Friday 8 March 2019

Durham City and Ashington - Two more forgotten Football League sides from the North East

I've written previously about the two forgotten Football League clubs on Tyneside, Gateshead and South Shields, and for a period in the 1920s when Shields played in the league there where as many as eight teams from the North East of England playing league football. Alongside Shields' and the obvious big three of, Newcastle, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough, there where at that time four other teams from the region in the league, all playing in Division Three North. Two of those sides Hartlepools United, and Darlington spent many years in the league and are well known throughout the region and beyond. But the final two North Eastern sides did not last so long in the league, and their exploits are today very much forgotten. Ashington and Durham City both joined a newly formed Division Three North in 1921. Durham, where voted out of the league in 1928 whilst Ashington, lasted only one season longer.

A third division of the Football League was formed in 1920 consisting of teams formerly of the Southern League, and it was soon decided the top Northern clubs outside the league should follow suit and join up to form a Northern section of Division Three. Ashington had been playing in the North Eastern league since before the great war whilst Durham City were only formed in 1918 when local businessmen saw an opportunity for a Durham club to join the hastily organised Northern Victory league that took place for half a season after the war ended. Durham then joined the North Eastern League for the first full football season after the war and after only two seasons they successfully applied to join the Football League for the 1921/22 season along with fellow North Eastern sides, Hartlepools, Darlington and of course Ashington.

Ashington spent £8,000 refurbishing their Portland Park ground in preparation for their new football league adventure, it had a capacity of 25,000, boasted some of the best facilities in the league at that time, and over 8,000 spectators were in attendance for the opening league match at home to Grimsby Town. That opening game saw the hosts win 1-0 thanks to a goal from Joe Dickinson on his debut. Dickinson lobbed the ball into the net after the Grimsby keeper fisted the ball away and it landed at Dickinson's feet. Dickinson only played three times in total for Ashington and those three games were the only Football League appearances in his career. 

Durham City started their league campaign with a 1-1 draw away at Southport. Durham's goal came from Ernest Young and one report described his goal as 'a beautiful shot that gave the goalkeeper no chance'. In that first season Young, who had previously played 10 Second Division games for South Shields, scored 13 goals in 29 games, only bettered by Harry Cousins who scored 17 in 37 for the club. In 1924 Young transferred to Spennymoor United. 

Later that first season a record crowd of 7,886 saw Durham lose 2-0 at home to league rivals Darlington in the FA Cup, but overall gate receipts were low and the club suffered heavy financial losses in a season that saw then finish 11th. Ashington meanwhile finished the season in 10th place and won three FA Cup ties before eventually losing away at Millwall. As with Durham, Ashington suffered financial losses causing several experienced players to be moved on in the close season.

In their second season, Durham continued to suffer financially and some were worried that the club wouldn't last the season. A 7-1 trouncing of Lincoln City in the February was a rare moment of relief as the club finished bottom and were lucky to be re-elected. For Ashington, a promising start faded away and the club finished second bottom and they themselves also had to re-apply to stay in the league. Like Durham, they were also successful.

There was massive upheaval in the playing squad for Ashington in preparation for the 1923/24 season. The club ended up finishing that season in 8th and even made a small profit. This was largely down to an FA Cup run that ended with a plum home tie with Aston Villa where a record crowd of 11837 saw a 5-1 victory for the visitors. Durham finished the 1923/24 season in 15th place but despite improved attendances, after moving to a new stadium in the centre of town they still couldn't quite make a profit. Durham finished 13th the following season, a season notable for a January debut from a 22-year-old player called George Camsell. 

George Camsell scored almost a goal a game for Durham before moving to Middlesbrough in October 1925. Camsell scored a hat-trick against Hartlepools United in the penultimate match of the 1924/25 season and scored 12 goals in 10 games for the club at the beginning of the 1925/26 campaign. At Middlesbrough, Camsell scored 345 goals in 453 games. Camsell played only four games in his first season at Boro but in the following season famously scored 59 league goals in 37 appearances, this including 9 hat-tricks. This was surpassed the following season however when Dixie Dean scored 60 goals for Everton. Although Camsell was capped only 9 times by England he scored in every single game, totalling 18 goals including 4 in one match against Belgium and a hat-trick against Wales.

There were mid tables finishes of 10th and 9th for Ashington in 1924/25 and 1925/26, whilst for Durham, there were two 13th placed finishes over the same period. Durham were still struggling financially, but outgoing players were helping them make a small profit. Ashington began to drop down the table over the next few seasons whilst over at Durham things were even worse. In 1926/27 a late rally at the end of the season saw the club manage to avoid having to apply for re-election by the skin of their teeth.

Whereas Durham's George Camsell went on to make a name for himself in the First Division, no one from Ashington's football league years really made an impact in the higher echelons of the game at any point before or after playing for the club. Ted Ferguson, for example, left the club before they joined the Football League but returned in 1924 after a rather unsuccessful spell at Chelsea where he made very few first-team appearances. An Irishman named Patrick O'Connell, however, was one exception to the rule. O'Connell joined Ashington in 1920 having previously played in the First Division with Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester United before the war. He has also won five international caps with Ireland. In 1921 he became player-manager at Ashington and later went on manage various clubs in Spain, winning the La Liga title with Real Betis in 1935 before spending three years as manager of FC Barcelona. Quite a career indeed!

Durham City had somehow managed to avoid the re-election process in 1927 but weren't so lucky the following year. Despite finishing second bottom above Nelson and only a point worse off than the previous season, Durham were booted out of the league. Their low home crowds had evidently been noticed by other clubs, and geographically being stuck out of the way in the North East probably did not help matters either. There was also a crackdown on supposed amateur players being paid handsome match fees, and this being a scandal that Durham were themselves caught up in was another issue that would not have helped matters. Besides all that however, even though the league table told us Nelson were a worse team than Durham City, Durham had suffered four 4-0 defeats that season and three times conceded five in game, so they could hardly claim to have had anywhere near a successful season on the pitch, plus the club was now heavily in debt.

1927/28 whilst Durham had fallen on their sword, Ashington had finished three places higher and kept their heads just above water. Financial problems had had an effect on squad numbers and a depleted Ashington side had conceded 25 goals in their first six games, but form had then improved slightly, particularly in the second half of the season, and a 6-0 win over Rotherham United in their penultimate match certainly helped things! The 1928/29 season was, however, a different story...

Despite winning two of their opening three games in 28/29, defeats began to follow and a low point was an 8-2 home defeat to Bradford City in October. Bradford then went and signed Ashington's outside left James Randall for a fee of £400. Ashington spent most of the season marooned at the bottom of the table and there were further heavy defeats, whilst one game of note was a high scoring 7-4 loss at home to Doncaster Rovers. Star forward Tom Keetley netted a double hat-trick for the visitors that day! Aside from terrible performances on the pitch, there were also dismal attendances to contend with. One home game had only seen 729 in attendance, clearly not high enough for the club if they expected to hang about in the Football League much longer! As with Durham, depression in the coal trade left many locals struggling financially and some out of work. The club won only one of their last 8 matches, finishing rock bottom, and all things considered, their application for re-election was probably made more in hope than expectation. In the end, Ashington received only 14 votes and were replaced by York City.

After demotion from the league, Ashington continued their existence playing in various different divisions within non league football, and are still around today plying their trade in the Northern League. Durham only lasted 10 seasons after their league exit before folding, but Durham City, however, do live on today, with a team by the same name forming in 1950, and like their one time Football League rivals Ashington they also currently play in the Northern League.

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