Monday 30 October 2023

Football by the Railway Lines as Dunbar United Aim to Go Full Steam Ahead in the Scottish Cup

I am trying to think if there are any football grounds closer to a railway line than Dunbar United’s New Countess Park? Okay, off the top of my head, both Hartlepool United and Raith Rovers have railway lines behind one of their stands, but unlike at Dunbar, the trains are not visible from the pitch.

Of course, there is also that ground in Slovakia, now famous thanks to videos on social media, where a one-track train line with occasional steam train runs in front of a seated stand set into the hillside. But in the UK the best alternative I can come up with from my knowledge and experience is Birtley Town. 

At Birtley whose ground, like Dunbar’s, sits alongside the East Coast Mainline, trains are also fully visible behind one side of the pitch. Unfortunately, when I visited the Northern League Division One side last season there were engineering works on that part of the line with no trains passing on that particular afternoon. No such problems at Dunbar when I visit, however.

New Countess Park must surely be a trainspotters paradise as sitting next to the main east coast line between London and Edinburgh it offers a perfect view of all passing trains on what is one the busiest lines in the whole of the UK. If you also love semi-pro football then welcome to heaven my friend the main course is usually at 3pm every other Saturday with occasional midweek sittings.

Of course, New Countess Park and Dunbar United are not just some novelty item or something reserved only for football fans who love trains. The sixth tier Scottish side are a thriving club moving in an upward trajectory with their home ground, complete with a 200 seat grandstand and an extremely spacious clubhouse, more than befitting of a team at this level. 

Based in the quaint seaside fishing town of the same name that sits 30 miles east of Edinburgh, on the day of my visit Dunbar sit second top of the East of Scotland League Premier Division, having been promoted back at the first attempt last season. Not only that but they are preparing for a Scottish Cup second round tie with League Two side East Fife that very afternoon.

Founded in 1925, the club spent most of their history playing what in Scotland is known as junior football which is confusingly played by adults. Ran by the Scottish Junior FA and a kind of equivalent to non-league football in England, the club left junior football in 2018 and joined the East of Scotland Football League. That league traditionally was always one of only a few non-junior essentially senior leagues outside of the main four division SPFL, the others being the Highland League, South of Scotland League, and the more recently introduced Lowland League. 

Since then major restructuring has seen junior and senior football linked and somewhat mixed with full promotion and relegation and a fully fledged pyramid structure similar to that across the border. This has also seen many junior clubs become Scottish FA members and therefore eligible for the Scottish Cup each season including Dunbar.

According to their matchday programme, Dunbar first entered the Scottish Cup in the 2021-22 campaign. Each of those two cup appearances before this season have seen them reach the second round on both occasions but no further. Competing in a preliminary round this has seen two ties won before in 2001 losing to Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale who sat in the same division as them and last year to the University of Stirling who, at the time, sat two levels above them. Today I am here as they hope to go one better having already beaten Vale of Leithen and Edinburgh University, the latter actually one level higher than them in the pyramid. If they reach round three they will be joined by clubs from League One and the Championship with Premiership clubs entering in the fourth round.

I arrive in Dunbar about three hours before kick-off on the big day. The many puddles about suggest a plethora of rain having fallen in recent days so the fact that Dunbar United social media are assuring spectators the game is most definitely on is a huge testament to the hard work the club’s ground staff must have put into making sure the pitch is playable.

Turning up early gives me a chance to walk around the town which, in my opinion, has an almost Nordic feel to it. Some of the shops on the main high street briefly entertain me before I find myself wandering past the fishing boats of the harbour and admiring the castle ruins perched to one side above them - Dunbar Castle was apparently once one of the strongest fortresses in Scotland much like the town’s football stadium has been a fortress for its resident club so far this season.

Having seen the delights of the town I head off to the football ground which is about a ten minute walk from the train station, if that, with the station itself being barely a few minutes walk from the top end of the high street. 

I appear outside the ground at 1:50 only to be told by the man at the turnstile that he’s not allowed to let anybody in until 2pm although he does sell me a £2.50 programme to read whilst I wait. The glossy programme has limited content but the text that it does have is nonetheless informative and it is a more than acceptable offering for a club like Dunbar if a little pricey compared to similar efforts elsewhere. 

A group of East Fife supporters soon join me and they are the first I spot from what is a healthy away contingent. That away following includes a small group of young lads that have an impressive looking rather loud drum with them which is more than can be said for home fans whose own equipment is rather poor. All the small group of Dunbar ‘ultras’, if you can call them that, have to reply with is a battered upside down bucket covered in gaffa tape and a couple of pipes of some sort to bang it with. This makes a rather tame sound in comparison. Maybe I should have started a whip round to get them a proper instrument?

Aside from the lone seated stand there are various benches situated around the pitch for spectators to sit on. The clubhouse bar, which judging by the rugby pictures adorning the walls is shared with the rugby club whose pitch sits next door, can only be accessed by leaving the ground but is nevertheless worth a visit. You do not need to leave the ground, however, for food or soft drink refreshments whilst along from said refreshments, before you arrive at the seated stand, there is a stall selling club merchandise. 

Obviously, you cannot visit Scotland without tasting some of its rather interesting cuisine and having experienced my first macaroni pie several years earlier I decide to see how Dunbar’s version stands up and as far as these things go I would say it is rather decent. I do not know what the steak pies are like but the fact that I hear several people throughout the first half complain that they have sold out suggests they might have been worth a try.

The match itself kicks off with the constant din of the aforementioned drummers only interrupted by the passing trains of which there are numerous. The standard of play is a little underwhelming but the game is nonetheless enjoyable to watch particularly as the spectacle progresses. The hosts find themselves 1-0 up at the break thanks to a penalty right on half time. This brings plenty of noise from the 794 strong crowd albeit those around me are fairly silent as I seem to be standing amongst the East Fife supporters.

In the second-half more trains pass and the drummers don’t stop (not as loud as the Dortmund drummer sat in the away end above me at Newcastle several nights earlier, mind) whilst East Fife begin to get desperate for an equaliser but Dunbar soak up the pressure. Dunbar then have several late chances of their own albeit some of them rather poor with one break forward looking like it could prove to be deadly only for the player to fall over the ball. They do force a few corners, however, and although they don’t score they still have that 1-0 lead which proves invaluable and the match ends in a historic victory for the hosts who march on to the third round for the very first time. 

More trains whizz by and eventually the cheers and applause die down and I head out of the ground. Back to the station and back home for me. 

There is a charming little pub next to the station if you ever have a bit of a wait for your train and the signer playing acoustic guitar as I walk past provides a lively atmosphere for any supporter who might want to continue their celebrations. There are several more pubs in the town centre as well as the stadium clubhouse, of course, and they won’t be short of locals wanting to celebrate with a pint or two this evening. But the fans of Dunbar United have every reason to celebrate! 

I end my day in less euphoric circumstances, however, on an overcrowded train trying, and at times failing, to get a signal so I can listen to commentary of my beloved Newcastle United away at Wolves.

I want to, however, end this piece with something more appropriate for the jovial day I have just had than poor radio reception and a busy railway network so I will leave you with the following. Upon leaving the ground I came across a part open window from which inside was the home dressing room. Stood outside I managed to hear the players in full party mode belting out I’m Feeling It (In the Air) a popular hit sung in recent times by supporters of Glasgow Rangers when they win. The players were clearly ecstatic, much like the club’s supporters, and isn’t it wonderful to see how much football means even at this low level? Football is about far more than just prima donna millionaires and if you want to experience that in its truest form then come to Dunbar - and don’t forget about all those trains many many trains!

Friday 11 August 2023

The Death of a King and the 40,000 Who Turned Up to Watch Gateshead FC

At 11:15am on the morning of 6 February 1952 and the day of Gateshead FC’s fourth round FA cup tie with West Bromwich Albion, the BBC announced that the King had died. “It is with the greatest sorrow that we make the following announcement..." were the words listeners heard when John Snagge told the nation that his majesty had passed away. 

That evening a club record 39,287 spectators turned out to watch the Tynesiders in a match that had been moved two miles across the river Tyne to Newcastle United’s St James’ Park home. The whole stadium stood in silence before kick-off to mourn the death of their monarch. 

At 7:30am that morning King George VI had been found dead in his bed at Sandringham House in Norfolk having died in the night from a coronary thrombosis at the age of 56. After hearing the news, his daughter Elizabeth who was touring Kenya headed straight back to London now Queen Elizabeth II.

If you asked many today which current non-league sides had previously packed out Newcastle’s St James’ Park for FA Cup home ties, of course, they would most probably tell you about the famous Blyth Spartans of 1978 but would likely not be aware of anyone else. But actually, Gateshead FC did it first! The almost 40,000 in attendance that day was almost double the club’s previous home record in 1937 and roughly six times higher than that season’s league average of 6,114. If compared to the modern day, however, then the gap is even wider with last season's home average of 1,218 roughly 22 times lower than the attendance at St James’ Park that day.

Beside me, as I type, is a copy of the Gateshead FC matchday programme from their recent pre-season match at home to Newcastle United. If I open it on the first page inside I will see at the bottom a list of attendance records for the club at both their current Gateshead International Stadium home and the now long gone Redheugh Park. But the St James’ affair of 1952 is conspicuous in its absence. The fact that the match was actually played away from their usual home at what some might call a neutral venue may have something to do with this. But the reality is Gateshead were the designated home side and the visitors had travelled roughly 200 miles to be there whereas Gateshead just two. This is seemingly the Gateshead home game that no one remembers even though it was, in attendance at least, by far the biggest of them all - and intertwined with a death that brought a nation into mourning it is definitely a story worth telling.

For the fourth round of the 1951-52 FA Cup, Third Division North side Gateshead had, in West Bromwich Albion, been drawn at home to strong First Division opposition who had comfortably dispatched of fellow top-flight side Bolton Wanderers 4-0 at home in the previous round. Obviously, despite home advantage, the Tynesiders, sitting two divisions lower, were always going to be rated as clear underdogs in this fixture.

Gateshead had met the same opposition in the FA Cup just three years earlier when West Brom travelled to the Tynesiders’ Redheugh Park home for a third round tie that they would ultimately win 3-1 after extra-time in front of over 17,000 spectators (in the early post-war years, extra-time was often played in the first match before any potential replay to save on costs but this was no longer the case by the 1951-52 season). Despite the defeat the following day’s Sunday Sun said “No praise can be too high for Gateshead.” (The pair would also meet again in the third round in 2015 but West Brom, who were this time the home side, won 7-0 so the less said about that the better)

That 1949 tie was pretty much a sell-out but potentially might have attracted an even bigger crowd if Gateshead had agreed to the opposition’s suggestion of moving the tie to the much larger St James’ Park home of their First Division neighbours Newcastle United. The fact that gate receipts were split in the cup may have been behind the Baggies idea but Gateshead declined the proposition preferring the home comforts of their own stadium. Three years later, however, and things were different.

Middlesbrough were the only one of the North East’s big three to have a scheduled home fixture the weekend of the 1952 fourth round ties as Newcastle were playing away from home and Sunderland were already out the cup. With that in mind, Gateshead obviously thought they had an excellent chance to draw a bumper crowd for what was a huge cup tie against top-flight opposition. To attract the huge crowd they so desired a bigger venue was something the club were keen to find. The great news, however, was that because their near neighbours Newcastle United were playing away it meant that United’s 60,000 capacity St James’ Park home was readily available so long as all concerned parties could come to an agreement. 

Gateshead were keen that the tie not be made all-ticket and despite initial reservations on that front West Brom agreed to switch the tie to Newcastle with the Football Association more than happy to ratify the decision and Newcastle themselves clearly having no issue. It was all relatively straightforward and in the words of Gateshead’s Chairman-manager Mr. W. R. “Bill” Tulip: “The Football Association certainly acted quickly and helpfully,” The stage was set.

Gateshead’s cup campaign that season had started in the first round proper with a replay victory at fellow Third Division North side Stockport County before a 2-0 home win against non-league Guildford City in round two. The win over Guildford was a far easier passage to the third round than that of Tranmere Rovers who took three replays to eventually dispatch Gateshead’s modern-day arch rivals Blyth Spartans 5-1. Still, Gateshead came close to matching them in the third round but their eventual 2-1 win over Ipswich Town of the Third Division South came in what was only the second replay of the tie and not the third.

The Gateshead squad of that 1951-52 season were an average Third Division North side devoid of any star names. As a Football League side, perhaps of greater status than the modern-day club but still very much small fry. The side included stalwarts such as the Callender brothers Jack and Tom who between them would make over 900 appearances for the club. George Wilbert, meanwhile, was a genuine one-club man with Hebburn born John Ingham another mainstay who would score 119 goals in 468 league and cup appearances for the Heed. On the other hand, Scottish inside forward Willie Buchan had ended up at Gateshead after failing to recapture the pre-war form that had seen him win a Scottish league championship with Celtic and earn a big-money move to England and First Division side Blackpool. Gateshead’s league campaign would end with the club off the pace in fifth place but the season would be remembered for their colossal St James’ Park cup tie.

The big match was originally scheduled for Saturday 2 February but the weather would put pay to that with the ground sadly covered in ice. “The pitch is in a very bad state” Bill Tulip had said a couple of days beforehand and he was not wrong. He’d warned of a postponement and he was unfortunately proved right so the match would have to be played at a later date.

The freezing temperatures mattered little to the stadium's usual occupants, however, and the roughly 5,000 supporters who travelled down to London to watch Newcastle United face Tottenham Hotspur, in what was also a fourth round tie, saw Chilean star George Robeldo score twice as the Magpies won 3-0. For those who stayed at home, though, there was no such luck and they would have to wait until the following Wednesday to see a fourth round tie of their own - this one featuring United’s little brother from across the Tyne. 

The postponement was even more harsh on the travelling support who’d made the long trip up from the West Midlands and the Shields Evening News described their plight: “During the morning, groups of rather depressed West Bromwich supporters could be seen complete with team colours walking aimlessly around the city.”

Unexpectedly, the postponement and the subsequent battle to get the pitch playable for the replay was detailed last year by TV personality and West Brom supporter Andrian Chiles in a Guardian newspaper column. This came after a visit to a friend's house saw him notice an old black and white photograph of his friend’s late mother which he found out to be, unbelievably, taken on the terraces of St James’ Park during the 1952 Gateshead cup tie.

Having begun to feel disconnected from his club this photograph apparently helped remind him why he loved his team so much but of real interest are the events that lead up to the hastily rearranged tie of which he wrote:

At some stage Betty and her posse helped clear the pitch to get the game on. The photo, we think, is from a newspaper article praising their efforts. Newcastle was a long way from West Bromwich by charabanc in 1952 so, in gratitude for their efforts, Betty, her husband and presumably many others were put up by locals until the game could be played on Wednesday, 6 February.

Chiles also noted the other aforementioned events that, aside from any further bad weather, could have put paid to the rearranged fixture also. Indeed, unlike this cup tie many other events were actually cancelled because of the King’s death with play in the India v England test match in Madras being suspended for the day being just one example.

“A man with a face of sorrow entered the room. Princess Elizabeth and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh gally turned to greet him. Their laughter stopped abruptly,” that was how the Daily Mirror described the moment the new Queen found out her father was dead.

The sorrow of that man who broke the news to the new Queen and her husband extended to those all around the commonwealth including the fans who turned up at St James’ Park that night. How those at the match marked their respect was detailed in the following days Birmingham Gazette: “The Gateshead and West Bromwich Albion football teams with referee, linesmen and officials stand in silent tribute to the King before beginning their cup tie,” was the caption to the St James’ Park photograph that appeared in the paper. The paper noted that there were two minutes silence before kick-off followed by “three verses of ‘Abide with Me’.” The players also wore black armbands.

Obviously, just like the Mirror, all the newspapers on the day after the tie were evidently preoccupied with the death of a King and the ascent of a new Queen with this the case even in the local media where coverage actually extended far beyond just tributes at the football. Yes, there was only limited coverage of the match and yes in some editions it focused more on the St James’ response to the King’s death but, nonetheless, all local publications did, at least, seem to find some space to actually mention events on the pitch. Unfortunately, on the day that King George’s sixteen-year reign came to a sad end, those events at St James’ Park culminated in a 2-0 defeat for the hosts.

The main headline on the front page of the local Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette read “The Queen’s Air-Liner Will Be Here Today” and its other front page headlines included “World Mourns King’s Death.” Inside, meanwhile, for the slender coverage of the Gateshead match they opted for a seemingly controversial headline in: “Gateshead Refereed Out of Cup?”

The paper claimed one of West Brom’s goals would have been given offside by “3 out of 4 referees” and insisted Gateshead should have been awarded a penalty after a blatant handball. The latter was something Newcastle’s Evening Chronicle agreed with whilst the former they thought was debatable. The referee later admitted goalscorer Ronnie Allen was in an offside position but thought he “was not interfering with play as the ball went to him off a defender.” Meanwhile, the honest assessment of that handball incident from West Brom favouring media in the form of the Birmingham Post read: “[Joe] Kennedy handled the ball above his head near the penalty spot and got away with it.” 

But aside from the referee, it was for Gateshead a case of missed opportunities against a side who the aforementioned Sunderland newspaper claimed for the first 45 minutes at least “were a poor advertisement for First Division Football.” Albeit this even though the visitors did find themselves 1-0 up at the break. If the same paper is believed then after the break, however, there was seemingly only one team in it despite the fact they did only manage one more goal. On the other hand, “Gateshead’s Spirit Won New Admirers” was the headline the Evening Chronicle had decided to go with so there were clearly mixed feelings in the local North East media about the performances of both sides. 

However, unsurprisingly, the Birmingham Post felt West Brom “outplayed and outstayed Gateshead” on what they described as a “wet and slippery” surface. If Gateshead did have their moments then a failure to take advantage of them was also summed up by the Post who claimed: “Nothing went right for Gateshead in front of goal.” There was limited praise for the Gateshead front line across the different papers, though, with, in particular, John Ingham’s name mentioned. But the reality was that in front of goal, the Heed were not good enough.

As for the goals themselves, both were described to the Sunderland readers as “scrappy”, The first had caused the offside controversy and its scorer was also on hand to score the second. Ronnie Allen was in his second season with West Brom. He would go on to make over 400 appearances for the Baggies and gain 5 caps for England before a managerial career that would take him as far afield as Greece and Saudi Arabia. His first strike came on 31 minutes when he drove the ball home from 8 yards out whilst his second came 9 minutes after the break and was described by the Birmingham Post as follows: “[Goalkeeper Bob] Gray fell on a shot sent in by [Reg] Ryan but [Gateshead’s Harold] Wyles behind him, kicked the ball from under the goalkeeper's body and against Allen, from whom it rebounded into the net."

Gateshead were out of the cup but they had drawn their biggest-ever crowd and even a Redheugh Park quarter-final tie against eventual runners-up Bolton Wanderers which Gateshead lost 1-0 the following season could not match that - less than half that previous season’s St. James’ Park crowd were in attendance to see a Heed side who had progressed further in the cup than ever before (or since). I believe already out of the cup Newcastle had a home league match that day. But who knows, if the Magpies had have been playing away then maybe Gateshead could have brought out the masses once again? In that instance, the £4,500 worth of gate receipts from a year earlier, about £165,000 in today’s money, would have surely been even greater! 

…and to think the Heed were voted out of the Football League just six years later! The new Queen would have better luck though. Her reign lasted 70 years, 214 days before her death last year making her the world's second longest-serving monarch of all time.

This article was produced with the help of the British Newspaper Archive

Gateshead Football Club Attendance Records:

Record attendance at Redheugh Park: 

20,756 v Lincoln City, Third Division North, 25 September 1937

Record attendance at Gateshead International Stadium: 

11,750 v Newcastle United, pre-season friendly, 7 August 1995

Record attendance for a competitive fixture at Gateshead International Stadium: 

8,144 v Grimsby Town, Conference play-off semi-final second leg, 4 May 2014

Record attendance for a league fixture at Gateshead International Stadium: 

4,129 v Hereford, National League North, 7 May 2022

Record attendance for a home fixture moved to another venue: 

39,287 v West Bromwich Albion (played at St James’ Park, Newcastle), FA Cup fourth round, 6 February 1952

Friday 28 April 2023

The Prince Bishops of Football Trying to Recapture the Glories of Days Gone By

You can kind of sense as soon as you arrive that this club has a rather grand history and is bigger than its current status belies. The stadium, relatively new, is larger than most at this level and gives the impression of a club that expects to be at a higher level than step 5 of the non-league pyramid. Meanwhile, their illustrious past is more than emphasised when you enter the main clubhouse and see all the photographs and paintings adorning walls that showcase a golden age long gone. This is Bishop Auckland Football Club, they are historically one of the non-league greats and it seems they are not afraid to remind you.

It is a big day for the Bishops today. Win and they leapfrog their opponents Ashington into second place in the EBAC Northern League Division One table to claim a promotion/relegation play-off spot against a team from the level above. Draw or lose and Ashington stay second and secure that play-off spot.

Sat amongst the former coalfields of County Durham, the town of Bishop Auckland sits between the city of Durham to the north and Darlington further south. At first glance, it might seem that there is not a lot going for this former mining town but it does have a supposedly rather splendid castle which is at least more than most ex-coal towns in this part of the world. For me, Auckland Castle, former home of the Prince Bishops of Durham, will have to be filed under maybe next time, however. 

Research for this piece informs me that the reopening of the castle in 2019 was predicted by The Guardian to transform the community into a "leading tourist destination”. This is not exactly evident, however, when completely bypassing the castle and heading straight for the football club’s Heritage Park home. Probably even more so having arrived on what is a rather gloomy day with patches of rain having moved around the region all morning. Having said that there are a few ‘tourists’ down from Ashington.

I am here to watch a home team desperate to move back up in the world and shake off their lowly status. Bishops have been stuck in the Northern League for over 15 years now after they ended back there thanks to successive relegations in 2005 and 2006. Lying in the highest of the league’s two divisions this puts them 8 levels below the Premier League. 

The club have actually spent most of their history in the Northern League, the second oldest league in the world. Many of those seasons, however, came during the days of amateur football when, along with the Isthmian League, it was considered one of the two best amateur leagues in the country. Not only that but Bishop Auckland were the league’s star side winning the FA Amateur Cup a record ten times during this era as well as a plethora of league titles, 19 in total. 

The distinction between amateur and professional status was abolished by the FA in 1974, however, and in the (semi) professional game the Northern League would for varying reasons eventually find itself a feeder league to the confusingly similarly named Northern Premier League and in a position much lower than its history perhaps merited. The same can obviously be said too for Bishop Auckland in the 21st century stuck in what is now sadly the nether regions of non-league football and a million miles away from the limelight they once courted and frequented.

Bishops first won the Amateur Cup in 1896 and last won it in 1957. In 1896 they defeated Royal Artillery (Portsmouth) who would later become Portsmouth FC, and in 1957 would defeat another future league side in Wycombe Wanderers. This was the club's fourth straight Wembley appearance and third straight win. 

Many born after this period might not realise how big a deal the Amateur Cup in its heyday was but the first of those four finals shows just how massive the competition was. Bishops may have lost in 1954 but the epic three game affair that was played out in front of roughly 200,000 spectators would even in defeat surely become a cherished part of any club's history. So fascinated was I by the story of the 1954 FA Amateur Cup final that a couple of years back using both the British newspaper archive and British Pathé news footage I decided to piece together the full story in detail and write about it here.

In brief, Bishops faced County Durham rivals Crook Town in the 1954 final and huge numbers of busloads travelling down to the capital from the North East saw some 100,000 spectators present at Wembley Stadium to witness a 2-2 draw after extra-time which, in the days before penalty shoot-outs, meant a replay. The following Monday, a bank holiday, saw the pair meet again this time at St James’ Park, Newcastle in front of 60,000 but the outcome was exactly the same so after a second 2-2 draw a third match was needed. Three days later, despite a 6pm kick-off many were able to get out of work early and head for Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park ground to see Crook eventually come out on top with a 1-0 win in front of 40,000 fans. Thankfully someone had won that third game because it had been decided that in the event of another draw, the trophy would be shared.

The above really does sum up just how popular amateur football once was. But if you are still not convinced then how about this? Such was the status of amateur football’s star side that a Bishop Auckland Subbuteo set would eventually become available for fans of the celebrated tabletop football game.

Back in the modern day and the attendance of 894 for my Bishop Auckland visit is a far cry from six-figure crowds at Wembley or even the 16,319 they once packed into their previous home when Coventry City came to town for a second round FA Cup tie at the old three-sided Kingsway ground Bishops used to share with a local cricket club. It is still, however, over 250 more than the season's previous best of 629 for the visit of near neighbours West Auckland Town that came back in November.

One thing I notice shortly after entering the stadium is a plaque commemorating the victims of the 1958 Munich air disaster. There is more on this thanks information adorning the walls of the clubhouse with the significance being that the club actually helped Manchester United out after those sad events by loaning them three players to help them complete the season. So great was the standard of amateur football in those days that its star players were almost on par with that of the top professionals. In fact, due to illicit backhanders and other dubious forms of effective payment many of these so called amateurs effectively earned more than some of the professionals who were stuck on a minimum wage that only ever got as high as £20 a week before it was scrapped in 1961 - but that’s another story!

Opened in 2012 after several years of groundsharing with other Northern League sides, Heritage Park, complete with a proper turnstile, a rarity at this level, has a modern main stand in the centre along one side of the pitch with a clubhouse attached to the back of it. There is a wooden structure that houses a second bar in one corner of the ground and catering facilities housed along from it. One end of the stadium has substantial covered terracing, while the other has temporary uncovered seating. 

I decide to stand at the opposite side of the pitch to the main stand where there is a neat grassy bank. Behind this side of the stadium is a large Sainsbury’s supermarket whilst further round behind the goal and that temporary seating the supermarket’s petrol station can easily be spotted. Past the supermarket is a plethora of various retail buildings all within a short walk from the stadium. The stadium itself, however, is a good half hour walk from the centre of town and the town’s railway station.

There is a very healthy contingent of away fans present who have travelled down from Northumberland. They come complete with a drummer and are in full voice for much of the game. Another fallen giant, Ashington were founder members of the Third Division North in 1921 but failed a 1928 re-election bid and have remained outside the Football League ever since. Ashington were not so long ago managed by former England cricket star Steve Harmison who is Ashington born and bred whilst his brother Ben, also an ex-professional cricketer, is the current first team captain and on the pitch here at Heritage Park. 

Harmison’s side are on the wrong end of a dubious decision midway through the first-half, however, when a controversially awarded penalty for the hosts is slotted home with even large numbers of home fans suggesting there was a dive. 

Bishops find themselves 1-0 up at the break

With the referee perhaps wanting to make up for that earlier potential error Ashington are themselves awarded a soft penalty in the second-half which they also duly convert. A draw is good enough for Ashington but the home side need a winner and continue to push forward as the second period rolls on. Try as they might, however, a second goal eludes them and the home support leave the stadium disappointed and facing another season of ninth tier football.

This is a modest existence for a team with such a grand history. But Bishop Auckland still hang on to the memories and no doubt dream of better days to come at their new-fashioned home. Whilst despite days of grandeur long gone they do, at least, positively more than survive. 

Tuesday 21 February 2023

The Nearly Men of '76

On Sunday Newcastle United face Manchester United in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley and it comes some 47 years after Newcastle’s only other appearance in the final of the competition otherwise known as the League Cup. On that February day in 1976 it was the other side from Manchester who were the opposition, however, and two years after defeat to Liverpool in the FA Cup final Newcastle were desperate for a first Wembley win since 1955. But although City were not of the same class as Liverpool they were still, nonetheless, a formidable side and seven places above the Magpies in the league table would they prove too much for the men in black and white?

Big Match Special -Pull-out starts on page 31 read the strapline on the front of local newspaper The Journal. But on that day of the final, you did not actually need to get past page one for mention of United’s big Wembley clash. Claims that talk of the flu in United the camp were a tactical ploy had been denounced by manager Gordon Lee and this was front page news. That front page also showed a picture of fans waiting to catch a late night train to the capital from Newcastle’s Central Station the night before. 100,000 spectators would be in attendance at Wembley including a huge contingent from Tyneside.

Whilst much of the rest of the country might have had other things on their mind, and, indeed, “Is She Pregnant?” wondered the Daily Mirror after Princess Anne reportedly went into hospital for a check-up, in Newcastle a certain football match was all anyone could talk about and the local front pages only echoed this.

That Newcastle United reached the 1976 League Cup final was somewhat ironic considering that, according to centre forward Alan Gowling years later, their manager considered cups ‘tin-pot trophies’. Gowling added that his boss was far more interested in the league campaigns and attempting to challenge for the First Division title.

Gordon Lee had taken charge of United in the summer before the 1975-76 season started and in his first season behind the wheel only managed what was for United a third successive 15th-placed finish in the First Division and instead has better luck in the cups. If the league was king you wouldn’t have guessed it!

That season United reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup but, of course, it was the League Cup where they would really make a name for themselves. 

In that competition reserved only for the 92 league clubs it nearly went wrong early on, however, when after demolishing Southport 6-0 in their first match United were then forced into a replay by Bristol Rovers - a side who would finish the season just above the Second Division drop zone. Rovers were eventually beaten though before a 3-1 away win at Queens Park Rangers put United in the quarter-finals where Notts County were dispensed of 1-0 at home. One slight scare along the way but no matter as United were into the semi-finals. 

Despite losing 1-0 away at Tottenham Hotspur in the first leg of their semi-final, United reached the final after a 3-1 win at home where 49,902 saw an early Gowling goal set them on their way to a 3-0 lead with a late Spurs effort not enough for the visitors. 

A trip to the smoke for a date at Wembley Stadium awaited United where, of course, Manchester City would be their opponents. A comfortable second leg 4-0 home win had seen the Citizens defeat Middlesbrough 4-1 in their semi-final having beaten city rivals Manchester United, also 4-0, several rounds earlier.

Even with flu having struck the camp in the lead-up to the final, United still managed to field the same line-up as they had done for their previous match, a 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers in an FA Cup fifth round second replay at Elland Road. David Craig who’d played in the first of those three fifth round games and their most recent league match, in which they’d lost 2-0 to Liverpool at Anfield, was in fact the only notable absentee.

Gowling was Lee’s preferred target man up front with star centre forward ‘Super Mac’ Malcolm MacDonald having mostly reverted to a wide role since the manager's arrival. Despite this, however, it was Super Mac who would finish the season overall top goalscorer for the club. At left back, Penshaw born Alan Kennedy would later go on to make a name for himself winning titles at Liverpool not to mention scoring the winning goal for them in a European Cup final. At right-back, also from the North East, Fishburn born Irving Natrass would go on to make over 300 appearances for the club before moving to Middlesbrough in 1979. Other players of note in the starting line-up at Wembley included Tommy Cassidy and Tommy Craig. Originally a right back but playing in midfield at the time, the ever-dependable Cassidy would appear in a black and white shirt some 239 times. Also playing in midfield, Glaswegian Tommy Craig, who’d signed from Sheffield Wednesday two years earlier, helped United on their way to the final by setting up Glenn Keeley for United’s second goal against Spurs in the second leg of the semi-finals.

Manchester City fielded an unchanged side from their last match, a 3–0 home league win against Everton. Colin Bell was absent injured, having suffered what would end up being a career-ending injury in the earlier Manchester derby tie, not that he yet knew it. Ex-Sunderland star Dave Watson had been an injury doubt due to a slipped disc but played from the start despite having not trained the week beforehand. 

Also on the field for Manchester City that day was Dennis Tueart who would be facing his hometown club having been born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and supported United as a child. However, the star striker had been signed two years earlier from, like Watson, United’s North East rivals Sunderland. Tueart would have a big impact in the final.

In and around Wembley Stadium fans had gathered from first thing on the morning of the final and the Geordie supporters in black and white were there in their droves to cheer on United, an invasion that Newcastle’s Evening Chronicle proudly celebrated the following Monday. “Who the hell are Newcastle playing? I don’t see any other supporters!” was one supposed quip outside the ground, or so the paper claimed.

By kick-off, the streets outside were empty, however. The famous old home of English football was at full capacity in time for the start and it didn't take those present long to see the ball in the net.  

In fact, it took just 11 minutes for the opening goal to be scored and it was Peter Barnes of Manchester City who claimed it. An Asa Hartford free-kick was hoisted into the box where it was headed across goal and past the heads of the United defence by Mike Doyle for 19-year-old Barnes to hook the ball home and give his side the lead. Could Peter emulate father Ken and help win a Wembley final for the Citizens? Barnes senior had starred in the City side that won the FA Cup final in 1956 - one year after Newcastle’s last Wembley triumph which came against none other than City themselves.

Newcastle had looked the better side up to that point with Super Mac forcing Joe Corrigan in the City goal into an important save but despite this, it was they who were now behind and it was suddenly City who were in the ascendency. 

As the half wore on those in sky blue looked more and more comfortable but when the game's next goal came it was actually Newcastle’s Alan Gowling who found the net. That equaliser came some 24 minutes after the opening goal. It was Cassidy onto the right foot of MacDonald and MacDonald hit the ball across goal for Gowling to slide in with a touch to knock it home. 

Those Newcastle fans who’d turned up in their masses were now jumping about widely waving their scarves and flags in delight as their side had drawn level in the tie.

Twice Dennis Tueart came close to putting Man City back in front before the break but his first effort was thwarted by the leg of Mick Maloney in the Newcastle goal whilst his second was a header that went over the bar. He’d have to wait until the second-half, but shortly after the break Tueart would make it third time lucky and do it in style.

Willie Donachie floated the ball to the head of Tommy Booth at the far post who in turn headed it across to Tueart who with his back to goal performed an audacious overhead kick that bounced beyond the ‘keeper into the bottom left corner of the net. It was a goal Tueart would later describe as the best of his career and one that the great Brian Moore of ITV described as “a really spectacular goal” during his commentary on the game for the television highlights - it was not until 1984 that the League Cup final was first televised live.

City then had further chances as did United. A Joe Royle header was saved whilst a beautiful chip of his caught out Maloney but was ruled offside. Then at the other Micky Burns fired wide for Newcastle before Gowling forced City ‘keeper Joe Corrigan into an excellent save. One last chance for those in sky blue saw a late Booth header touched over the bar before the full-time whistle ended the contest with Manchester City the victors by two goals to one. 

Newcastle had produced plenty of work rate but were perhaps at times a little cautious in possession and in the end it wasn’t to be. It would be runners-up medals only for those players in black and white.

It was yet more Wembley cup despair for Newcastle United coming, of course, just two years after their FA Cup final defeat at the hands of Liverpool. One man who featured in both finals for the Magpies probably felt it more than most and the headline on the back page of the following day’s Sunday Mirror read simply “Mac in Tears” in reference to forward Malcolm MacDonald. On a similar theme, The People went with “Cheers and Tears” for their back page.

Defeat may have hit Super Mac and some of the players hard but seemingly there was little in the way of disheartenment amongst the supporters who’d turned out to watch their heroes, however. Having, according to the following Monday’s Evening Chronicle, already “captured Wembley with pride and passion” those fans were supposedly still in a buoyant mood even after the despair of defeat. That same paper also reported that late into the evening after the game “In city’s West End chants of ‘Howay the Lads’ echoed from group to group”.

As well as describing the Toony Army faithful as still in good spirits the local press also seemed undismayed themselves and “Well Done the lads” were the sentiments exclaimed on the front page of the Chronicle whilst the back page headline read “We Are Not Downhearted”. They also looked forward to United’s upcoming FA Cup quarter-final tie with Derby County and the prospect of potentially returning to Wembley again at the end of the season. (United would sadly lose 4-2 to Derby)

United may have been courageous in defeat but there was definite room for improvement, however, and new signings were apparently the somewhat hurried answer from not just the Evening Chronicle but also morning rival The Journal. Amongst the hard luck story of the match, both newspapers also suggested that manager Lee might be keen to delve into the transfer market and bring in new faces with several potential names mentioned.

It would be 22 years before United next reached a Wembley cup final although the successive FA Cup final defeats in 1998 and 1999 did not heal any wounds. But finally back at Wembley again in 2023 will things be any different, who knows? Hopefully, however, as they return to the League Cup final for the first time since that City affair nearly five decades ago, the Geordie faithful can echo the spirit of 1976 and regardless of the outcome stay in full voice right across London well into the night!

Produced with the help of the British Newspaper Archive