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?

1 comment:

  1. Just come across this article on Durham afc, great writing and informative