This time last year Ryton FC were a club that was really going places. Places like Eppleton Colliery Welfare, where after surviving their second season in the Northern League’s top flight, they made it all the way to the Durham Challenge Cup Final, losing out 2-0 to holders Billingham Synthonia.
But then disaster struck. Just a few games into the new season, club secretary Ken Rodger discovered that the £1,000 a week sponsorship money he’d been promised wasn’t actually going to arrive. Ryton, who had already set their playing budget for the year, had to sack manager Barry Fleming and his assistant Paul Brown; every single player but one – David Wansell, who’d been signed from Chester-le-Street Town’s youth team as recently as May – followed them out of the door.
Ex-Ashington assistant manager Peter Craggs arrived from a Sunday League side in Wallsend but just weeks after the club had gone out to an unlucky defeat by Scarborough Athletic in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup, Ryton’s team of untried youngsters were thrashed 8-0 at home by Division One rivals South Shields in the Second Round of the FA Vase. Craggs tried out thirty-five players in the month that followed, none with any previous Northern League experience. A 7-0 loss at Esh Winning gave the Durham side their first win of the season, Spennymoor Town won 8-1 and Shildon topped both, scoring ten without reply at the end of October. Ryton were already relegated by the middle of March, with just a solitary win, three points all season and a goal difference of -128. Not that anybody at the club was throwing in the towel. “We’ll get to the summer, regroup, and try to get back on track,” Ken Rodger told The Northern Echo.
Which is right about where Northern League Day came in. What started out as an effort to get a few dozen fans along to Kingsley Park the day before Newcastle United played at Aston Villa soon snowballed into a league-wide campaign and a national football bloggers’ get together(in Northumberland’s finest pub, naturally). Going into Northern League Day, and on the heels of a pair of heavy defeats at Consett and Dunston, Ryton’s young team had drawn both of their previous two games – their first points since August 10th – and hopes were high for a big turn out to see their match with Brian Clough’s old side Billingham Synthonia.
The sun beats down on the Tyne Valley as the two teams come out to the sight of just over a hundred fans – Ryton's third-highest attendance of the season and more than double the crowd they would ordinarily have expected. With queues building at the burger van (we’ve gone through the pies by half time, leaving “one pastie and a few hotdogs”), the home side take an early lead through Chris McCabe, a local teenager making his full debut up front, only to be pegged back by the first of James Magowan’s three goals. After a half-time snack of jam tarts, sandwiches and cups of tea, we're still in the bar when 20-year-old midfielder Robert Frame scores the home team’s second. Actually, some of us are still there when the excellent McCabe scores again just two minutes later. Not that we miss anything: how many Premier League grounds offer cold beer in a real glass and a view of the pitch through a window in the bar?
When McCabe converts a loose ball for his hat-trick there are scenes of pandemonium under the five bus shelters lining the near side of the pitch. Billingham hit the post and Alex Curran, outstanding in the Ryton goal, has to make a smart save to deny former Hartlepool United and IFK Uppsala midfielder Chay Liddle. Curran's next touch is just as crucial - a free kick from the halfway line which Daniel Wilson, another graduate of one of the nineteen youth teams the sponsorless club still operates for local players, smashes past Josh Moody in the Synners goal. Ryton, without a win in 42 games and with just seven shots on target all game, are, astonishingly, 5-1 up with a little over ten minutes left to play. “Remember you’re playing for the public who’ve turned up here today,” Craggs told them at the start of the second half.
Billingham come back, Magowan scoring twice to make it two hat-tricks and eight goals with a minute plus injury time still to go. “Settle, lads. Just settle,” Craggs says from the touchline. When the final whistle goes, there are eleven heroes in blue and black stripes, exhausted but unbeaten.
A fairytale ending, fantastic people and a grand day out in the Northumberland countryside. Like the newly-named Ryton and Crawcrook Albion, I'll be back next year.
Date: April 9th 2011