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

Monday, 16 January 2023

Watching Football at the Bus Stop Arena

Along one side of the pitch, there are a series of bus shelters and where the bus timetables should be instead they’ve listed the team line-ups.

Kingsley Park is undoubtedly one of those non-league grounds that could easily be filed under ‘quirky’ and its assortment of old bus stops are certainly the real deal. One of them still has its old stop number printed on it and a sign telling you which number to call if you spot a fault. I assume that’s with the bus shelter though and not the referee!

Double-deckers may no longer call, but this assortment of bus shelters now housed at the home ground of Ryton and Crawcrook Albion have clearly been put to good use as a covered area for supporters to stand under when the weather makes a turn for the worse. Not only that but this mini bus station of sorts also provides a certain uniqueness to a venue that would certainly seem a little less imaginative without them.

Nowadays based in the Northumberland village of Crawcrook on the southern banks of the river Tyne about 9 miles west of the centre of Newcastle and currently known as Ryton and Crwacrook Albion, Ryton FC were founded in 1970 in the Village of the same name next door. The club currently ply their trade in Northern League Division Two at step 6 of the non-league pyramid. Truth be told, they are not a club of any real note even in North East non-league circles but the offbeat dwelling they call home certainly makes them an intriguing proposition for any groundhoppers visiting this rather splendid area of the North East.

Using public transport it takes about 45 minutes from Newcastle by bus to reach Kingsley Park. However, only a 30-minute walk from the ground is Wylam train station on the Newcastle to Carlisle line and for anyone leaving the car at home the beautiful village sat amongst a rolling hills countryside that you glimpse when alighting the train is all part of the charm of this part of the region. 

Albeit with still some artistry in parts, whereas Crawcrook and Ryton come a little closer to offering your atypical former pit village grit and dowdiness, Wylam offers an elegance very few of its coal mining counterparts can match. But with an almost step back in time feel about them Crawcrook and Ryton still offer much appeal to the visitor. To give more praise to Wylam though I can tell you from experience that it offers an excellent pub crawl with one establishment even offering authentic Thai cuisine to go alongside your pint of ale. Wylam is also the former home of its namesake brewery whose craft beers and real ales are well known throughout the wider region.

Back at the local football ground, Kingsley Park of course offers more than just a few old, albeit thought-provoking, bus shelters even if it is overall the basic affair you come to expect from such venues at this level. Other sheltered areas, indeed not as creative, include a small covered stand behind one of the goals which, although has a few plastic seats on the back row, mostly consists of benches. I guess the fact that the aforementioned stand looks a little ramshackle only adds to the charm, however. There is, of course, also a clubhouse and one which I must say is rather smart inside whilst the on-site ‘scran van’ serves the usual basic array of food you’d expect at a non-league ground of this nature at more than reasonable prices. We all know, however, that really it is all about those bus stops!

My recent sojourn to these parts saw Wearside based Washingon FC the visitors to Kingsley Park with officially 197 spectators present. That figure when read out over the tannoy, however, brought much bemusement to those underneath the bus shelters with many, me included, adamant there could be no more than half that number in attendance.

Albeit not my forte I did not see any pin badges on offer but the other must have for many a groundhopper was definitely available and I gladly picked up a paper printed programme for £1.50 alongside my £5 entry fee.

The visitors who found themselves 1-0 down at the break were two behind after just 8 minutes of second-half action. 2-0 was how the game ended as despite spending most of the second period in their own half the hosts were able to hold on for the win. Both sides started the day near the bottom of the table but the travelling contingent were in a far more precarious position and defeat had done nothing more than cement them in second bottom position. 

I guess for Washington the wheels were coming off whilst for Ryton and Crawcrook Albion the wheels on the bus were very much going round and round again. Sorry, but after a wonderful, albeit windy, afternoon at what I’ve renamed the bus shelter arena I couldn’t help but finish with a few bus puns! All aboard!

Monday, 17 October 2022

Riding The Railway to Harrogate for a Footballing Double Header

The 251 in attendance to watch Harrogate Railway Athletic v Selby Town was at least double what the Rail usually attract. Maybe it was down to the fact that your £5 entry also got you into the adjacent beer festival or maybe it was the fact that League Two Harrogate Town had a 12:30 kick-off at home which therefore produced the chance of a Harrogate double header? Both may have contributed but the latter was why I was there, the former just a bonus. 

I’ve been meaning to visit Harrogate for quite a while now, to be honest, ever since the FA Cup exploits of this spa town’s two football sides captured my imagination some 20 years ago, in fact. I first became aware of the two Harrogate sides in the 2002-2003 season when the then both non-league sides reached the First Round proper of the FA Cup and I watched a feature on them as part of the BBC’s Football Focus programme. That season Town would finish 5th in the Unibond League Premier Division which back then was the second tier of non-league football whilst two divisions lower Harrogate Railway finished 10th in the Northern Counties East Premier Division. But despite their clear superiority in terms of league positions, it was actually the Rail and not Town who made it through to the Second Round. Whilst both faced tough away trips to opposition one level higher than them, Town lost 5-1 at Farnborough whereas the Rail won 2-1 at Slough. The Second Round would see the Rail pitted against Bristol City at their Station View home. Over 3,500 spectators made the most of additional temporary stands and the Sky Sports TV cameras also turned up as the Rail lost 3-1 against a side who would go on to finish third in what is now League One before losing a play-off semi-final.

Twenty years ago I was still in my teens and making 150-mile round trips to watch random non-league sides was not something I did. Nowadays, however, I am sad enough to undertake such adventures and with the town gaining more footballing prominence in recent years due to Harrogate Town’s promotion to the Football League such a trip has definitely been on my radar. When I came across the chance to see both sides at home in one day then how could I resist?

Harrogate’s main railway station sits on the York to Leeds line and is about a 20-odd-minute walk from Harrogate Town’s Wetherby Road, now Envirovent Stadium for sponsorship reasons, and some 30 minutes stroll from the Station View home of Harrogate Railway Athletic. It is about a 25-minute amble between the two. What I do not work out until I see a sign advertising my arrival in the Starbeck area of the town followed by a railway crossing shortly afterwards, is that Station View is only a few minutes walk from Starbeck Station. This is one stop closer to York on the local rail line. None of this had occurred to me when booking my trip but it does make my journey home ever so slightly easier.

The town of Harrogate is, of course, a picturesque settlement famous for its spa water as well as Betty’s Tea Rooms. I’m sure the local tourist board could advise about the above and so much more in greater detail but with myself arriving on a day trip from Newcastle with two football matches to pack in I do not have time for much sightseeing. A little look online beforehand, however, found me a second hand book store, of which visiting such establishments has almost become a bit of a hobby of
mine, and a highly reviewed sandwich shop. Arriving one hour and 45 minutes before the first match kicks off I do not have time for much else.

Having spent longer than expected looking at books I turn up at Wetherby Road for my first match, a large carrier bag of literature in hand, some 25 minutes before kick-off. After a quick bag search, I am able to enter the ground through turnstiles opposite the brewery sponsored Black Sheep terrace for which I hold a £20 ticket. 

Having in the end not bothered with the sandwich shop I opt for a giant ‘Frankenfeast’ hot dog inside the ground which is more than satisfying and far above the quality of a lot of footballing food options I’ve come across elsewhere. 
I am able to move freely around the ground and with the sun in my eyes for the first half I move behind the goal for the second. The ground has covered terracing at both ends with a mismatch of terraced and seated stands along both sides of the pitch, again all covered. The nature of the ground and its differing stands give it a bit of a haphazard look. But with a recent rise through the divisions and new stands no doubt needed at minimal cost to keep the stadium up to standard for each new level of football, this is hardly surprising. The above does actually give the venue a bit of charm, however, and I quite like it.

Harrogate Town have been a League Two side for two years now, having been promoted for a second time in two seasons in 2020 thanks to a play-off final win that saw them reach the Football League for the very first time in their history. That promotion came the same season as they won the FA Trophy final at Wembley defeating Concord Rangers 1-0. Last season the club reached the Third Round of the FA Cup for the first time in their history but as a league club, they now enter in the First Round proper so that run was perhaps not as impressive as previous ones had been. In 2012-13, having been through several qualifying rounds, they reached Round Two but having defeated Torquay United in Round One lower ranked Hastings United then defeated them on penalties after a replay away from home. This meant they missed out on a Third Round tie with Championship side Middlesbrough.

Much like their opponents today Hartlepool United, Harrogate are struggling at the wrong end of the table. But with their manager Simon Weaver the son of club chairman Irving, you would think his job might be a little safer than most in his position. 

The 2,075 in attendance includes a large away following comfortably in or close to the mid-hundreds but those away supporters see their side 2-0 down at half-time. A late goal back is not enough for the visitors as Harrogate Town in their usual black and yellow striped attire win 2-1. I’ll be honest, I leave feeling the match was a rather poor affair between two rather poor sides.

Having stayed right til the end in the hope of some late drama that sadly never materialises it is a quick turnaround and a brisk walk to the Station View home of Harrogate Railway Athletic for the visit of Selby Town. Whether attending the second match or not most fans seem to leave at full-time but those who stay will get to watch Harrogate Town Women v Chester-le-Street Town ladies face off on the same pitch from 3:15pm. This is the second part of an alternative double header for those who fancy it. Possibly this is the reason the men’s game kicked off at lunchtime. Alternatively, it could be down to the fact that Hartlepool have made just a 60-mile trip to be here today so the match could arguably be considered a derby and this might have caused the start time to be moved forward on police advice, who knows?

On to Harrogate Railway Athletic though and established by workers from the nearby London and North Eastern Railway depot in 1935, the same year that their rivals across town were formed, they have been a prominent feature on the local non-league scene ever since. 

The club reached the second round of the FA Cup again in 2007-08 but a 2-0 home victory over Conference side Droyleden was followed by a 3-2 home defeat to Mansfield Town, this time live on the BBC with 1,486 present. By this time the club were playing in the First Division of the Unibond League having been promoted in 2006. But relegation back ten years later was followed by another demotion in 2018-19 and the club now ply their trade in Division One of the Northern Counties East league, the tenth tier of English football.

The Station View ground has a rather tiny basic seated stand near the halfway line on the far side of the pitch with terracing to its right and a grassy bank to its left, There are also stands further round behind the goal, more on them soon. There is a rugby pitch behind the other end and next to it a two story clubhouse building which presumably both the rugby union and football clubs share. It seems to be a fairly modern affair and the venue feels very warm and welcoming inside. For today's match, a marquee cum very small beer festival has been placed along from the clubhouse and is doing a roaring trade with its, albeit rather small, selection of real ales plus ciders and lagers. I end up enjoying a pint myself.

The aforementioned stands behind the goal consist of a covered seated stand which sits next to an adjourning covered terraced area and looks, if truth be told, a little ramshackle or a least the corrugated roof does. The seated stand also comes complete with overhanging trees and on my visit a plethora of autumnal brown and red leaves blowing about in the wind. A man sat behind me in the first half claims the red seats come from Middlesbrough’s old Ayresome Park ground which was demolished in the mid-1990s. To the left of the stand in the corner of the ground sits a small refreshments hut selling burgers, chips, and hot dogs, plus teas and coffees, but my ginormous sausage from the first game has filled me up and further food is not required.

I must also add that upon entering the ground I am able to pick up a matchday programme. This is something I take for granted at Harrogate Town with them being a Football League side, but an increasing number of non-league clubs have gone digital only on the programme front to save costs. It seems some groundhoppers get angry about this and refuse to attend a game if they know a paper programme is not available. But although for me there is far more to a football match than a paper match programme it does always warm me greatly to see a paper version still available.

It seems there are several groundhoppers doing what I predicted and attending both games today as well as a few locals also doing the same. I get talking to father and son Gateshead FC fans who have travelled down from the North East like me. I seem to meet Gateshead fans wherever I go football watching these days and as a semi-regular at their International Stadium home, I am happy to chat about the Tynesiders with them.

The match itself sees the home side secure a comfortable 2-0 victory over opponents Selby in which they never really get out of second gear. An uneventful but nonetheless engrossing game. Wearing red shirts with green shorts the Rail are almost reminiscent of Portugal but there isn’t quite anyone with the skills of a Ronaldo or a Figo on the pitch here today!

I leave fulfilled with my afternoon's work having visited two interesting football grounds, both somewhat beguiling in their own way, all set in a delightful town that I would like to one day discover further.

Friday, 14 October 2022

Lying on Their Deathbed in the City Where the Ladies Now Lead the Way on the Pitch - The Despairing Plight of Durham City AFC

When he first stumbled upon the city, American writer Bill Bryson wondered why no one had told him about Durham before. Captivated, no doubt, by the city’s steep lanes of quaint boutiques, delightful coffee outlets and elegant townhouses, as well as the city’s magnificent Cathedral as it towers above the tree-lined banks of the river Wear, and its UNESCO-listed Norman castle, he called it a “perfect little city”. 

Probably not on his mind, however, was the state of local football club Durham City AFC which, as I type, is worse than ever - and that’s both and off the pitch. Football League members for much of the 1920s, the club are nowadays a far cry from their former selves. The self-sufficient Northern League side that Bryson could have experienced had he ventured to their then Ferens Park home whilst writing his 1995 best seller Notes From a Small Island seems itself a distant memory let alone those Football League luminaries.

Any Durham locals who expect respectability from their football clubs are better off looking towards the city’s unaffiliated women’s team as they probably won’t find even an ounce of it at the once proud now somewhat ignominious Durham City. Durham Women FC currently sit 9th (out of 12) in England’s second tier Women’s Championship whilst in the men’s game Durham City sit rock bottom of the 11th tier Wearside League First Division.

You may not notice it as you amble through this grand settlement originally founded by St Cuthbert in the 7th century, but there is definitely trouble afoot in the city of Durham or rather grave difficulties at its once distinguished local football club. Right now Durham City AFC feels more like a patient on life support than a historic sporting institution.

This is partly a tale of two teams going in completely opposite directions, and Durham Women FC certainly deserve some fanfare, but mostly this is a sorry tale of a football club banished from their home stadium, an official Twitter account that looks more like a parody, 98 goals conceded in just 10 games so far this season, and that’s just the half of it.

Known as The Citizens, in 2009 Durham City were promoted to the third level of non-league football (7th overall), the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League. But when their major sponsor and backer pulled out and all of their key players left they finished rock bottom of the division the following campaign. Although it felt like they had hit an all-time low, three years later when former Newcastle United star Oliver Bernard purchased the club for a reported £25,000 it felt like the dawning of a new era - even if they had by then dropped into the 9th tier Northern League Division One.

Under the new ownership, I don’t think supporters were getting too carried away but there was definite optimism around the club. Bernard said all the right things and talked of making Durham a prominent feeder club for the North East’s big three of Middlesbrough, Newcastle, and Sunderland. Certainly, the idea of in the longer term reaching the higher end of non-league football did not seem too far fetched for a historic side that had once graced the Football League, albeit long before most were born.

Durham’s Football League adventure, which started just over 100 years ago now, was rather short-lived lasting just seven seasons between 1921 and 1928. Founder members of the old Third Division North, initially, the club played at a ground just north of the city’s medieval Kepier hospital ruins where a record attendance of 7,886 witnessed a 2-0 FA Cup defeat against Darlington in 1921. Two years later, however, Durham City relocated to Holiday Park a new football and later greyhound stadium on the western banks of the Wear closer to the city centre. Low attendances had in part contributed to the move but there was no long term improvement with the 7,182 who witnessed another FA Cup tie, this time against West Stanley, the highest they ever mustered at the now long gone venue and far from the norm. 

Poor crowds brought financial woes and this in turn affected the club’s ability to build a strong playing squad which itself impacted performances on the pitch. An 11th placed finish in that first season was the highest they would manage in their eight Division Three North campaigns and, along with fellow North Easterners Ashington, the club dropped out of the league in 1927-28 when a 21st placed finish (out of 22) was followed by a failed re-election bid. 

Being a Third Division side there was little in the way of star names at Durham during this period but one man who did make a name for himself was George Camsell. A Middlesbrough FC legend, many might not realise he also played for Durham City. Camsell scored 20 goals in just 21 appearances for the club before moving to the Boro where over a 14-year period he scored a club record 324 goals in 420 games. In 1926-27 he scored a then Football League record of 59 goals in one season, a record he would still hold to this day had Everton’s Dixie Dean not broken it the following campaign by going one better and netting 60 times. Camsell was also capped 9 times by England.

With their Holiday Park ground demolished in 1960, there is sadly little evidence left of this stellar era from Durham City’s past. If you were to visit today you’d find only the 207 room four star Raddison Blu Hotel with not so much as a plaque to commemorate the stadium or its former tenants of footballers and greyhound dogs.

The club would fold ten years after that Football League exit but was re-established in 1949 playing at Ferens Park until 1994 when a new ground was built. At Ferens Park a record crowd of over 7,000 saw a 3-0 second round FA Cup defeat to Tranmere Rovers in 1957-58. 

The club joined the Northern League in 1952, and although now covering the 9th and 10th tiers of English football the Northern League was, outside of the current structure, for many years one of the top amateur leagues in the country. The league’s top sides regularly competed in finals of the old FA Amateur Cup but although fellow County Durham sides Bishop Auckland and Crook Town won the competition a record ten times and five times respectively, Durham City, despite spending many years in the division, never reached the showpiece Wembley final although it was discontinued in 1974.

In total Durham would actually spend over 55 years straight in the league, albeit in 1983 becoming one of the first three teams to be relegated to the league’s new Second Division where they would spend numerous seasons. They did however finish runners-up 1970-71 and won the First Division title in 1993-94 and 2007-08. Unfortunately in 1994 they would miss out on promotion because their new ground was not yet ready and where they were currently playing was not up to standard.

Back to the modern day and back in the Northern League under the stewardship of Mr Bernard the club seemed on a steady footing for the first couple of years of his ownership albeit without causing too many waves. The first signs of any problems began to occur before long, however. 

A dispute with their landlord forced the club to leave their New Ferens Park home in 2015 and they were forced to groundshare with fellow Northern League side Consett. Continued troubles would see them later move in with another Northern League side in Willington who they apparently still owe £2,000 in unpaid rent having left without paying. As of this season, they are using a pitch in Houghton-le-Spring which although closer to their former New Ferens home than the other two is still outside of the city. Seven years on and they are yet to return home with the ground having had various temporary tenants in their absence.

On the pitch performances nosedived and the club were relegated to Division 2 of the Northern League in 2015-16 whilst last season’s relegation to the Wearside League would have almost certainly come a lot sooner if the two seasons prior to 2021-22 were not left unfinished due to COVID. That relegation last time out saw the club finish rock bottom of Northern League Division 2 and included along the way a 16-1 defeat away at Carlisle City whilst this season things have been no better with several 12, 13 and 14-0s and no doubt plenty more to come. After all, this is a side which now seems to currently consist of a bunch of very inexperienced kids. Baring all this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that one game in this current campaign reportedly saw no paying spectators whatsoever in attendance.

Financial problems seem to have caused the clubs’ alarming downfall and by 2020 it was reported that the club had debts of £150,418. How Durham City got into such an economic mess one can not be certain but rumours are that their debt consists of director's loans from Bernard that he now wants back.

Obviously, by last season the club had already turned into a shambles but things only got more ridiculous when a company known as Zenith Sports and Event Management became involved in the running of the club as of December 2001. This came with Bernard nowhere to be seen despite having not officially sold the club (although despite Bernard having previously been figurehead the records actually show his wife as sole owner). Chris Tanner the man behind the Zenith group became chairman of Durham City and under his stewardship, the club seemed more concerned with slagging off people on Twitter than anything else, whether it be the official account or other accounts believed to be run by himself. Also, with numerous club secretaries having come and gone since Tanner got involved one can only conclude that many cannot get on board with what he is doing. Maybe harassing people on Twitter is not the best way to run a football club… 

Local football supporter Dan Bell who recently produced a youtube video on the plight of the club recently uploaded screenshots to Twitter of angry inbox messages the club’s official account had sent him after his film was released. There’s plenty more too, with one surreal tweet amongst others seing the club respond to someone asking if there would be Twitter updates on one of their upcoming games by saying “no, not really necessary”. A look through the club's Twitter feed is certainly interesting but they recently made their account private so if you are not already a follower you’ll need to request permission to have a look. Very odd.

Who instigated the involvement of Tanner and Zenith is unclear, but barely anything is known about the company with little in the way of an online presence and some suggesting the company is just a figment of his imagination. Interestingly Tanner is seemingly based in Australia and it is unclear if he has ever set foot in the UK but it does look pretty certain that he has never been anywhere near the city of Durham. 

Tanner’s distant location also brought more drama recently when 12 players were released by the club via a tweet sent during the middle of the day down under. Time difference saw those unfortunate souls wake up to find out that during the night as they slept word had been put out that their services were no longer required. 

It would be hard for me to say too much more as such is the craziness of the situation at Durham City it can be hard to sort fact from fiction. But some facts do speak for themselves with the lack of a permanent home and those heavy defeats and relegations all there in black and white for everyone to see. Those realities on their own show that something has gone seriously wrong at Durham City AFC.

Of course, things are not all doom and gloom for football in the city with several other Durham clubs leading far more sensible lives. Alongside Durham City in the Wearside League are Durham United, a club founded ten years ago, and Durham Corinthians who came into existence six years later in 2018. United are, as of this season, partnered with Durham University as are Durham Women FC currently the most high profile club in the city.

Whilst clubs playing in front of one man and his dog in the Wearside League is, without being too impolite, not overly dignified the same cannot be said about Durham Women FC. Instead of playing what some might argue isn’t even proper non-league (the Wearside League is run by the Durham FA and sits below the main FA run national league system), Durham’s WFC actually play at the second highest level in the country albeit, of course, in the women’s game.

Created in 2014, the club came about thanks to a collaboration between Durham University, where our man Bryson ended up spending seven years as chancellor before having a Library named after him, and South Durham & Cestria Girls who had won the previous seasons, then third tier, Northern Combination Women’s Football League. The club were immediately awarded a place in the brand new second tier Women's Championship where they have remained ever since. The club finished as high as second in 2020-21 but unfortunately, there was only one promotion spot. 

Durham Women play at a university sports complex in Maiden Castle and their home is barely a 30-minute walk from the city centre and a very welcoming venue. The club have an exciting aura around them and one that the Durham City men’s team could only dream of right now. 

But as for the future of Durham City, there are many who hope for a much better one. One such example is Save Durham City AFC, a Twitter account continually highlighting the plight of the club. They are desperate to see the back of the current regime and some more appropriate people put in charge. Let's hope this pipe dream can eventually come true because as the Save Durham City Campaign despairingly reminded me when I spoke to them during my research for this article, the club is currently “a right old mess”. If truth be told they were probably being far too polite. 

If very dark clouds hang over the city’s cathedral spire as it branches out into the sky, or if meandering through the city the river Wear is getting choppier by the day, then that is at least all figuratively speaking. But on the football front, it aptly describes the dire times local club Durham City are going through right now.

I’m putting out an SOS for Durham City AFC - But will anyone answer the call and save the Citizens? Can we get Bill Bryson on the phone?