Sunday, 17 April 2011
Ground 162: Welfare Ground, Brandon United
From the 1968 Durham & District Sunday League to the most unlikely of Northern League champions thirty-five years later, life has rarely been dull at Brandon United FC . Little more substantial than an uphill street southwest of Durham City, and a few short miles from the battlefield at Neville’s Cross, where on October 17th 1346 a Scottish army of 12,000 men was routed, their king, David II, captured, imprisoned and later ransomed, and both his Chancellor and Chamberlain killed, Brandon made it all the way to the first round proper of the FA Cup twice in the 1980s, losing 3-0 to Bradford City and, more narrowly, 2-1 in a second game at Doncaster Rovers, and have sent four players on to the professional game including the mercurial Paul Dalton, signed first by Alex Ferguson and Manchester United and later of Hartlepool, Huddersfield and Plymouth Argyle. Alan Shoulder, Blyth Spartans’ centre-forward in their famous 1978 FA Cup run, once managed the club with ex-Newcastle United, Manchester City and England defender Steve Howey serving briefly as his assistant. "A super move for us all," Shoulder called it at the time – but in 2006 the club’s financial backers pulled out, the committee resigned en masse and United were relegated with just four wins in forty games. Two years later, Brandon had tumbled to the very bottom of the Northern League’s forty-two clubs, and were only saved from relegation by the travails of those in the feeder leagues.
After more impressive showings in the previous two years, Brandon went into this season having lost manager Adam Furness to Esh Winning and most of their players to rival clubs. An understandably poor start – they didn’t win a single game before October and have added only three more wins since then – was compounded by a failed ground inspection which left them in grave danger of expulsion from the Northern League irrespective of what happened on the pitch. When Furness’ replacement Steve Cook walked out following a one-all draw with third bottom Horden Colliery, Brandon were without a win in nine and had only Morpeth Town below them in the league. "I have operated with no budget and with the intent of formalising a club structure that works. I believe the club now has this,” Cook told The Northern Echo.
‘Lee Hitch is a Rapeist 2010’ is the first thing I see as I enter the Welfare Ground, daubed along the breezeblock back wall of its solitary stand. The second is the bags of sand and building materials dotted around the pitch, work progressing quickly as Brandon upgrade their ground. The third, the glorious view back over the valley, Durham Cathedral regal above the huddle of semi-detached suburban houses. The team sheet is sellotaped to the side of a cargo container. “Enjoy it,” shouts Marske keeper John McDonald. “Let’s start well, lads.”
The visitors, desperate for the points as they chase down North Shields in the third and final promotion place, hit the post and Andrew Wilkinson in the Brandon goal turns a shot away one-handed, but the bone-dry pitch hardly encourages possession football and soon enough both sides are resorting to lumping the ball high over the desperately flailing heads of their respective centre forwards. Passes bobble, Brandon put a header wastefully over the bar, and Wilkinson, whose handling is immaculate throughout, somehow gets his fingers to a rising shot. But too much of the play gets bogged down in midfield; “We’ve got to pick it up,” a Marske player shouts in frustration just before half time.
Marske come out brighter after the break. Within minutes a Brandon defender hooks off his own line and Wilkinson scampers out to stop ex-Whitby Town forward Karl Charlton. The away side finally score when a ball is laid back into the path of John Burton, who slams it low into the corner. “Blatant push, ref,” a Brandon defender complains to no avail. To the increasing consternation of their travelling fans, though, once in front Marske seem content to protect their lead. With fifteen minutes left the unthinkable happens and Brandon equalise, McDonald swatting the ball away from his line and top scorer Daniel Corbett scrambling home his 19th goal of the season. “Someone’s got to give us something,” a Marske player pleads. “Come on, lads. We need a goal. We’ve still got time.” Yellow shirts pile forward, Brandon miss a chance on the break, Atkinson blocks a shot with his feet, and then, with a minute of injury time left to play, Charlton holds off a defender and hits a shot across goal…it bounces off the post, thuds against a Brandon chest and rolls back over the line. It’s heartbreak for Brandon, but Marske, undeservedly on the balance of play, move to within three points of a promotion place – and still with a game in hand on North Shields.
Date: April 7th 2011