Although it had one of the largest coalmines in Europe at the start of the 14th century, Whickham is much better known nowadays as an elevated, genteel suburb of Gateshead, a two-time Britain in Bloom winner which “commands a beautiful prospect of the vale of the Tyne from Newburn to Newcastle” as the History, Topography and Directory of Durham eloquently put things in 1894.
The Victorians had their scenic view, but it would take another fifty years before there was a football club for anyone to watch. Set up towards the end of WWII, and initially named Axwell Park Colliery Welfare after the village’s last working mine,
Whickham have had an up and down existence since joining the Northern League in 1988. Promoted at the first attempt, they were relegated in both 1992 and 1997 and have been stuck in Division Two ever since.
Whickham’s best years undoubtedly came as a Wearside League team when, in the five years between 1979 and 1984, they reached the semi-final of the FA Vase no fewer than three times, losing to Almondsbury Green in ’79 and, controversially, to eventual winners Stansted five years later. In 1981, after squeezing past Windsor & Eton in front of a crowd of more than 3,000 people, they took part in Wembley’s first all-seated final against Willenhall Town of the West Midlands Regional League. Watched by 12,000 fans (included an estimated 5,000 who'd travelled down from Tyneside), it was Willenhall who made the better start, scoring two goals in the first ten minutes of the game. Full-back Alan Scott, a fireman from Consett, scored a quick reply, before Willenhall’s goalkeeper collided with Billy Cawthra’s bulky frame and had to be stretchered off. With the opposition centre forward forced to play in goal the momentum was now almost entirely one-sided. Ronnie Williamson levelled the score midway through the second half; in extra time a Cawthra shot was blocked, hit a defender and ricocheted into the net. George Cook collected the winners’ trophy from Sir Matt Busby, and thousands of people turned out to greet the returning team at Glebe Park the next day. “All that standing around on cold football grounds, all the knockbacks, were worth it for that one moment of leading your side out at Wembley," manager Colin Richardson told The Northern Echo.
Except for a brief, vicarious brush with fame through Big Brother 6 winner Anthony Hutton, once signed by Whickham for £75, in the thirty years thereafter success has been much thinner on the ground. The black and whites finished tenth last season, and could manage no better than fourteenth the season before that. This year, though, they're up in fourth, nine points behind Graham Fenton’s North Shields but with games in hand on all the teams above. As improvements go, it’s almost as good as Birtley Town’s: hard on the heels of a disastrous season in which they lost their sponsors, used more than ninety players and won only sixteen points, the visitors now sit comfortably in ninth.
An overnight deluge means the sound of squelching footsteps is almost as loud as that of boot on ball. The pitch slopes down towards the distant River Tyne from the open cricket club boundary; there’s a single covered stand behind the near goal with numbered wooden bench seats and ‘Made in Britain’ embossed on its roof support posts. I take a seat against the back wall - behind a half eaten Rich Tea and an empty can of Foster’s. The game starts slowly, with more sliding tackles than shots on target until Birtley old boy Tony Thirlkell sidefoots the home side ahead after twenty-five minutes, his sixteenth goal of the season. “Birtley, our heads don’t go down, mind. Everyone!” bellows one of the beaten defenders as the tannoy briefly crackles out live commentary from Newcastle’s game at Ewood Park. Ross Peareth doubles the lead just before half time, and a near post header from Scott Swanston, the game’s outstanding player, makes it three almost as soon as the teams start again after the break. “Smallest bloke on the pitch,” the goalkeeper laments. “Shite goal to give away, lads,” says Scott Oliver on the Birtley Town bench. “Are we up to third now, are we?” asks a substitute. “How am I supposed to kna?” his mate replies.
Admission: £4 (plus £1.60 for a gorgeous homemade sausage roll and a Bovril that came in a proper mug).
Date: February 12th 2011