THERE’S a bit of magic about the 24 feet of turf that stretches between the goalposts at a football ground - especially at the home supporters’ end.

That scuffed, muddied patch of ground has been the scene of so many triumphs - and, as like as not, so much heartbreak, too.

It was no different at Bootham Crescent. Generations of fans stood in the stands behind the goalmouth at what became the David Longhurst end, screaming on their heroes.

And some great matches there have been. There was that 1938 FA Cup tie against mighty Huddersfield Town in which City held the First Division giants to a 0-0 draw before losing the replay. That game saw Bootham Crescent’s record-ever official attendance of 28,123 , with spectators spilling over barriers and lining the touchlines.

There were later FA Cup triumphs, too - glorious victories against Spurs in 1955 (3-1) and Arsenal in 1985 (1-0) among them. But for the dedicated fans who have followed City through thick and thin, every goal scored at Bootham Crescent has mattered - even the solitary goal scored during City’s 1-0 victory over Guiseley in the National League North in December.

Small wonder then that, for many years past, the most dedicated City fans of all have requested that, when they pass on, their ashes should be buried beneath the turf in and around that goalmouth.

They and their families would no doubt have thought that that hallowed ground would be their final resting place. But things move on. City will start their next season in the new Community Stadium. And Bootham Crescent is to be redeveloped by Persimmon.

That’s why, last week, an extraordinary dig took place at the Bootham Crescent ground.

York Press:

The search for fans' ashes at Bootham Crescent last week. Picture: Tony Cole - 

Archaeologists, with the help of volunteers, were looking not for Roman or Viking remains - but for the ashes of fans interred there.

It was a search that had been co-ordinated by York City itself. “These are our fans,” said the club’s stadium development director Ian McAndrew. “They were part of the York City family. When these ashes or caskets were put in the ground, the expectation would have been that they were there forever. But these fans still belong to Bootham Crescent - or rather, Bootham Crescent still belongs to them.”

The reason the club is so determined to find the ashes is so they can can be re-interred - provided relatives agree - in a permanent memorial garden and legacy area that will remain on the site of the ground once it has been redeveloped.

There were hugely emotional scenes last week as the search was carried out - many of the volunteers who had responded to a call for help were relatives of those buried there.

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'They're our fans': Ian McAndrew at Bootham Crescent

Families have, quite naturally, asked for their privacy to be respected - so we won’t name any names here. But archaeologist Jason Wood, who led the digs last week, experienced the intensity for himself.

There was one particular moment when the sister of a fan whose ashes were buried beneath the home goalmouth was with him when they found the remains, Jason said. “It was an emotional moment.”

Finding the remains of fans buried beneath the ground hasn’t been easy. There are no written records - so the club has relied on relatives coming forward, often with photographs or descriptions of the location.

Appeals were put out and so far, Ian McAndrew says, relatives of 14 fans whose ashes were laid to rest at Bootham Crescent have come forward. Last week’s digs located six sets of ashes, with one other possible. But that still leaves several more to be found. Mr McAndrew is also determined to put out more calls for relatives, in case anyone has been missed.

Relocating the remains won’t be straightforward even once they have been found and identified. Before they can be moved, a licence will need to be granted from the Ministry of Justice, Jason Wood said. And the wishes of relatives will also have to be respected - not all will necessarily want their loved ones re-interred in the memorial garden. So there’s a long way still to go before those fans can find their final resting place...

  • If you’re a relative of someone whose ashes were buried at Bootham Crescent, you can contact the club at

A ground steeped in history

Last week’s digs were linked to a wider project, led by Historic England, to investigate just what a football ground means to its fans and to the community.

It’s obvious that grounds like Bootham Crescent are steeped in history. But it is more than that - they are the physical embodiments of fans’ passions, of their hopes and fears, their triumphs and despairs.

“Football is about much more than just 90 minutes on match day,” says York City historian Paul Bowser. “There’s a whole range of human emotions around that ground.”

A historic ground like Bootham Crescent - home to York City since 1932 - also becomes a vital, almost living part of the city in which it stands, says archaeologist Neil Redfern of the York-based Council for British Archaeology.

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Fans crowded up to the touchline for the 1938 FA Cup tie against Huddersfield Town

He’s experienced that himself. He used to live in Bootham - and match days were always special. “You would hear the cheering, and the boos and groans, coming from the ground. I will miss that sound.”

For the last couple of years, Historic England has been recording memories of the ground - working with the club and talking to fans to understand just what it is that has made Bootham Crescent so special.

“Despite now playing in the sixth tier of English football, the club retains an extraordinarily loyal and impressively resilient fan base,” Jason Wood writes in an article about the Bootham Crescent project written for British Archaeology magazine. “This extends to a deep affection for their stadium.”

The hope is that lessons learned from the redevelopment of Bootham Crescent will help shape the way other football stadia are redeveloped. But, importantly for City fans, what English Heritage has learned will also feed into the Bootham Crescent ‘legacy area’ that will remain once the site has been developed.

Because archaeologists found other things, as well as the ashes of fans.

They learned that, since 1932, the pitch has been shortened - and even moved, slightly. They found evidence of three different sets of goalposts in different locations. “The goalposts have quite literally been moved - three times!” jokes Paul Bowser.

They found the site of the ‘five minute flagpole’ where, in the day before everyone had watches, a flag would be lowered to signal the game had five minutes to go. And they also learned about the tunnel which was once used for home and away fans to change ends at half time - and which, during the Second World War, was used as an air raid shelter.

All of this will help to shape the legacy area. The plans are for a section of the Popular Stand to be kept - including the tunnel. A new flagpole will be put up close to the site of the original ‘five minute’ flagpole. The ground’s old centre circle, meanwhile, will form the middle of a public open space, flanked by the memorial garden.

Leaving Bootham Crescent has been hugely emotional for fans, admits Ian McAndrew. “It has been a great old stadium for nearly 90 years.” But York City will maintain the legacy area for future generations, he said. “And it will reflect Bootham Crescent’s history.”

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Bootham Crescent - 'Home of the Minstermen since 1932'