Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Ground 157: Seaham Welfare

Put it down to the ineffable appeal of Northern League football, but while most of the nation’s fans are sitting at home in front of the fire, watching Manchester United battle Marseille for a place in the last eight of the European Champions League, I’m waiting in the mist for a delayed kick-off at Seaham.

First formed as a Sunday League team in 1973, Seaham Red Star progressed through the Houghton & District, Northern Alliance and Wearside Leagues after making the switch to Saturday afternoons. In 1979, with 62-goal Tommy Henderson and future Huddersfield, Derby County and Leeds forward Bobby Davison leading the line, they got as far as the fifth round of the FA Vase before losing 5-2 at home to eventual semi-finalists Whickham, then triumphed in the Philips Floodlit Trophy at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium, winning a set of floodlights for their Seaham Welfare ground. A year later Red Star defeated Boldon at Roker Park to lift the Durham Challenge Cup, after eliminating a Tow Law Town and a young winger called Chris Waddle at the semi-final stage. In 1982, helped by Nigel Gleghorn, a fireman who would go on to play for Ipswich, Manchester City and Birmingham, and eventual New Zealand international striker Paul Nixon, Red Star once more made it to the fifth round of the Vase and managed the Wearside League and Challenge Cup double.

Admitted to the second division of the Northern League two seasons later, Seaham were promoted behind Stockton in 1988 and finished fifth in 1993, when they won the Northern League Cup and sold their 17-year-old goalkeeper to Newcastle United. “I played a dozen games in the Northern League, a tough league with some good players but a learning experience for a young lad,” Steve Harper remembered in a recent interview with the Daily Mail. “I was spotted by Peter Kirtley and asked to play for Newcastle's youth team.” Third the following season, they finished as high as second behind Bedlington Terriers in 2000, but were relegated with just twenty points in 2002. It took another five seasons for Seaham to return to the top flight, and only two more before the plummeted once again after their main financial backer abruptly withdrew all funding weeks before the start of the 2008-2009 season.

Last year Red Star managed midtable. This season things are much worse: after conceding 88 goals in just 29 games, the weekend’s 3-0 home defeat by Hebburn Town has left them just two points above Horden Colliery Welfare in the third and final relegation place. “We’ve got to get out of the blocks quickly tonight and see what Whitehaven are made of,” manager Kevin Turns tells the Sunderland Echo before the game.

Seaham’s young side, with two players out suspended and three unable to get time off work, are faster around the pitch but fall behind to an early Whitehaven goal from a corner – a near identical effort to the one the visitors scored at the weekend, when I saw them battle to a 1-0 win over promotion chasing North Shields. The Cumbrians double their lead when a swift passing move dissects the Red Star defence and Craig Robson rolls the ball low into the corner. “Start again, start again,” is the advice from the home bench. “Closer, man!” comes a less-forgiving shout from the back row of the stand. “Weak as piss, that.”

But start again they do. They have a goal disallowed, then score from a free kick that Richard Goodman chests down, stumbles over and strikes past Brian Miller in the Whitehaven goal. Not half an hour gone and we’ve already had three goals. “See how easy it is? See how easy it is?” asks Turns. He gets his answer within a minute, Goodman replicating the game’s opening goal with a header into the roof of the net. Whitehaven see a shot clang back against the metal post, but then a gentle lob from Johnny Monaghan somehow squirms through Miller’s arms and ends up in the net. He looks straight down the pitch, utterly aghast. Nobody quite has the heart to celebrate.

It takes twenty minutes of the second half for Whitehaven to get back on level terms. A player skips past a challenge on the right and the Seaham defence leave Kevin Connelly unmarked to turn in the cross at the far post. With just three minutes left, and Red Star having just gone close to a winner of their own, the visitors break upfield and Connelly scores a fourth. Beaten, there’s still enough time for Seaham’s Paul McSween to save a penalty and Gregg Qually to score from the rebound. “Plenty of goals, like,” a Seaham fan says as he heads for the exit. “Aye,” his friend replies, ruefully shaking his head, “but at the wrong end.” They miss Connelly completing his hat-trick in scoring Whitehaven’s sixth goal. Not that it matters much by then.

Admission: £4
Date: 15th March 2011

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