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.
Date: 21st May 2011