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.
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.
Date: May 2nd 2011