THROUGHOUT a long, wet Monday, the Bootham Crescent turf resolutely failed to give up any sign of the ashes of lifelong York City fan John Wood.

Volunteers had returned to the ground last week for a second dig to search for the ashes of fans who had been interred there, following a first dig in June.

They had some success in the goalmouth at the Longhurst Stand end where, despite the wet weather, they had managed to identify three more sets of ashes.

But John Wood’s ashes hadn’t been interred beneath the goalmouth.

During his final years, too ill with cancer to be able to stand, John - who had been following the club since 1964 - had had a season ticket for a seat in the Popular Stand.

When he died of cancer in 1998 aged just 52, it seemed only natural to have his ashes interred on the touchline there, his son Paul said.

The problem was, neither Paul nor his brother Jim could remember exactly where.

With no records marking the locations where fans’ ashes had been interred, it was a question of trying to remember, and going with their best guess.

Paul, who lives in Acomb with his wife and two children, admitted that he actually felt a bit guilty when he kept urging the team of volunteers, led by archaeologist Jason Wood (no relation) to ‘try a bit further’.

“It was taking up a lot of their time!” he said.

York Press:

Flashback: York City fan John Wood, left, with his son Paul as a young boy (centre), meeting City's then assistant manager Viv Busby

He almost gave up hope when nothing was found on the Monday. The next day he had to go back to work as a call-out engineer. And late that day he got a call from Jason Wood. “He said ‘you’re not going to believe this!’” Paul said.

His dad’s ashes had been found further along the touchline, near the centre circle, late in the day - the last day of the dig. “I could have collapsed!” Paul said “It was such a shock!”

But a good shock.

Paul says the hope is that his dad’s ashes will now be interred in the legacy area/ memorial ground that is to be created near the site of the Popular Stand where his dad used to watch his team.

He’s hoping there will be some kind of ceremony when they legacy area is finished. “That will be nice,” he said. “And it (the legacy area) will be somewhere to go.”

He is full of praise for the football club, which has refused to give up on the search for the fans’ ashes.

“They have been brilliant!” he said. “They have been so supportive of relatives.”

The club’s stadium director Ian McAndrew, who has coordinated the search, always says that the fans interred at the ground were ‘part of the York City family’.

York Press:

Ian McAndrew at the entrance to the Popular Stand last week

Last week’s dig was the second of two digs organised by the club and led by Jason Wood to search for fans’ ashes.

A dig in June uncovered several sets of remains. But the club knew there were still more to find.

Now, following the discoveries last week, 11 sets of ashes have been recovered in all.

Mr McAndrew was at Bootham Crescent for both days of last week’s dig.

“This place was part of their lives,” he said, standing in the shelter of the Main Stand as the rain spitted down.

“These people were interred here - and their relatives didn’t expect them to ever have to be moved.

“So it’s really important that we do what we can.”

Finding the ashes hasn’t been easy, though. It has, in the words of Jason Wood, been like searching for a needle in the proverbial haystack.

York Press:

Archaeologist Jason Wood indicates the discoloured area that reveals the presence of interred ashes at Bootham Crescent

Without records showing where fans were interred, he and his team relied entirely on the memory of relatives.

Things were made even more difficult by the fact that most fans weren’t even interred in a casket (as John Wood was). More often, the ashes were simply placed in a small hole dug beneath the turf.

So, after using excavators to peel back the turf in areas where they believed fans remains to be - the David Longhurst end goalmouth, and the touchline next to the Main Stand and the Popular Stand - Jason and his team had to resort to sifting through the uncovered earth and gradually stripping back the layers of soil to look for the telltale evidence of an interment - disturbed ground and the paler colour of the ashes.

It’s remarkable that they found as many as they have.

Where the families agree, those ashes will all ultimately be reinterred in the legacy area that will be developed near the site of the Popular Stand.

That is only appropriate, Jason said. “This, for many people, was their second home,” he said.

There will be no further digs. The nights are drawing in, the weather is getting wetter, and colder, and darker. And, all being well, Persimmon will move in early next year to begin work on redeveloping the ground.

Before that happens, Ian McAndrew is hoping it may be possible to open up the old stadium one last time for fans to come and have a last look around.

“That would be an opportunity to say goodbye properly,” he said.

After that - well, once it is finished, the new legacy area will stand as a memorial to all the fans who had their ashes interred beneath the hallowed Bootham Crescent turf.

In his programme notes for the match against Blyth Spartans, Mr McAndrew revealed a few more details of what the legacy area will be like.

A section of the Popular Stand terracing about 20-25 feet long will be kept - along with a section the tunnel behind it which was once used to allow fans to swap ends at half time.

The memorial garden will be a green space around the retained terracing.

There are plans, too, to keep the old ground’s centre circle as part of an open public space - and the ‘five minute flagpole’ where, in the days before most fans had watches, a flag was raised to signal that the match had five minutes to go.

Fans, meanwhile, will have an important part to play in maintaining the legacy area, Mr McAndrew said.

“There will eventually be a requirement for a volunteer army of fans to manage and maintain this - and retain the memories of almost 90 years of the club playing at this historic stadium,” he said.