"Now a village with a team," begins Wingate FC's Twitter profile. A 19th century mining community whose pit closed as long ago as 1962, Wingate's 3,000 residents have been without a Saturday afternoon football side since 1995, when a club which had twice won the Monkwearmouth Cup dropped out of the Wearside League altogether after almost a decade spent in the lower reaches of Division Two.
It was an inglorious end to nearly a century of football. Wingate Albion, champions of the Wearside League in 1908-09, had also been the first club of goalkeeper Ronnie Sewell, who went on to an FA Cup victory with Burnley and an England cap while at neighbours Blackburn Rovers, where he made over 200 league appearances. Alf Young, another who started out at Albion, played almost 300 times for Hartlepool, Lincoln City and
Gillingham, while Robert Thompson left for Preston North End and later became the first Leeds United player to score a hat-trick in the Football League. Two other clubs, Wingate Colliery Welfare and Wingate FC, almost repeated Albion's title success, finishing runners-up in the Wearside League three decades apart. In 1978, Norman Corner, who'd returned to the Durham coalfield after playing professionally for Hull, Lincoln and Bradford City, managed Wingate to second place in the league and a Monkwearmouth Cup victory. It wasn't quite a last hurrah - there was a second Monkwearmouth win six years later and both Workington and Shotton Comrades were seen off on the way to the third qualifying round of the 1985-86 FA Cup - but local football, like much else in East Durham, was beginning a near-terminal decline.
Enter Steve Cook. "Chairman, manager, coach, mug," is his self-deprecating description of the role he plays at a club he founded almost single-handedly. Cook, a UEFA-qualified coach formerly of Hartlepool United and with plenty of Northern League experience at Brandon United, Seaham Red Star and Esh Winning, launched Project Wingate on Twitter at the end of February. In March, the yellow-and-blue home colours were chosen by the club's Twitter followers, with one of the winning voters selected as honorary president. By June Wingate had applied for and been accepted into the Durham Alliance, one step below the Wearside and eight promotions away from League Two, where they join the likes of Brandon British Legion, Darlington Rugby Club, Dunston Holmside Amateurs and Spennymoor Town Reserves. Twenty-five players attended training in the first week of July. "During the course of our first season we will create and train new coaches selected from the playing squad," Cook says on the club's website. It's a self-sustaining model, all fees covered in exchange for training the next generation of Wingate players at open entry sessions.
There are just over a dozen spectators at Wingate's first home friendly, including four seated on top of the dugouts and another two on the changing block roof. Wingate Welfare Park, laid out in 1930 as a miners' recreation ground, is fitted with floodlights and four steps of terracing, though the lack of pitchside railings, seats or paved standing around the touchline means there is a lot of work to be done before the club can begin to think of promotion. Substitutes sit on collapsible camping seats or kick balls against the perimeter fence as Cook and his opposite number, Billingham Town Intermediates' coach John Swanson, shout out instructions to their teams.
The home team fall behind after just twelve minutes, an underhit backpass finding a Billingham trialist, who controls and fires high past the onrushing goalkeeper. Despite the bone-dry pitch, both sides keep the ball down, passes bobbling from boot to boot. Wingate's Philly Hickman flicks a header against the base of the post with half an hour played, then calmly levels from the penalty spot from his team's next attack. "Think about the shape, blues. Settle it down," yells Swanson. Ian Cookland sidefoots a second for Billingham, but two goals in a minute from Haydn Price and Hickman put Wingate ahead for the first time in the match. "We've fallen asleep here," Swanson laments.
Wingate clatter the crossbar twice before the visitors equalise, Cookland rounding Russ Blenkinsop, falling over and then dispatching the ball with the front of his boot. Both sides are now using rolling substitutes. A few more supporters wander in with pushchairs and some children start a kickabout on the second pitch. If Cook has his way, they'll be the next generation of Wingate's community football club.
With Peterlee Town the latest victims of the East Durham triangle, you can only wish him well.
Date:27th July 2013