Sunday, 29 May 2011

Ground 173: Amberley Park, Killingworth

First contested in 1989, when Blyth Kitty Brewster saw off the challenge of Heaton Corner House, the Northern Football Alliance League Cup has since been won by the likes of West Allotment Celtic, Team Northumbria, Shankhouse, Percy Main Amateurs and Morpeth Town. Amberley Park, home of Killingworth Sporting and located near the site where, in 1814, a 33-year-old colliery engineer by the name of George Stephenson trialled his first working locomotive, is the venue for tonight’s 23rd final between Ashington Colliers – the reserve eleven of the Northern League side – and Heaton Stannington, whose 2-1 weekend win over Alnwick Town had helped Ponteland United to their first ever Premier Division title.

Renamed in honour of George Dobbins – the long-serving Northern Alliance committee member who was League Chairman at the time of his death in March 2010 – this season’s League Cup saw Alnwick Town put twenty unanswered goals past Chopwell Officials, Red House Farm and Heddon in the opening three rounds before falling 8-7 on penalties to Whitley Bay A in the fourth. Bay went out in the semi-final, Heaton Stannington – who’d previously beaten Newcastle East End, Murton and Percy Main – coming back from two goals down in the first eight minutes to eventually win 4-2 on penalty kicks.

A 6-3 win at four-time winners Carlisle City set Ashington on their way to Amberley Park. After Amble and Newcastle University were dispensed with in the second and third rounds, Wark – who’d previously knocked out holders Hebburn Reyrolle - were beaten 7-4 in the fourth. There were four goals shared in the semi at Blyth Town, the Colliers scoring the final three to make up for the disappointment of their lowly 10th place in the league.

It’s the final game of the Northern Football Alliance season and the great, the good and the groundhoppers have all turned out. Jarrod Suddick, Ponteland United manager and son of ex-Newcastle and Blackpool midfielder Alan, watches from a corner flag, Mick Jeffels, who recently swapped Walker Central for Seaton Delaval Amateurs, does a circuit of the pitch, while Percy Main coach Mick Ritchie walks his dog behind the goal the Colliers are defending. The game begins at a thunderous pace. Heaton are denied a penalty in the first fifteen minutes when a shot is blocked simultaneously by a foul and a handball, and have a headed goal flagged correctly offside. The frame of the goal is rattled as often as Alex Ferguson at a press conference and Shaun Backhouse, the Heaton goalkeeper, goes full-length to claw a shot away. “How’s this still goalless?” asks Ian Cusack, Percy Main’s assistant secretary, at half-time.

Backhouse saves Van der Sar style with his feet, Heaton hit the crossbar from a corner and Ashington’s Craig Towart makes a brilliant one-handed stop as both sides edge closer to scoring the winning goal. The clock ticks by, a few people mutter about having to leave early if it goes to extra time – “I said I’d be back in the bar by quarter past nine” – and then, with just a minute left to play, the ball rolls right to left across the face of the goal and Lawrence McKenna – the league’s second highest scorer behind Shankhouse’s David Dormand - slides in past Towart at the back post. The touchline erupts. All over the pitch, Ashington players drop to their haunches and stare off into space.

The trophy is carried out on a table and the victorious manager jogs back to get a camera from his car. “McKenna is magic!” reads the headline in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle.

The new season starts on August 14th.

Amission: £2
Date: 25th May 2011

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Ground 172: Hall Lane, Willington AFC

Willington are possibly the most famous club you’ve never heard of.

There’s been a football team in the tiny ex-mining village of around 7,000 people since 1890, when Willington Rovers – later Rangers, Wednesday and finally Brancepeth Colliery Rangers – were established. The club reached the final of the 1899 Durham Amateur Cup, losing 4-1 to Consett Swifts, before folding in 1906. After a brief hiatus caused by Rangers’ demise, Willington Temperance AFC entered the ranks of the Auckland and District League later that same year, shortening their name to Willington sometime before they filled the Northern League place vacated by Knaresborough in the summer of 1911.

It was a year in which Willington changed grounds too, buying the land that now makes up Hall Lane from the 9th Viscount Boyne. The first ever game at what remains the club’s home a century later took place on September 2nd. A crowd of 5,000 turned up for the Christmas derby with neighbouring Crook Town, who ended the season in third, two places ahead of newcomers Willington and the same number behind Bishop Auckland, Northern League champions for the sixth time.

Runners-up to Esh Winning the following year, Willington took the first of their Northern League titles in 1914. They were champions on two more occasions in the 1920s, a decade in which they also lifted the first three of their eight Northern League Cups.

Some of Willington’s former players enjoyed contemporary success of their own. Jimmy Banks, an inside forward who’d transferred to Tottenham Hotspur in 1913, won an FA Cup winners’ medal against Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1921, scoring the only goal against holders Aston Villa as Spurs made the final. Billy Ashurst, a title winner in the Willington side of 1914, made 200 appearances in defence for Notts County in the mid-1920s, winning five England caps and turning out in the colours of Lincoln and West Bromwich Albion. His younger brother, Eli Ashurst, played 66 times for Birmingham City but died before his 26th birthday. Walter Holmes went on to Middlesbrough; Teddy Maguire reached an FA Cup final with Wolves in 1939. George Tweedy made almost 350 appearances in goal for Grimsby Town, helping the Mariners to two FA Cup semi-finals, the Second Division title and their highest-ever placing of fifth in the old Division One. He retired, aged 40, in 1953, seventeen years after earning his only England cap in a 6-2 win over Hungary.

1953 was also the year of Hall Lane’s record crowd, 10,000 squeezing in for an FA Amateur Cup tie with Bromley. It was the competition that brought the club its greatest moment of glory in a 4-0 win over Bishop Auckland in front of 88,000 fans at Wembley Stadium. Captain Eddie Taylor – a Sunderland shipyard worker whose younger brother, Ernie, would go on to play in FA Cup finals for Newcastle United, Blackpool and Manchester United – headed the opening goal, with Rutherford and Larmouth adding two more before the half hour. Auckland dominated but couldn’t find a way past Jack Snowdon in the Willington goal. Matt Armstrong, whose two goals in a minute had seen off Wimbledon in the third round, scored a fourth. “Soccer amateurs thrill Wembley thousands,” the newspapers reported the game. For Willington it was ample revenge for 1939, when they’d lost in the final to three extra-time goals from Bishop Auckland’s Laurie Wensley, watched by 20,000 at Sunderland’s Roker Park. Wensley had spent the morning of the game delivering sacks of coal. Also among the winning side that day was a young wing-half called Bob Paisley.

A new stand – Willington AFC emblazoned across the front – was built with the Wembley proceeds. Two Durham Benevolent Bowls and a seventh Northern League Cup soon followed, but they would prove to be club’s last honours until the mid-1970s, a 2-1 League Cup win over Bishop Auckland – who else? – giving Willington their first trophy in almost two decades. In 1973, 4,500 turned out in a gale to see the goalless FA Cup first round game with Blackburn Rovers, Tommy Holden missing a late chance for the Durham side. Rovers, with Derek Fazackerley and Danish international Preben Arentoft – a Fairs Cup winner with Newcastle United – in their team, triumphed 6-1 in the replay and donated Hall Lane’s first set of floodlights in return.

Out of the light came some of Willington’s darkest ever days. In the three seasons between 1981 and 1984 they won a total of seven league games, including a winless run that stretched for 53 matches from October 1982. Alan Durban, a First Division title winner at Brian Clough’s Derby County, briefly managed the club after being sacked by Sunderland at the start of the 1984-85 season. Durban left for Cardiff – and two successive relegations – a month later and was replaced by Malcolm Allison, recently fired by Middlesbrough. Allison’s first game in charge was a 1-0 home defeat to Hartlepool Reserves. He left soon after to coach in the Middle East – between them Durban and Allison won 10 out of 22 games.

Next to take charge were Eddie Kyle, once of St Mirren, and Alan Murray, an ex-Middlesbrough midfielder who turned out 68 times in Willington’s blue and white stripes. The managerial duo departed for Hartlepool United, masterminding the 1993 FA Cup win over Premier League Crystal Palace. By the time Harry Pearson visited Hall Lane in 1994 he found “a heavily vandalised clubhouse with steel shutters across the windows” and the words “One Win” chalked on the concrete steps. As the graffiti implied, it was something that Willington rarely ever managed to do. Alan Shoulder, an FA Cup hero with Blyth Spartans three decades earlier, spent a couple of seasons in the dugout, turning out twice in three days at the age of 49, his team losing 9-1 and 8-0. In 2002-03 Willington used 78 different players and slumped to a 13-0 loss at Sunderland Nissan. Stan Cummins, an extravagantly-skilled midfielder with Sunderland and Middlesbrough, was the last of Hall Lane’s big name managers. Aged 45, he played 11 times before resigning in the midst of the club’s worst ever season, which ended in their relegation from the Northern League after an unbroken stay of 94 years.

Rock bottom of the Wearside League in the previous two seasons, Willington – now managed by ex-Wolves schoolboy Robert Lee, who moved up from coaching one of the club’s thriving youth teams in the wake of a 10-0 hammering at New Marske – have improved to 14th this year, reaching their first cup final since the game against Bishop Auckland in 1976. It’s the final day of the Wearside League season, and Ryhope Colliery Welfare – already winners of the league title, Sunderland Shipowners’ and Monkwearmouth Cups – are on the brink of only the third clean sweep of all four trophies since the league was formed in 1892.

The cinder terraces Pearson wrote about are gone, replaced by grass banks and a small flatpack stand, with children kicking a ball around on the rise behind. The covered main stand is still there, with holes in the side of its roof and a players’ tunnel which leads to a wooden fence and an overgrown patch of waste ground. The crowd of 489 is Hall Lane’s biggest for years and a welcome boost to a club that requires £8,000 a season just to cover basic running costs.

The two teams are playing as much against end-of-season fatigue and the blustery wind as they are against each other. The players work hard but struggle to create many chances to score. Willington, their defence marshalled by Mikey Weston and John Richardson, cede possession and territory, pinning their hopes on exactly the kind of breakaway goal Danny Lee almost provides with half an hour played, but Paul Thorns heads the ball wide of the unguarded goal.

Although Ryhope have the better of the game – John Butler, their 28-goal top scorer going close on at least four occasions – it takes a brilliant save from Lenny French to keep the scores level in extra time. “Who are ya? Who are ya?” scream a couple of dozen kids in Willington tops as Ryhope scramble the ball away. When Nathan O’Neill puts a late header wide, his team’s quadruple hopes come down to ten penalty kicks. Andrew Stocks, just 17, can’t do anything to stop the first four attempts, and when Thorns follows Turner in missing with his shot at goal, Willington’s players slump to the floor while Ryhope’s pile on top of the prostrate Lenny French.

Champagne and the League Cup trophy are carried on to the pitch. Those in blue and white look on disconsolately as Ryhope unfurl a ‘Quadruple Winners’ banner. “Willington made it very hard for us,” says triumphant manager Martin Swales. It's a magnificent achievement by Ryhope's finest side since the mid-1960s. For Willington, you can only hope it’s the start of the long road back.

Admission: £2
Date: 21st May 2011

Friday, 27 May 2011

Football Art: Sir Bobby Robson

"There was never another club for me when I was growing up. My father was a Newcastle supporter all his life. I grew up watching men like Jackie Milburn and Len Shackleton. They were my heroes…If my dad had known I was going to be manager one day, he wouldn't have believed it. He'd have been so proud. He would have somersaulted all the way to the games.”

“Very fitting,” said Lady Elsie Robson, unveiling the Sir Bobby Robson Memorial Garden on the day Newcastle United played another of his former sides, West Bromwich Albion. Between the remnants of the town’s medieval defensive walls and the cantilevered back of the Gallowgate End, the garden stands on the old site of the Carnegie Electric building, opposite the Tyneside Irish Centre and Newcastle’s Chinese arch, with four trees backing on to a billboard and sandstone walls pointing back towards the corner of St Andrew’s Street and Gallowgate Road.

Five white limestone blocks capture parts of a career which began at Langley Park pit and later took in honours at home and abroad, the freedom of three cities and the establishment of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, which to date has raised more than £3.3 million towards developing treatments for cancer patients. Sculpted by Graeme Mitcheson, the blocks are placed along a wide gravel pathway. One lists the club sides he played for and managed, another his achievements with England: four goals in twenty appearances, “the World Cup quarter finals in Mexico ’86 and the semi finals at Italia ’90”.

“I just think my father would have been amazed that a memorial garden has been set up in the centre of Newcastle, particularly in the shadow of St James’ Park,” said Andrew Robson, the second of Sir Bobby's three sons. Like his hero Jackie Milburn, whose statue now stands in St James' Boulevard, the stories of the miner's son from Sacriston, County Durham will endure for generations of Newcastle fans to come.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Ground 171: Palmersville Community Centre, Forest Hall

Although I’ve been using the Tyne & Wear Metro system since it first opened in 1981, I don’t think I’ve ever got off at Palmersville (a fact which might owe something to a late-night documentary I once saw on Tyne Tees in which a group of middle-aged country & western obsessives in cowboy hats and snakeskin belts travelled between Shiremoor and Monkseaton massacring songs by Willie Nelson. Believe me, you don’t risk hearing that twice).

There’s no arguing against the lure of Forest Hall versus Berwick United Ultras at the bottom of the Northern Football Alliance Division One, though. At 2.30pm, as the forecast rain began tipping down, Berwick kicked off to a non-playing audience composed of me, four substitutes, two club officials who keep up a constant stream of instructions – “Stay there. Use your eyes. Hold it, hold it. That’s the ball. Why did you do that? Hold. Use your common sense.” - while running the line, and a pair of kids who wander in with an old ball and leave before half time.

Forest Hall, founded in 1996 and now with 23 separate teams, spent four years raising a £25,000 contribution towards the brand spanking new £1.2 million East Palmersville Sports Pavilion, funded by North Tyneside Council and a Football Foundation grant of almost £500,000. The facilities are a big improvement on their old wooden clubhouse, but it’s on the pitch where the club has struggled this season, losing fourteen of their first fifteen games before six wins in their next seven moved them briefly off the bottom and three successive losses dumped them straight back. The visitors, formed in 2006 through the merger of Berwick’s two oldest amateur sides, Spittal Rovers and Highfield United, haven’t managed to pick up three points since a 7-4 romp at Stobswood Welfare on the last weekend in March, and are third bottom on 25 points, three ahead of Forest Hall and one in front of North Shields Athletic.

In a scrappy, error strewn start on the now slippery pitch, it takes fifteen minutes for either side to threaten a goal, Berwick’s keeper allowing the ball to dribble through his legs and having to scurry back to retrieve it from the line. With both teams equally uncompromising in their tackles, the referee is the busiest man on the pitch. A Forest Hall midfielder skips round two challenges but is felled by the third. “You dived, you cock,” the defender says. “Eh? I slipped, aye, after you hoofed us in the air.” They’re soon at it again, the Berwick defender sliding in as his opponent attempts a turn to the right. “You shouldn’t be diving in like that,” the Berwick centre-forward shouts back from halfway. “I didn’t dive in,” turning to face the Forest Hall player, “I didn’t foul you at all.”

The rain falls, Berwick shank a couple of shots wide and Forest Hall put a free kick over the bar and have a flick on chested off the line. Then, right on the stroke of half time, the twice-fouled Forest Hall midfielder picks up the ball and, without breaking stride, hits it right-footed into the bottom corner of the net.

Berwick have the ball but Forest Hall the chances when play restarts after the break. A forward shoots just wide, another misses with only the keeper to beat. The Forest Hall linesman flags a couple of dubious offsides before the home team score a second, a forward latching on to a backpass and sliding the ball through the goalkeeper’s legs. Forest Hall stretch their lead, a substitute squeezing through a gap on the edge of the area and celebrating with a double somersault, before Berwick manage a shot on goal, Jamie Punton rolling the ball into the net as the entire home defence appeal for handball. “Aw ref, man. He might as well have caught it. That’s ridiculous,” the goalkeeper moans. The referee loses control, showing five yellow cards before, with arguments still raging over a disallowed Berwick goal, three goals in the last five minutes give Forest Hall a flattering 6-1 win. “Let’s just get this game ower with,” says a Berwick defender as his clearance smacks a teammate in the face and the fifth goal slides into the net.

It’s a long journey home for Berwick, who slip to second bottom of the league. On Monday they play at South Shields United and have it all to do again.

Admission: Free
Date: May 7th 2011

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Ground 170: Derwent Park, Annfield Plain

This is Annfield Plain. Twelve miles south-west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, overlooked by the Pontop Pike TV mast and hometown of ex-cruiserweight champion of the world ‘Gentleman’ Glenn McCrory; “most of Annfield Plain is made up of housing, a few run down shops and several pubs,” its Wikipedia entry promisingly states.

The town’s had a football team of its own since 1890, when Annfield Celtic first came into being. Northern Football Alliance champions in 1920 and 1923 and runners-up, as Celtic, in 1904, Annfield Plain AFC later had a mostly unremarkable 40-year spell in the now-defunct North Eastern League before switching to the Wearside in 1964.

Three times – in 1926, 1928 and 1964 – Plain reached the First Round proper of the FA Cup. York legend Norman Wilkinson – “one of the most loyal and outstanding players ever to appear for City,” in the words of the club’s official history, and a man who knew about FA Cup success himself, having played up front in the York side which famously took Newcastle United to a semi-final replay – finished his playing days with the club in the Wearside League. Wilkinson worked as a cobbler while turning out for York, commuting from north-west Durham – where he lived at home and looked after his elderly father – by public transport for matches. After retiring as a player, he worked the Annfield Plain turnstile, helping to sell raffle tickets, take down the nets and retrieve stray balls.

Norman Wilkinson wasn’t the only famous striker to run out at Derwent Park. Ralph Allen, who scored 47 goals in just 52 games as a Charlton Athletic player in 1934-35, ended his career here too. Andy Graver, Lincoln City’s record goalscorer, left Plain to sign for Newcastle United in 1949. Reg Keating also ended up at St James’ Park, later scoring 35 goals in two and a half seasons with Cardiff City. In August 1993, Kevin Keegan and a Newcastle United side made the opposite journey in a pre-season friendly arranged to mark Plain’s centenary and raise funds for the West Stanley Colliery Disaster Memorial Fund (on 16 February 1909 an explosion in a pit shaft killed 168 men and boys. Frank Keegan grandfather of the future England captain, was one of the 30 or so who got out alive). Cypriot international Costas Costa, once of FC Utrecht and Olympiakos Nicosia, scored his only goal in a black and white shirt with a shot from inside his own half. Back then, it still wasn’t enough to earn him a contract.

Plain, Wearside League champions once previously in 1985, had a managerial messiah of their own in the late 1990s, Kenny Lindoe – now at Consett – leading the club to a second title in 1998. Lindoe left for Brandon United - Derwent Park not meeting the Northern League ground criteria – taking the Durham club from third-bottom to Division Two champions in two seasons and, even more improbably, holding off Bedlington Terriers – title winners five years in a row – to finish top of Division One three years later.
Without Lindoe, Brandon slipped back into Division Two and Annfield Plain have never finished higher than last season’s sixth place, one behind today’s opponents Cleator Moor Celtic, who’ve travelled from the Cumbrian birthplace of Kangol hats and one-time England keeper Scott Carson. Plain take the lead after 25 minutes when the current Celtic custodian (Carson came through the youth ranks at Cleator before moving on to Workington and Leeds) taps a free kick back out onto Paul Henderson’s head, the on-loan Consett forward heading in at the post. “Come on boys, it’s only one goal,” a Celtic player shouts, but neither he nor any of his teammates can threaten the Annfield Plain goal. The pitch, lovingly cared for, is bordered by grassy banks on three sides and a rusty corrugated fence, propped up with metal posts and bent inwards at the top. A crumbling stand provides rudimentary cover, with several steps of terracing and some plastic chairs along the back row. At half-time the players disappear down a whitewashed tunnel, vandalised by ‘John, Tom and Deano 2009’.

“Same again, lads,” the Annfield Plain keeper says at the start of the second half. With the wind at their backs the home side have a shot hacked off the line and hit the crossbar twice before Jonathan Kemp heads in direct from a corner to finally kill the game. “What a bastard surprise,” says the Cleator number 10.
Admission: £2
Date: May 2nd 2011

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Ground 169: St James' Park, Alnwick Town.

Alnwick and football go back a long way. Back to 1366 in fact, when Harry Hotspur, the man who, in a roundabout way, gave Tottenham the appendation to its name, was born the eldest son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland. Fittingly, Hotspur was always more comfortable in attack, recovering from a moonlit first-leg loss at the Battle of Otterburn to win the return at Humbleton Hill (“Ten thousand bold Scots, two and twenty nights, Balk’d in their own blood,” Shakespeare wrote in his later report of the match, making it sound a bit like the 2008 UEFA Cup Final). Ultimately, though, Harry proved no more adept at choosing sides than Juande Ramos, losing away to King Henry IV at the 1403 Battle of Shrewsbury. Instead of a trophy it was his body parts that were put on display – in Chester, London, Bristol and Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

“O Percy, thou art dust, and food for –“
“For worms, brave Percy.” Henry IV, Part I.

The game itself has been played in the town since 1762, when the annual Shrovetide football match first took place. Two teams of roughly fifty-a-side represent the parishes of St Michael’s and St Paul’s, play beginning when the Duke of Northumberland drops a ball from the Barbican of Alnwick Castle and ending when one of the teams puts a second goal through the three-foot-wide wooden targets, placed a furlong apart by the banks of the River Aln.

Things got even more organised in 1879 when Alnwick United Services were formed as the first association football side between Newcastle and the Scottish town of Dunbar, lifting the inaugural North Northumberland League title two decades later. Renamed Alnwick Town in 1936, the club enjoyed its halcyon years in the thirteen seasons between 1960 and 1972, winning the Northern Alliance eight times, finishing runners-up in 1960, ’62 and ‘67 and only losing out to Ashington in the final of the 1962 Northumberland Senior Cup. Moving up to the Northern League in 1982, they spent two seasons in the top flight at the beginning of the 1990s but ended up bottom of the heap in 2007 and were relegated back to the Alliance with their St James’ Park ground (the club’s home since 1900) no longer fit for the Northern League.

The club itself might have gone out of business had it not been for Tom McKie. The ex-chairman, owner of a coffee shop and takeaway in Alnwick town centre, returned at the head of a consortium which narrowly saved the club from extinction. McKie was subsequently nominated for the Northumberland Gazette’s Sports Personality of the Year after a season in which Alnwick won the Pin Point Recruitment Charity Cup, their first silverware since 1987. Helped by a £20,000 grant from the local council and a pledge of the same amount in each of the next five seasons from landlord and patron the Duke of Northumberland, the club have been able to redevelop their ground back to Northern League standard – an improvement manager Albert Straughan has been replicating on the pitch. Eleven straight wins put Straughan’s team thirteen points clear at the top of the Northern Alliance Premier in early-November, but Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at struggling Walker Central has left them trailing new leaders Ponteland United by four points with two games in hand and five still to play.

The first of those is against fifth-placed Seaton Delaval Amateurs, who are looking for swift revenge for last week’s controversial 2-1 home defeat. The two sides are evenly matched in the opening half hour, Alnwick having a goalbound effort sliced off the line before Craig Cook powers past home captain Bryan Murray and rolls the ball across the oncoming six-foot frame of Brian Brooks to put Delaval a goal ahead. Alnwick have a goal disallowed for a push on keeper Stephen Mundy, who tips a Neil Catlow free-kick over and, even more impressively, claws a James Swordy shot onto the angle of post and bar, but with young captain Andrew Johnson dominant in the air and Cook, Luke Newton and Paul Hodge forming a dangerous trio in attack, Delaval merit their lead at half-time. “We’re all waiting for someone else to make something happen,” complains an Alnwick player as the teams leave the pitch.

The home side respond by bringing top scorer and ex-Morpeth Town forward Ben Keenan on at the break. “You’re not going to win any headers against him so make sure you get the second ball,” Delaval manager Nick Gray warns his team. As in the first half, Alnwick look to get the ball forward quickly but despite the deft probing of former Ryton and Ashington midfielder Mark Cockburn the home side’s only clear chance falls to Keenan, who blazes over the crossbar with eight minutes left to play. Delaval see the game out, their goal largely untroubled, for a deserved three points, sending most of the Bank Holiday crowd of almost a hundred – including a few who’ve never left their pitchside seats in the clubhouse bar – home disappointed. “Absolute rubbish,” says one Alnwick fan, somewhat harshly. As he's wearing a Newcastle United training top, I doubt it's the first time he's felt that way leaving St James' Park.

Admission: £2
Date: May 2nd 2011

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Ground 168: Brewery Field, Spennymoor Town

Spennymoor United’s Icarian existence in the Northern Premier League ended ignominiously in April 2005, their wings clipped by a discarded cigarette. The fire which broke out at the Brewery Field ground’s uninsured social club in the early hours of Christmas Day 2003 precipitated a series of events which saw owner Benny Mottram depart, crowds dwindle, players go unpaid and the club’s expulsion from the League amid a controversy which saw three different sides claiming first place. Ten league titles, more than twice as many cups, FA Trophy semi-finalists, 2-1 winners at Ipswich Town in the second round of the FA Cup: so ended the 101-year history of Spennymoor United FC.

Enter Evenwood Town. Formed in 1931, twenty-seven years after the Moors first took to the pitch, the three-time Northern League champions had finished the season a lowly 16th place in Division Two. By far the smallest community still supporting a Northern League team, Evenwood’s committee, frustrated in their attempts to set up a community sports trust and with the problem of a dilapidated ground, announced their decision to fold the club. The Spennymoor Supporters’ Trust - in the process of forming a side of their own to compete in the Wearside League, a feeder to the Northern League – amalgamated with a group representing their defunct near-neighbours and, to the consternation of those who felt relegated Easington Colliery should have been given reprieved instead, took Evenwood’s place in Division Two under the new name of Spennymoor Town FC. “We’re delighted that Spennymoor will be returning to the Northern League. They will be a breath of fresh air for the Second Division and the town,” said Northern League Chairman Mike Amos. “In effect, Evenwood are moving ground, and then it’s a matter for Durham FA to approve the name change.”

The new team - playing in the Moors’ club colours of black and white stripes – returned to the vacant Brewery Field (Spennymoor’s home since 1904) in time for the start of the 2005-2006 season. After finishing eighth in their first year, they stormed to the title in their next, ex-Middlesbrough, Osasuna and Manchester City midfielder Jamie Pollock – who’d already led United to a Northern Premier League promotion in 2003 – overseeing a campaign in which the club went undefeated for six months and won their final seventeen games to clinch the title with a ten-point gap to runners-up Seaham Red Star. Although Pollock departed that summer – and a row with the council saw the club served with a twenty-eight day notice of eviction before club chairman Alan Courtney was able to negotiate a new 25-year lease – his assistant Jason Ainsley, an-ex United, Hartlepool and Durham City midfielder nicknamed ‘God’ by the Brewery Field fans, took over the reins. You can measure his success by the fact that Tuesday’s 6-1 win over West Allotment Celtic sealed the club’s second Northern League title in a row.

“Just like old times,” says Dave as we get into the car, his Whitley Bay scarf standing in for the black and white of Newcastle United as it flaps against the passenger window. Thankfully, the journey is nowhere near as long it was in the Premier League: we’re at the ground for two o’clock and straight into the bar, handily sited at the top of the impressive, all-seated main stand. “Best ground in the Northern League,” Andy reckons. A window looks out on the pitch while a framed photograph shows Ryan Giggs, Mark Robins, Jim Leighton and Gary Pallister lining up as part of a visiting Manchester United team, alongside the programme from Spennymoor Town’s first Northern League game and a shot of ‘Players and Committee, Season 1906-07’

It may be Spennymoor’s big day but visitors Whitley Bay arrive determined to spoil the fun. Eight days ahead of their third successive FA Vase Final, the Bay can still clinch second place – and a possible promotion to what was the Northern Premier League – with wins from their last two games. But with whispers intensifying that the club don’t want to go up (“There must be some of the players who want promotion but I haven’t come across any yet,” a Bay fan tells me before the game), most of the fans’ attention is on next week’s trip to Wembley.

The teams kick off in front of a Northern League season-high crowd of 626, around half from Whitley Bay. “Our budget’s bigger than yours,” sing the fans behind one goal. “What’s it like to see a crowd?” reply those behind the other. What begins as “We are Spennymoor” ends as “You are Evenwood.” “You’re going all the way to Wembley for a pie,” taunt the Spennymoor fans, bizarrely. “We’re all going to Wembley, you’re all going to Aldi,” comes the quick retort from the Bell-End Choir. On the pitch, Spennymoor, with ex-Newcastle United and Norwich City junior Sam Grieveson replacing former Sunderland man Craig Turns in goal, are strangely lethargic in the opening, affording Bay time and space in the middle of the pitch. Spennymoor’s Chris Mason heads a Lee Kerr effort away from the goal-line before David Pounder curves a shot round Grieveson’s right hand and back off the bar. Having found his range, Pounder smacks one into the opposite corner on the stroke of half time.

Shortly after half-time Craig McFarlane makes it two, chipping Grieveson from the edge of the box. Spennymoor’s Kallum Griffiths is forced to head off his own line before the champions hit back, two goals in the space of a minute from Steven Richardson and Craig Hubbard levelling the scores with thirteen minutes still to play. The visitors hold on - but Consett’s 2-1 victory over Ashington takes the Steelmen three points clear in second, leaving Bay needing a fifteen-goal margin of victory at Newcastle Benfield to overhaul them.

The Spennymoor fans walk on to the pitch, unfurling a banner saying ‘Northern League Champions 2010-11’. “A magnificent achievement,” says Mike Amos before handing the trophy to skipper Leon Ryan, who this time last year was preparing for Wembley as captain of Whitley Bay. Sadly, a few Spennymoor fans plumb the depths of childishness by sticking their hands in their pockets and shaking their heads when Amos wishes Whitley Bay all the best against Coalville Town.

We leave with Spennymoor’s party just getting started. Hopefully, Whitley Bay will soon be enjoying another one of their own.

Admission: £6
Date: 30th April 2011