I’m reading Brave New World as the train pulls in to Billingham, Huxley’s dystopian vision of a synthetically-engineered future partly inspired, like Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner cityscapes, by the town’s petro chemical skyline:
"…one of the most extraordinary of experiences, a sight almost unique in England. On either side of the road are the works. Steaming, sizzling - tall steel towers, great cylinders, pipes everywhere... At night the whole industrial world along the banks of the Tees comes to life... brilliant with a thousand lights, the great girders of the Transporter Bridge dark in silhouette: a magic city." Henry Tharold, Shell Guide to County Durham.
After forty-three years it was almost the end of the world for Billingham Town when Hartlepool United started court proceedings to reclaim £10,500 spent on improvements to Bedford Terrace while it was home to their reserve team. Volunteer helpers arrived at the ground to find a writ taped to the main gate, club officials contested the debt, and an anonymous (or some still insist imaginary) donor finally gave Hartlepool their money two days before Christmas 2010. With the threat of extinction lifted Billingham ended last season comfortably above the relegation places but a poor start has left them with just a single point from their opening four league games and looking over their shoulders at the bottom of the league. Manager Carl Jarrett must wish he could produce bokanovsky clones of some of the club’s former players, starting with Gary Pallister, who moved to Middlesbrough in 1984 in exchange for a set of kit, a bag of balls and a goal net, and Notts County midfielder Neal Bishop, whose route to Meadow Lane took in Barnet, York City, Whitby Town and the same Billingham squad as his 16-year-old brother and 46-year-old dad.
It’s been a much better start for Sunderland RCA, top of the league after five games and unbeaten this season before losing at Spennymoor Town in the FA Cup preliminary round. Top scorer Gavin Barton – seven goals in just five games for the club – moved to Spennymoor before the tie, though ex-York City winger Bryan Stewart has since made the opposite journey, joining Andy Jennings and Mark Davison in a front trio that remains among the most dangerous in the Northern League.
It’s a blowy night on the North Sea coast and RCA don’t look much like title contenders in a scrappy first half, the wind blowing the ball around in directions every bit as inexplicable as Michael Gove's pronouncements on education. Manager Neil Hixon watches from the edge of his technical area, arms folded across his chest. “Play, play! Movement, movement!” coach George Herd – an ex-Scotland international who made almost 300 appearances for Sunderland – shouts as the visitors fire high balls across the area. “Look to feet, look to feet!”
Billingham old boy Andy Jennings has the best of the early chances when home keeper James Briggs miscues a clearing kick. Stewart retrieves the spinning ball by the left-side corner flag, but Briggs recovers his poise to turn the low shot one-handed around the post. As RCA begin - as local boy and Maximo Park frontman Paul Smith might say - to apply some pressure, Briggs gets both hands to a Stewart shot and acrobatically pushes away a thirty-yard strike from the advancing right-back, though both come to him at the right height for a goalkeeper (my thanks to the football pundits’ book of cliché). With just minutes to go before the break Gary Shields just about manages to stay onside and squares a cross for Davison to curl first time into the roof of the net. The RCA players are still grinning when Steve Roberts equalises, heading in from a corner with the last touch of the half.
The hundred or so fans find shelter in their cars or head inside the tea hut – a wooden portakabin with tables and chairs and a Canteen sign stuck in one window – as they wait for the teams to come back out. When they do, the football is even more warming than the half-time Bovril. The goal and the wind give the home side extra impetus, Jamie Owens twisting, turning and hitting the base of the post and James Hackett – scorer of eight goals already this season for Thornaby Dubliners – warming Gary Hoggeth’s hands in the RCA goal. The visitors break, Jennings meeting an ankle-high cross with his head and scooping it over Briggs and into the top corner. Town respond immediately, Michael Arthur played into space down the left and clipping the ball over Hoggeth as he sprawls to cover the post. Arthur shoots just over from an identical position, Jennings rounds the keeper but pokes the ball wide, and then Stewart converts a penalty for 3-2 when Davison has both feet taken from under him in the area.
After that incendiary opening twenty minutes, the game inevitably slows. Jennings kills it completely ten minutes from time, his outstretched leg stabbing the ball past Briggs after a shot comes back off the post. Temporarily, at least, Sunderland RCA are four points clear at the top of the league.
Date: 6th September 2011