Back in September I took my first trip to the remodeled Wanderers Ground and summed up my experience as a fan watching the AUS derby between Dalhousie and SMU.
Today, I was back for the Wanderers home opener, so I thought I’d revisit that list given how much work has been done on the stadium in the months since.
That’s actually the single biggest thing I noticed. It’s not just a few shipping containers. The whole place had a much more professional feel, but what I thought worked the best was the way Halifax’s new stadium retained its community feel. Because that’s what Wanderers’ Grounds has always been: part of the public common lands in the heart of the city.
It mattered, for me, that so much of the community I’ve met through local soccer was there pulling it all together on matchday. I’ve lived most of my life in small towns and there’s a unique feeling to a town event that comes off because people worked for it. The home opener felt like that, and that feeling is uniquely and crucially Haligonian. Everyone knows each other. It makes this stadium distinct.
At the same time, the crowd was raucous and packed, there were ceremonies and all manner of hoopla, and we finally had professional soccer on the pitch. There’s been a lot written this past week about the magic of the Canadian Premier League, and I admit I felt like a bit of an outsider, sitting and waiting in Halifax. A lot of it felt like marketing-speke. And while a lot of it is that, there is and was something undeniably special about what I saw today, something that felt like it was ours simply because so many people had made it theirs.
Thus it was that even the hoopla took on that Haligonian feel. Joel Plaskett’s “Nowhere With You” was played on repeat. The Stad Band showed up, as it is wont to do at things like this, and anyone who hasn’t seen them is missing out. The Harbour Hopper went by, and I resisted the urge to sabotage it.
It was a proper kitchen party.
In September, with Wanderers FC still coming together as a club, the events staff were overwhelmed when 2,000 people showed up to watch university soccer. There were delays at the gates and at the entrances to sections.
None of that happened today that I saw. Even the massive supporters march was admitted smoothly and everyone was in place for kick-off.
What I really liked was that the stadium and concourse retained that carnivalesque atmosphere I enjoyed during the AUS game. I’m not a believer that in order for it to be a proper football match, everyone has to be in their seats all the time. People milled a bit, but not so much as to take away from the excitement on the field.
The beer garden was less of a beer garden and more a set of pitch-level suites behind one end. I’m not sure how packed they were, but it still felt like the field was enclosed.
The sideline suites, too, which were near where I was in the press box, were louder than you might expect. It’s a steep incline above the benches, too–I was sitting almost directly above Bobby Smyrniotis and the Forge bench were hearing it from the box suites either side of my media table. As they should.
The players have an actual locker room now, which I’m sure they appreciate. There’s still a rustic feel–the converted shipping containers aren’t quite converted yet–but it’s mostly there from the outside and it feels far more like a stadium.
The main and supporter stands are still metal bleachers–that’s unlikely to change any time soon. It is what it is. The bleachers probably make the stadium louder and actually allow easier standing, which may be the more desirable option, at least in the east end “Kitchen”, and much of both stands stood for parts of the game.
I very much liked, too, how diverse the crowd was. Not just in ethnicity, but also age. This was most notable on the supporters march: hundreds of people, ranging from toddlers to retirees walked up Sackville St. waving flags, banging drums and chanting.
I’ve seen the odd comment that it wasn’t a particularly loud march. But you know what Canadian supporters culture is not? A bunch of boozed-up bros screaming obscenities at the top of their lungs. Instead, there were people with strollers. Large people. Small people. About as many women as men. Quiet people. Loud people. A couple of rainbow LGBTQ+ flags were being waved alongside Privateers 1882’s skull ‘n’ crossbones. The supporters, too, were a cross-section of the community.
And when it counted, when Luis Perea smashed home the winner, it was as loud as anywhere.
It’s still a porta-john bohemia out there, folks. Come prepared.
The food options were much improved from the AUS match, but still a tiny bit sparse, especially if you, say, have to ref tomorrow and want to eat something that’s not like 85% fat/salt. Alongside local favourites like Kettle Corn and Humble Pie were local favourites like Subway and Tim Hortons. This is Canada, eh? Gotta have our arena food.
Plus, Halifax is a student town.
At some point I’d like to see them finish up the backing on the main stand, too. Currently it’s tarps hanging off the aluminium framework, blowing in the wind. It’s kind of an eyesore from the concourse. One thing to note, though, is that the spring weather here has been dreadful–18 days of rain in April–which has delayed some of the final touches. Stuff like this should be tied down–literally and figuratively–by summer.
Parking is going to be an ongoing issue, and one the club has little to no control over. Any Haligonian will tell you parking downtown on a weekend is a nightmare thanks to narrow colonial streets, inexplicably delayed construction projects, and generally bizarre city planning. The home opener clashed with something going on at the nearby Spatz Theatre, which is bad luck, but we haven’t hit the summer tourist season yet, either, so expect it to get worse, not better. Fortunately, it’s not hard to walk to the stadium.
These are tiny things, though.
Credit where due
Props also to the Forge FC fans who made the trip–I was surprised by both their number and the amount of noise they generated. Wanderers Ground isn’t ideally configured for away fans, but they were nice enough not to wave too many flags in front of the people sitting behind them.
The pitch held up well, too, given the difficult weather this spring. It wasn’t as soft as it was last fall, which may be a good thing, and certainly the ball bounced a bit more. I still didn’t notice any bumps or wobbles and didn’t see any lumps come up, either. The grounds crew has done a wonderful job.
I want to give a shout-out, too, to Chris, the stadium announcer. Since the Halifax derby, he’s clearly spent all winter learning the sport: At half-time, with twin inflatable six-foot soccer balls bearing down on him: “I am in fear for my life.”
You and me both, Chris. You and me both.
There were really no production speedbumps at all, which is downright impressive for match day one in a city that’s never hosted a professional soccer game before. Credit where due to all the Wanderers staff and organizers.