Saturday 12 September 2020

Three Matches, 330 minutes, and Only One Goal To Separate Them: The Mammoth Amateur Cup Final of 1954 That Saw Almost 200,000 Through the Turnstiles

Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

It took a mammoth 330 minutes but eventually, a victor was found. In scenes that would seem incredulous today, almost 200,000 spectators over the course of three matches saw two Northern League amateur sides from County Durham battle it out for glory in a tale that gripped the region and indeed much of the nation. Bishop Auckland v Crook Town in the 1954 FA Amateur Cup final had a script that even the greatest of movie writers could not have come up with up but, having said that, if similar drama had occurred in America's favourite past time of baseball then Hollywood would have surely made the story into a feature-length film.

Those of the younger generation may not be familiar with the FA Amateur Cup, after all, the 1974 final was the competitions last. With many non-league clubs no longer strictly amateur and more accurately semi-professional, and many past winners having arguably been not as amateur as they seemed, the competition's eventual demise was hardly surprising. In 1969 the FA Trophy was introduced as a new competition aimed at those non-league clubs who could no longer class themselves as amateur and although it did not have the prestige of the Amateur Cup it would essentially soon replace it. When five years later the Football Association abolished the distinction between amateur and professional or semi-professional status the Amateur Cup was finally discontinued. The Trophy and a new competition for smaller clubs known as the FA Vase would together take on the mantle as the national cup competitions specifically for non-league sides, a position they both still hold today.

In the 1954 Amateur Cup Bishop Auckland scored 26 goals in their five games en route to the final and this included a 5-0 win over Hallam, and a 5-1 semi-final victory over now defunct Briggs Sports of Essex that took place in front of 54,000 spectators at St. James' Park, Newcastle. Their final opponents Crook Town were not far behind in the scoring charts, however. Crook had defeated Hitchin Town 10-1 in the quarter finals having also won 5-0 at home to Walton & Hersham earlier in the competition but needed a replay at Roker Park, Sunderland, in front of another bumper crowd, to beat Walthamstow Avenue in the other semi-final.

Based five miles apart in County Durham, Bishop Auckland and Crook were very much part of the Durham coalfield. Crook was a pit village whilst Bishop Auckland also saw many employed in the many collieries dotted about the surrounding areas. There was also large scale employment in the local ironworks. Life was tough but a work hard play hard attitude saw football play a key role for many locals in their spare time. Amateur football in the region was big and the local Northern Football League regularly drew four figure crowds that its clubs could nowadays scarcely dream of. 

Despite their amateur status, however, it was believed that players at some of these clubs actually earned more money than some at professional sides. This had been particularly noticeable at both Bishops and Crook over the years and brought with it a bitter rivalry that stemmed back to what was known as the 'Crook Town Affair'. In 1928 Bishop Auckland reported Crook Town to the Durham FA for the illegal payment of players. This started a chain of events that saw Crook booted out of the league and a widespread investigation that saw in total 341 players from numerous clubs suspended. By 1954 things were not always so obvious and as Harry Pearson notes in his excellent book The Farther Corner players at supposedly amateur clubs might have the club foot the bill when their wives or mothers went to the butchers to buy meat for the Sunday roast or have them help out financially when they needed a new suit. Having said that, some players still did, however, privately take illicit payments often referred to as boot money. In his book Up There - The North East Football Boom & Bust, Michael Walker also tells the story of a goalkeeper playing for Bishop Auckland who was offered the going rate of £15 a week to sign for Middlesbrough only for said 'keeper to laugh and say he was getting £20 a week at supposedly amateur Bishops. Yes, despite the Crook town affair, almost thirty years later such practices were still seemingly rife and, indeed, a colleague of mine recently suggested to me that BIshop Auckland and Crook used to be the two most corrupt football clubs in the country. Who knows...

Bishop Auckland were seemingly favourites for the 1954 final and after Crook's semi final win the verdict from the Sunderland Echo was that it 'will take a more skilful, harder fighting Crook Town to stand a chance against Bishop Auckland.' Another local newspaper the Shields Evening News, meanwhile, were also predicting a Bishops win and when previewing the local football for the weekend of the final they ran with the headline 'It's Bishop Auckland to win the FA Amateur Cup at Wembley, Newcastle and Sunderland in desperate league struggles,' With Bishops having beaten Crook 3-1 and 4-1 in the pairs two Northern League meetings earlier that season their favourites tag was probably justified and the Evening News continued by saying 'The Bishops are in an all conquering mood this season and the way they have disposed of previous Amateur Cup opponents this year suggests Crook's visit to Wembley will be in vain.'

Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.
When the Amateur Cup final of 1954 finally came around, 20 special trains and 250 coaches would take fans from the North East down to Wembley and a crowd of 100.000 would be in attendance. Whilst for those who couldn't attend, there were BBC radio updates from Raymond Glendenning in-between commentary on that afternoons France v England rugby union match on the Home Service and live second-half BBC television coverage with a young Kenneth Wolstenholme behind the microphone. An electrical shop in Bishop Auckland, meanwhile, won permission show the match via 'projection tv' in what was basically an early version of the beam-back.

Harry Pearson, in his aforementioned book, describes the Bishop Auckland side of the 1950s as the Real Madrid of amateur football and indeed such was the stature of the club there was even a Bishop Auckland Subbuteo set. Many of the club's star players during that decade actually joined after the 1954 final, however, but they still had a few notable names that year. Wing-Half Bob Hardisty had captained the Great Britain side coached by Matt Busby at the 1948 London Olympics and 1952 edition in Helsinki and was by many considered the finest amateur player of his generation whilst Corbett Cresswell was the son Warney Cresswell a star player in the 1920s and 30s who was previously the world's most expensive player when Sunderland signed him from South Shields for £5,500 in 1922. Carlisle born inside left Seamus O'Connell was another Bishops star in 1954 but whilst others stars would soon join he would be on his way out leaving to play professionally with Chelsea shortly after the final.

In charge of Crook Town was a young manager called Joe Harvey an ex-Newcastle United player who would famously go on to manage his former club to European glory in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969. Arguably their best player was Jimmy McMillan a winger who had previously turned down offers from Chelsea and Newcastle United to play professionally so he could train to be a government planning officer.

There's always a genuine excitement around Wembley Way on the day of a cup final and those expectant fans from Bishop Auckland and Crook Town would not be disappointed. Ken Wolstenholme described it as the best two hours sport of 1954, 'Thrill packed toughest ever Wembley final' was how the Sunderland Echo described it, and 'as thrilling and hard thought a match as could be desired' was the view of the Journal & North Mail. The Northern Echo, meanwhile, said that if the North East's top clubs, Newcastle, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough, had shown the same courage and never-say-die spirit throughout the season as Bishops and Crook did in the final then all three might not be in danger of relegation (In the end it was only Boro who went down).

The match had drama right from the off when just minutes into game Bishops half back Jimmy Nimmins slid into a tackle and never got up. Nimmins was stretchered off having fractured his leg. In the days before substitutions Bishops would have to face the remainder of the game with only ten men, a tough ask. Bishops fans had seen their side lose on each of their previous three Wembley appearances but this time the disadvantage of being one man short did not seem to bother their team and they soon found themselves in front. Picking up the ball after a free-kick was crossed into the box, Les Dixon smashed the ball past Fred Jarrie in the Crook goal and the Bishops lead 1-0. Crook responded almost immediately, however, and in the blink of an eye the match was all square when Ronnie Thompson fired a low drive past 'keeper Harry Sharratt and into the bottom lefthand corner.

Despite Crook's one man advantage, it was the Bishops who scored next to retake the lead whilst for Crook an injury to Ken Williamson soon saw him hobbling around the pitch for the rest of the match so really their advantage was arguably at best half a man anyway. Bob Watson, a railway worker by day, found Ray Oliver on the edge of the box and the ex Whitley Bay Athletic forward from Cullercoats darted past several players before blasting the ball into the top corner. Bishop Auckland back in front.

2-1 Bishops at the break and by all accounts they had been the better side but in the second-half Crook equalised on 55 minutes when a Bill Jeffs cross saw Eddie Appleby smash the ball home. That equaliser was the final goal of the 90 minutes so the match would head to extra-time.

The match report in the Sunderland Echo heavily emphasised Crook's man advantage and the writer referred to only as D.W. claimed that 'Bishop Auckland even with a man short, held their own for most of the normal playing time and were still able, in the last five minutes extra time, to give the Crook goal such a pounding that they might have had three more goals,' They did not, however, get three more goals, in fact, they did not get any. Extra-time came and went with no further goals and in the days before penalty shoot-outs, of course, there would have to be a replay.

There had been plenty more praise for Bishops in the following day's papers. Laurie Burills of the Daily Herald wrote: "Bishop Auckland's tremendous fighting spirit against their Northern League rivals, Crook Town, in the FA Amateur Cup final at Wembley, was one of the greatest displays I have ever seen,' Meanwhile, Bobby Rodney of the Daily Mirror who suggested 18-year-old wing-half Barry Wilkinson would replace the injured Nimmins for the replay was impressed enough by Bishops performance to say Wilkinson 'will probably end his year by winning the Amateur Cup.'

There would be a nine day wait for the replay. April 19, an Easter Monday evening, would see the pair battle it out again this time at St James' Park, Newcastle. A few days before said replay both clubs suffered league defeats but their minds were set firmly on the Amateur Cup. It was a 25-30 mile trip up the road from County Durham and 56,008 spectators made the short journey - a record attendance for an amateur match outside the capital. Supporters paid between 2/6d and 12/6d for a ticket it which I work out to be roughly between 10p and 60p in modern currency though probably a lot more with inflation.

Despite being considered favourites by most once again, it was a horrendous start by Bishop Auckland who found themselves 2-0 down within four minutes. Both goals came from Ken Harrison, a schoolmaster from Annfield Plain, a small village north west of Durham city, who'd scored a hat-trick in Crook's semi final replay win. The first goal came just 15 seconds into the match when Wilkinson was robbed of the ball by Ronnie Thompson who then passed it to Harrison and the goalkeeper was left helpless. His second came when the ball fell to him after the Bishops defence were unable to properly clear it. The drama continued in the early stages that followed with sitters missed at both ends in what had been a pulsating opening salvo.

Crook Town defended well and Bishops struggled to break them down but, 2-0 behind at the break, Bishops did eventually find their way back into the game with a goal on 79 minutes. Oliver eventually bundled the ball home to make it 2-1 after a free-kick was hit into the box. The match did not stay a 2-1 for long either as within minutes Bishops were level. It seemed these two sides could just not be separated. Oliver fired the ball home to grab his second and the replay, like the first match, was heading for extra-time. In the extra two periods, O'Connell headed over for Bishops from six yards out and this was the closest we came to a winner as like the first match the replay also finished 2-2. 

It was a match that the Shields Evening News reckoned 'could have gone either way' although they were particularly impressed by Bishops goalkeeper Sharratt. The Northern Echo meanwhile were getting accusations of favouritism with a small number of readers writing in to complain of bias towards Bishop Auckland in their coverage of the first two matches. 

The outcome Amateur Cup final could not be settled by a replay so a second one would be needed. It was decided, however, that if a third draw occurred then the trophy would be shared. The two sides would hold the cup for six months each and who held it first would be decided by the toss of the coin. When the pair were to meet again at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough, three days later it would be the final act of what had been so far a thrilling drama.

Kicking off at 6pm on a Thursday one can assume that many supporters might have found it difficult getting out of work early enough to have made the match but that did not stop some 36,727 from getting into the ground. Those who did not make it would have to make do with second-half radio commentary. With BBC reporters having already sat through 240 minutes of the football and commentated on large parts of it the Shields Evening News suggested that 'The BBC must be wondering when the final is really going to end,' before adding 'Never in the history of broadcasting has so much been said about two amateur football teams.'

In this second replay, Oliver rose to head home from a Jack Major corner midway through the first-half and Bishop Auckland thought they had the lead. Referee Alf Bond, a one-armed man who Bishops supporters would refer to as the 'one armed bandit', had other ideas, however, penalising the centre forward for a foul in the build-up. Shortly afterwards Oliver should have found the net again but fired over, a chance he would especially rue missing when Crook Town took the lead four minutes before half-time. It was Harrison who scored and as described in the Sunderland Echo he 'used the sole of his boot to guide the ball past the advancing Sharrott,'

It was 1-0 at the interval but could there be one final twist? After what had happened in the two previous matches surely there would be more drama in store? Or maybe not? Those watching would soon find out. In the second-half Bishops played with a more direct style of play but it was an attack minded Crook side who were the better of the two teams. Bishops did force Jarrie to make what was the save of the match, however, punching away an Oliver header. In the end, though, Crook held on and after a mammoth 330 minutes, they had won the FA Amateur Cup final of 1954. 

At full-time jubilant Crook Town fans ran onto the pitch to celebrate before their captain Bobby Davison, himself a former Bishops player, was handed the trophy by the Mayor of Middlesbrough. Ken Williamson whose leg was in a plaster having hobbled around injured for most of the first match was helped onto the pitch to join in the celebrations. Joe Harvey's men would then board a special train back home where 15,000 people from Crook and the surrounding pit villages were there to greet them. There was not much time to celebrate, however, as many of the players had work the next day followed by a league match at West Auckland Town in the evening before a rearranged Northern League Challange Cup semi final with Shildon the day after.

The Sunderland Echo attributed Crook Town's win to what they called 'H plan', they dubbed it 'Crook Town's secret weapon' and it involved inside left Johny Coxon marking Hardisty out of the game which they claimed worked a treat. The paper was also wowed by the performance of Davison who they said was 'given the ball to keep after the match' before suggesting 'They should have struck a special medal for the number of times he pulled the defence out of trouble,'

Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.
With almost 200,000 spectators in total, 196,727 according to the Yorkshire Post, having passed through the turnstiles over the course of the three games both sides each received £11,650 from the £46,000 gate receipts. This would have been a huge sum of money for the two clubs.

Bishop Auckland would make up for their defeat by winning all of the next three Amateur Cup finals whilst three more Crook Triumphs would follow in the years after. Before 1954 Bishops already had seven Amateur Cup final wins to their name, the first occurring in 1896, the last in 1939. Ten in total for Bishop Auckland was more than anyone else ever managed in the competition's history and five more than Crook Town who were joint second with Clapton in terms of wins. 

1954 may seem a lifetime ago but hopefully, the stories will continue for years to come. Of all the Amateur Cup finals the 1954 one was definitely the longest. Three matches and four halves of extra-time completed a monumental tie that saw huge crowds watching amateur football in scenes the modern football fan would scarcely believe. These scenes came in an era before violence and tragedy paved the way for all-seater stadia and wall to wall Sky Sports coverage and it may at times seem alien to the modern reader. But if there was ever a golden age for football then this was surely it and the 1954 FA Amateur Cup final surely its crowning glory.

This article was written with information obtained from the British Newspaper Archive ( and the British Library Board. These services are not free and incur a fee so for more articles like this please contribute by donating/supporting me via my Patreon page

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