It’s a gorgeous April day, the warmest of the year on the south bank of the river, but the fog rolls in as I cross to the north of the Tyne and Cullercoats is all but deserted. A small troop of kayakers paddle in the sea like spectres on an Elsinore battlement; a JCB digger is parked on a sandy beach littered with the remnants of chip shop dinners.
Although it’s long since been swallowed by the urban sprawl of North Tyneside, Cullercoats has its own distinct history as a fishing village and fashionable bathing resort. The Cullercoats Colony, a group of artists which, between 1881 and 1882, included the renowned American illustrator Winslow Homer, helped put the village on the cultural map. The small bay, once home to coble boats and salt pans, still houses the Dove Marine Laboratory, first opened in October 1897, while the nearby Metro station, built the year Homer left as part of a loop in the North Eastern Railway, maintains its Victorian bridge and platform canopies. Andy Taylor, guitarist with Duran Duran, was born in Cullercoats in 1961; Chas Chandler, ex-Animal and later manager of Jimi Hendrix and Slade, lived there before his death in 1996.
Though it’s nowhere near as renowned as any of those, Cullercoats Football Club is fast approaching a milestone of its own. Founded in 1915, the black and whites had their greatest period of success in the late-1930s, winning two out of three South East Northumberland League titles and the League Cup in the season in between. Promoted to the middle division of the Northern Alliance in 2008, when they finished runners-up to Killingworth Sporting, they’re sixth in the table, eighteen points behind leaders Hebburn Reyrolle and nineteen ahead of Stobswood Welfare, who prop up the table in sixteenth. For much of the season that was a position occupied by Forest Hall, but after taking just a single point from their opening fifteen games five wins in their last six – including an 8-0 home win over third-bottom North Shields Athletic – have lifted them into fifteenth.
With the fog getting worse by the minute I’m almost certain the game has been called off until I turn a corner behind the Sea Life Centre and hear a shout of “Man on!” A few hundred metres inland from the North Sea, Cullercoats’ Links Avenue pitch has a single-storey changing room block on one side and a main road, bus stop and road sign marking the boundary with Tynemouth behind the nearest goal. Except for the home goalkeeper, I can’t make out a single thing at the opposite end of the pitch, though I suspect on a clear day you’ll be able to see overhead Metro cables and the French Gothic spire of St George’s Church.
The home side do most of the early attacking but outstretched legs and some desperate blocks just about keep them at bay. With ten minutes gone, Forest Hall’s keeper palms a shot against his left-hand post. “Pressure the ball,” comes a voice through the gloom. Gradually, the away side improve, and a shadowy five-man passing move ends with a first-time shot swerving metres past the post. “We’re all going to make mistakes,” shouts a Cullercoats defender. “First pass you see, lads, first pass you see.” Just before half time a misplaced ball squeezes through the goalkeeper’s hands, a Cullercoats player squares it across the unguarded goal and a forward spins a shot wide from six yards out. It’s a costly miss: with their next attack Forest Hall produce the best moment of the half, a looping cross from the right redirected in to the top corner of the net via the number 9’s head. “How come their tops are all wet?” asks a substitute, shivering in the fog. “Didn’t you do geography at school, like?” “Yeah, but we didn’t study weird weather, did we?”
“The effort’s got to be better, lads,” cajoles the Cullercoats captain as the teams come back from a six-minute break (no namby-pamby quarter hours this far down the pyramid; at least not when there’s still a danger of it getting dark before full-time). The fog lifts enough for me to locate the Metro line and a junior football game taking place on a second pitch. The home side force two corners but it’s the visitors who fashion the best chance, the number 9 spinning a defender and letting fly with a shot that the keeper gets his fingertips to and turns away from goal. Minutes later the same player outpaces two players down the left and his cross is volleyed in off the bar. “Remember last week?” the home captain asks. “It’s still there for us.” “Twenty minutes,” echoes his manager, “plenty of time if you decide to start playing.” They try their very best, a shot deflecting on to the bar and out for a corner before they finally cut the deficit with ten minutes remaining, Forest Hall having previously squandered two glorious chances to extend their lead. But the away side cling on – and with Stobswood winning 4-2 at Berwick United Ultras, North Shields Athletic drop two into the single relegation place.
Date: 20th April 2011