While the professional north-east clubs are battling for mediocrity, two other sides from the region are flying the amateru flag, writes Michael Whalley

While Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough spent the season cheerlessly scrapping for 13th place in the Premier League, one area of North-East football has thrived: the amateur game. Professional success may have bypassed the region, but its two best pub teams have been almost invincible, dominating the FA Sunday Cup.

Coundon Conservative won the trophy at the first attempt last season, knocking out County Durham neighbours Hetton Lyons Cricket Club, the 2006 champions, along the way. So when Hetton and Coundon squared up on a sodden April Sunday at Anfield for this year’s final, regional pride was at stake as well as a trophy and £2,000 prize money.

The FA introduced the Sunday Cup in 1964 for amateur footballers; perhaps the most famous name to have won the trophy in recent years was Kevin Nolan’s dad, Kevin senior, who managed Liverpool Business League side Nicosia to victory in 2004. But ex-professionals are having a big say now. Nine of the players on show at Anfield this year were once full-timers – seven at Darlington, two at Hartlepool – and almost all of them play at semi-pro level in the Northern League. While Hetton’s side was drawn largely from Spennymoor Town, Sunderland Nissan and Durham City, Coundon borrowed half-a-dozen players from West Auckland Town.

“We’ve generally got the best crop of Saturday non-league players in the north-east playing for one Sunday side,” said Hetton manager Brad Groves. “And with the odd change here and there, we’ve been together as a team for 10 years. We had won 35 trophies in nine years before this season. But it’s not something we do for ego. We do it because we love Sunday mornings.” And Sunday mornings are that bit more enticing when there’s a game at Anfield to look forward to. “I played here in last year’s final and also for Sunderland reserves when I was younger,” said Phil Brumwell, Coundon’s captain and player-manager of Unibond League strugglers Whitby Town. “It’s a fantastic place to play.”

Spare a thought, then, for Hetton striker Adam Johnston, a Liverpool fan with an Anfield jinx. Johnston got tickets for Liverpool’s epic Champions League quarter-final win over Arsenal, but missed the game after getting stuck in traffic. Then as he travelled down from the North-East with Hetton to their hotel on the night before the Sunday Cup final, the team coach broke down on the M62. And then, having finally made it on to the Anfield pitch, Johnston was stretchered off with an ankle injury after just three minutes.

Hetton were already 1-0 down by then, after their former Darlington keeper Kevin Finch allowed a second-minute free kick from Andrew Thompson to skid through his hands. “Dodgy keeper,” chanted the Coundon fans in a crowd of around 1,800, all slotted comfortably into the lower half of the Kop.

Durham and District League champions Hetton nearly equalised, but Spennymoor player-manager Jason Ainsley hit the crossbar, disappointing the 70 pupils in the crowd from the school near Middlesbrough where he teaches. Johnston’s replacement Jamie Clarke headed Hetton level, only for Martin Houlahan to restore the lead for Coundon, of the Wear Valley League. But Groves – a management consultant by trade – switched to a more attacking formation at the break, and Hetton took charge. Former Hartlepool winger Stuart Irvine soon equalised with a skidding cross-shot as the rain hammered down.

Then, with seven minutes to go, Coundon’s Stuart Owen was harshly penalised for handball, and former Darlington and York City midfielder Gary Pearson scored the penalty to seal a 3-2 win for Hetton.

Pearson was lucky to be playing at all after suffering a double compound fracture of his left arm in Hetton’s third-round Sunday Cup win over Liverpool side Oyster Martyrs in November. He recalled: “I went for an overhead kick and landed wrong. The bone was poking through. At one stage, it was a case of: ‘Can we save your hand?’” Hand saved, Pearson now has a scar the length of his forearm from a skin graft operation and still hasn’t been able to return to work as a plasterer. He was, though, able to enjoy the club’s second FA Sunday Cup win at Anfield in three years – and their 37th trophy in a decade. And even Hetton-le-Hole’s most famous son, Bob Paisley, couldn’t match that. 

From WSC 256 June 2008

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