free. On moorlands overlooking stadiums or on hillocks with a view into their open corners, people have been watching the game — or the little slice of the game they could see — for more than a century.
Even in the era of the Premier League and its new arenas — self-consciously designed to maximize revenue — there are chinks in the armor. At Stoke City’s new Britannia Stadium, where the wind and cold are among the harshest in England, a small hill behind the scoreboard offers a vantage point onto most of the action. Some fans watch the whole game from there; others, those who like to beat the traffic, start inside and then do the last 10 minutes from the hill.
But this season, the best free view in any league, perhaps in the history of English soccer, belongs to a man known as East End Shed Man, who has one whole and almost unobstructed side of Ashton Gate, Bristol City’s stadium, to himself. A solitary figure in a green duffle coat and dark glasses, East End Shed Man has perched on the nearly flat roof of a large garden shed since August. He was first seen during a League One match against Oxford United, and has been a permanent fixture ever since.
The view arrived over the summer, when Bristol City demolished its much-loved but utterly dilapidated East Stand. An old cinder bank that dated to the 1920s, it was never more than a large low-roofed tin shed. But for the last few decades it had also been the noisiest, liveliest quarter of Ashton Gate, the place where the club’s most boisterous fans rubbed up against the tiny contingent of away supporters, separated only by a thin line of stewards in nuclear yellow vests that was occasionally reinforced by the black and navy of the police. They have all been replaced, temporarily, by a single man.
He is Ben Swift, a sales manager for a local lighting company, and he agreed to an interview last Friday afternoon at the house next door to the stadium, where he and his wife have lived for several years.
“We lived locally anyway, and were looking somewhere bigger,” Swift said of the Shed Man’s residence. “And being next to City was a real bonus.”
Swift got the Bristol City bug when his older sister took him to Wembley to see City lose the final of an old lower-league trophy in 1987. Since then, he has played for City’s youth team, the junior reds, worked as a ball boy at Ashton Gate and, for the last decade, watched games regularly from the East End stand that until recently backed up onto his garden.
While many from the East End have temporarily moved to blocks of seats in the remaining stands, Swift quickly realized he had been awarded his very own windswept executive box, with the added bonus that he can have a beer (still banned in view of the pitch in English stadiums) and a cigarette (banned almost everywhere) while he watches. Posting on Twitter at halftime, however, requires a trip indoors.
The view is not perfect. From atop the shed it is impossible to see most of the goal at the East End. “Unless it’s a header into the top corner,” Swift said. But even when the stadium is empty, one can sense what an amazing thing it is to be able to stare, alone, into the maw of a great bubbling crowd.
Bristol City is building a new East Stand, and Swift said he knew that his view may soon be gone. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times
When the East Stand came down, many Bristol City fans feared that, stripped of one side, Ashton Gate would lose its cozy familiarity and tight-knit intensity. Instead, the temporary arrangement has been a revelation. Looking out from the remaining stands, the crowd is treated to winter sunsets that leave the low hills and trees of south Bristol in remarkable silhouette.
The view in the foreground is hardly architecturally inspiring — a postindustrial miscellany of parking lots, warehouses, fast-food restaurants, building sites and terraced housing — but it is there, in a garden that directly abuts the space, where one can see the idiosyncratic presence of the Shed Man leaning on a homemade sign reading East End.
Almost a decade ago, Bristol City’s coach at the time, Gary Johnson, called for more support from the fans, saying the ground should “be bouncing” during matches. Since then, the different stands have called to each other by name, chanting: “Doleman bounce!” “Williams Bounce!” and “Atyeo Bounce!” In one of his earliest games, East End Shed Man heard the call from Ashton Gate, “East End Bounce!” He obliged with a jig that was met by a huge roar of approval. The call and response have been going on ever since.
Sometimes it is the Shed Man doing the calling. In a throwback to the times when English crowds brought their own banners and hand-painted message boards to games, Swift has been putting up his own. “Ole, Ole, Ole,” written in white on a piece of brown cardboard, evokes a great chorus from Ashton Gate of “Bris-tol-Citeeee.” Another, in a nod to Italian ultras culture, reads, “Forza Eastenderz.” A City fan who owns a sign-making business chipped in with a giant banner: “Shedman says bounce around the ground.”
The Shed Man also has a Twitter account (@eastendshedman) with more than 1,200 followers. They include expatriates in Cuba, longtime Bristol City fans from Sweden and a contingent of fans from Tilburg in the Netherlands, where supporters of the club Willem II have struck up a liaison with their Bristol City counterparts.
There can be a lot of disappointment and sour-edged rage in England’s soccer stadiums, but this season at City, there has been joy — and a lot of laughter. It surely helps that the team is playing its best soccer in years, not merely on top of the league and seemingly destined for promotion to the Championship, but also in an entertaining and attacking style. The temporary loss of the East Stand has left the rest of stadium feeling packed, and the Shed Man’s unexpected presence has made those people smile. The club has been generous and welcoming with this interloper, featuring Swift on its YouTube channel, and he has reciprocated by regularly donating the cost of a ticket to a charity associated with the club.
But catch him while you can. Bristol’s new East Stand is rising in skeletal steel form at the corners of the stadium. The pace of work last Friday did not suggest imminent completion, but the club expects the Shed Man’s view to be gone by the end of the month.
Swift knows this, and he acknowledges that he is a little worried about how he will get a ticket in a still-shrunken stadium that is close to full for almost every match. Maybe the club will help him out, as a reward for the days when one man’s shed provided an extraordinary view, allowing him to enjoy the game, calling to the crowd against a low winter sun.