Chelsea – Manchester United wasn’t the only game taking place on the night of April 6th. At the southernmost edge of Sunderland, within sight of the Tunstall Hills and North Sea, it’s second against first in the Wearside League, Ryhope Colliery Welfare versus Easington Colliery.
For much of the season it looked like Easington, who along with Redcar have applied for promotion to the Northern League, would run away with the title in the same manner as Scarborough Town did last year, but their stuttering recent form – including a 2-1 home defeat to Darlington Cleveland Bridge at the weekend – has left them looking over their shoulders at Ryhope, Redcar and New Marske. For Ryhope, founded in 1892 but whose heyday came in the 1960s when over 4,000 fans packed in to the Recreation Ground to see an FA Cup first round tie with Workington Town, the season is shaping up for a hectic, and potentially historic, climax with a League Cup final against Willington, a Shipowners Cup final versus Easington and a Monkwearmouth Cup final at Kirkbymoorside on top of the title run-in. Fixture congestion is an inevitable consequence, with this their third game in just five days, including a 2-1 extra-time victory over New Marske in the League Cup semi-final.
Despite their success on the pitch, it’s a little too early for Ryhope to be thinking of moving up the pyramid. While there are plans to extend hard standing around all four sides of the pitch, a Northern League ground inspection in December found the changing rooms were a foot too narrow for the higher league which, along with the lack of cover, currently poses a far more intractable barrier to promotion.
Width isn’t a problem outside, where a crowd of almost a hundred, including local footballing celebrities Keith Stoker (who as Assistant Secretary of Hylton Colliery Welfare once swapped team sheets with Brian Clough before a match with Hartlepool Reserves) and ex-Seaham Red Star player and coach Joe Dixon, has gathered along both sides of the pitch. Ryhope take an early lead and with the Easington team rattled and their defence embroiled in a continuing argument, the home side pile forward in search of a second, only for their momentum to be disrupted by the sound of the referee’s whistle. “Christ man, are you watching the same game?” a Ryhope player asks when he’s pulled up for a foul. The home fans are dancing on the touchline in the 24th minute when a long cross from the right is nodded back across goal and bundled in on the line with the Easington keeper stranded. “Get in!” shouts Martin Swales on the Ryhope bench. “We don’t stop, we don’t stop.” “Come on boys, let’s have a lift,” replies an Easington player.
His team gets a goal back shortly after the restart and Jimmy French in the Ryhope goal has to make a smart one handed save to keep his side ahead. But as the game wears on it’s Ryhope who are in the ascendancy. A diving header goes inches wide and a lob beats the keeper but drops the wrong side of the bar before the home team kill the game off, a shot hooked back over the goalkeeper’s head after he tips a goalbound effort off the line. Easington huff and puff but misplaced passes and resolute defending keeps them comfortably at bay. With minutes to go French rushes to the edge of the area and pushes the ball out with his hands. “He was yards outside,” yell the Easington bench, though it looks more like an inch, if that, to me. The linesman flags for a throw-in. “You bottled it, liner,” an Easington fan tells him. “He wasn’t outside the box. We’ll talk about it at the end,” he replies. “You bottled it.” “You can’t say that.” “You bottled it.” “That’s your last chance.” “You bottled it.” “Last chance.” “Doesn’t matter now, it’s finished anyway.”
Soon enough it really is. Ryhope, still with a game in hand, are just three points behind in the race for the title.
Date: 6th April 2011