Forgotten grounds: The Imps and Vetch Field, Swansea

Courtesy Graham Burrell

One of the many grounds which Lincoln City have played on in their long history that no longer exists is the Vetch Field, once the home of Swansea City, writes Malcolm Johnson.

Named after a type of bean used for cattle fodder called vetch that was grown on its surface at the time, the site was owned by the Swansea Gaslight Company and football was played there by local amateur teams from the 1890s. Athletics and cycling also took place at the ground and the gasworks team played there until 1912 when the newly formed professional club Swansea Town leased the site. They chose it because of its central location in the town and space for expansion, although not ideal was a playing surface made of compacted coal cinder which meant players had to wear knee pads for the first season of football.

The first league match at the Vetch Field was in the Southern League against local rivals Cardiff City in September 1912 and Swansea remained in that competition until 1920 when the whole of the Southern League First Division become the newly created Football League Third Division.

With the rest of the ground consisting of mounds of earth and terracing formed of railway sleepers a wooden main stand was opened in 1913 to house 1,500 spectators. It also housed the dressing rooms and offices and although extended the whole length of the pitch in 1920 otherwise remained little changed until the eventual closure of the ground. Further improvements to the Vetch Field only came in stages as resources became available. 

After five seasons in Division Three (South) Swansea were promoted to the Second Division and in the summer of 1927 the double decker West Stand was built at one end. Towering over the rest of the ground it had a lower concrete terrace for 4,000 standing spectators and an upper wooden seated area housing just over 2,000. It was regarded by some supporters at the time as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, not least because it gave those in the upper tier a high and uninterrupted view of the pitch.

It was in the 1920s that the ground hosted two Wales v England games and a total of 18 internationals were held there, the last of them in 1988.

Lincoln City’s first visits to the Vetch Field came during their two seasons in the Second Division in the early 1930s. On 5th September 1932 they got off to a poor start with a 3-1 defeat, Frank Keetley being the first City scorer at the ground. The following season saw another loss, this time by 1-0 as the Imps were relegated at the end of the season.

The two clubs were not to meet again for over 18 years as City’s solitary season in Division Two in the late 1940s coincided with a couple of seasons spent by Swansea in Division Three (South).

Following Lincoln’s second post-war promotion they visited the Vetch again in September 1952. With the Imps having topped the division the week before an Ernie Whittle goal saw them gain their first point on the ground with a 1-1 draw which saw them slip to 4th place. Whittle was on the mark again the following season along with Andy Graver but the home side ran out 4-2 winners. Another defeat came in the 1954/55 season, this time by 3-1, Roy Finch getting the Imps’ consolation.

City’s first and biggest win on the ground came in November 1955 when a crowd of over 20,000 turned out to see top-placed Swansea beaten 2-0 with goals from centre forward Tommy Northcott and wing half Fred Middleton as City moved up to 9th place. Their final placing of 8th was to be their highest finish in the league for over 40 years. The following season saw another win as Middleton emulated Ernie Whittle by scoring for City in successive games on the ground, Colin Gibson also registering in a 2-1 win.

In the 1957/58 season results then began to swing back in favour of the home side, with Jack Grainger’s goal nothing but a consolation in an early season game which saw Swansea win 5-1 to go 4th in the league table in front of a crowd of 22,462, the highest ever for a City game on the ground. However, it turned into a season of struggle for both clubs, as City’s great escape culminated in them winning their last game of the season to finish a point clear of relegation with the Swans one place above them.

At around this time further improvements were made to the Vetch Field as the North Bank terrace opposite the Main Stand which had progressed over the years from a mound of earth and railway sleepers to a bank of concrete terracing with an area of steel support at the back now had a roof put on it, paid for by a supporters organisation. A couple of years later in 1960 floodlights were installed, first being used in a friendly match with Scottish club Hibernian.

When City next visited Swansea in January 1959 they were next to bottom in the league table and lost 3-1, winger Ron Smillie getting the goal, but again they managed to improve enough to avoid relegation by a single point. Although City went on to have a better season in 1959/60 they couldn’t prevent an opening day 2-1 defeat, Andy Graver scoring almost six years after his previous goal on the ground for City.

September 1960 saw Roy Chapman become the first player to score twice for City in one game at the Vetch Field but although the 2-1 win put the Imps in a season-high 11th place it was then all downhill to a bottom-placed finish and relegation from the Second Division after nine seasons.

The clubs did not meet again until the 1967/68 season after Swansea had suffered a rather slower decline than City to the basement division. Lincoln manager Ron Gray had seemingly put an end to several years of struggle with a good start to the season but by mid-March they were in danger of dropping into the re-election zone once again. However, the manager had recently acted to strengthen the side, bringing in midfielder Jim Smith, winger Gordon Hughes and striker Peter Kearns, and the latter two made their debuts in a 2-2 draw, the goals coming from Jim Grummett and left back George Peden. It was during this season that the ground’s attendance record of 32,796 was set for an FA Cup 4th Round tie against Arsenal.

In 1968/69 City put in a real promotion challenge in the first half of the season before beginning to slip, and a severe dent was put in any lingering hopes when they went down to their worst ever defeat on the ground losing 5-0 at the end of March. A creditable result was achieved the following season, Rod Fletcher scoring twice in a 2-2 draw as the Swans went on to win promotion under their new name of Swansea City.

However, after three seasons Swansea were back in Division Four again and good enough to win 3-0 in November 1973 as Graham Taylor was still in the process of building his team in his first full season as manager. That process was nearing completion a year later although Peter Graham’s goal couldn’t prevent a 2-1 defeat by a bottom-placed Swansea side in front of just 1,801, the lowest attendance City played in front of at the ground. However, City then embarked on a 16-match unbeaten run as Taylor’s golden period began.

The all-conquering championship side of 1975/76 were indebted to a late equaliser by John Ward to go away with a 2-2 draw, the other goal coming from right back Ian Branfoot. The lowest recorded attendance for a league match at the Vetch Field came at the end of that season when just 1,311 turned up for a match against Brentford.

With City promoted to Division Three their next visit to the Vetch Field was three seasons later with Swansea embarked on their four-year rise from the Fourth to First Divisions. Under Willie Bell the Imps were brushed aside 3-0 in the second game of a 1978/79 season which saw the two clubs head in opposite directions at the end of it. Over 17,000 were present to see what was Swansea’s first home game after promotion from Division Four and the debut of former Liverpool and England defender Tommy Smith.

Swansea’s rise through the divisions saw almost £800,000 spent on further ground improvements. In 1981 this involved the construction at the east end of a new stand with a capacity of around 2,500 seats above a small layer of terracing. However, due to the objections of residents in the street behind the new East Stand it could only be built to extend just over half the width of the pitch. It also supported a strange looking set of floodlights jutting out over the stand. It had originally been intended that the new stand should continue around the corner and along the side to replace the old wooden main stand of 1913 but this was never done due to financial problems. The Vetch Field had then reached its most developed state with only progressive closures and reductions in capacity ahead of it. The pitch itself was notable for being the smallest in the Football League.