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.