The words “Football League” must evoke painful memories for all concerned on a bleak afternoon in Cumbria, with the limelight just a fading memory for the hosts and the visitors struggling one year on, writes Harry Pearson

In the Borough Park clubhouse, a ­middle-aged woman in a yellow-and-black Boston United scarf leans across to a vast, elderly Pilgrims fan who is tucking into a polystyrene tray of pasty and chips like he hasn’t eaten since the end of rationing. “You been here before?” she asks. The man shakes his head, cheeks bulging with potatoes and pastry. The woman glances quickly from left to right. “Bit bleak, isn’t it?” she whispers. The big man grins sadly, nods and stuffs more food in his mouth.

Bit bleak. To be honest, even the most patriotic northerner would find it hard to disagree with her. It’s a freezing February day and Workington is one of England’s forgotten corners, a part of Cumbria you’re unlikely ever to find yourself in unless you get lost when leaving the Lake District. The only time I have ever been here before is when we took a wrong turn when coming away from the annual World Gurning Championships in nearby Egremont. 

The train from Carlisle rolled along the fringe of the Solway Firth and down the coast, rain the consistency of mucus splotting against the windows. We passed chemical plants, vast industrial dairies and rows of houses rendered in a colour that squats grimly in the no-man’s-land between grey and brown. The Irish Sea looked like the contents of a slops bucket. I arrived in Workington 90 minutes before kick-off and, during an aimless time-killing walk, got lost and ended up in an area of derelict allotments and scrapyards. “Danger razor wire,” read the signs, “this property is alarmed.” Behind sharp steel fences large dogs barked. In a stream the wheels of drowned shopping trolleys poked up from the sludge and a lone and grubby swan stared forlornly about as the wind turbines on the harbour side thrummed in the icy wind. All in all it’s no surprise that back in the 1930s west-coast Workington played in the semi-pro North Eastern League alongside Blyth Spartans, Spennymoor and South Shields. This might be Cumberland but it’s coalmining and shipbuilding country, definitely more Catherine Cookson than Beatrix Potter.

Non-League football is the reverse of its more upmarket relative. Here the ground is not a menacing place filled with angry men making masturbatory gestures, but a safe haven from the outside world: warm, cosy and filled with cheerful, friendly people. Entering a non-League clubhouse is like sinking into a comfortable armchair at your granny’s house. At Borough Park the barman puts my pint of bitter down on the bar, glances at it, smiles and says: “Now, look at that, just like a lovely Lakeland fell – golden brown beneath a cap of snowy whiteness.”

I drink it glancing at signed photos of Nobby Stiles, the club pennants and the patterned wallpaper held on in places by strips of red parcel tape. Men behind me talk about recent goings-on at Cleator Moor Celtic and today’s match. “If they’re good we’ll hammer them, but if they’re crap they’ll drag us down to their level,” one of them says. It’s a common consolation of supporters – the idea that your team’s performance is a reflection of the opposition. If it’s true then the standard in Conference North must be low indeed. Workington are eighth from bottom; Boston are hardly faring better.

So the game does not promise to be a classic, but that hardly matters. A smell of warm pies wafts over from the food hatch. “There’s a half-time buffet for club officials in the Bill Shankly lounge,” a man in a Boston warm-up coat with his name embroidered above the badge tells his friend, “and I’m told they put on a bloody good spread.” People chuckle, rival fans commiserate on the evils of long coach trips to Kettering (like Workington, Boston is out on a limb). By the time I have finished my beer I am suffused with a desire to come and live in Workington.

The two teams run out to a rock ’n’ roll version of the Z Cars theme that lurches into The Final Countdown. In the main stand opposite the dugouts a man in an astrakhan hat enthusiastically greets the players by spinning an ancient red-and-white rattle, while a small, fluffy white dog with a Workington scarf around its neck trots ­busily along the terrace pausing every five yards to cock his leg on one of the crash barriers, and a group of primary-school kids in track suits ignores the kick-in to inspect busily the contents of a large wheelie bin.

Both teams have Football League experience. Workington replaced New Brighton in 1951 and made way for Wimbledon 26 years later. JR Witty and RW Prole noted in the Centenary History of the FA that the club “is definitely handicapped by its geographical location”. The town’s sporting attention is divided, too: a couple of hundred yards away, beyond Tesco, stands Derwent Park, home of Workington rugby league club. Even in football’s boom years of the 1950s, crowds at Borough Park rarely rose above 6,000. Today just 386 have turned up.

Boston’s League experience is more recent and ended more bitterly. Their kits and tracksuits have a newer, brighter look. The Pilgrims’ players still have the vanity of men used to being looked at and admired. With his square shoulders, forward-jutting neck and dark proto-quiff, Boston’s captain Paul Ellender looks like a family-sized version of Frank Lampard. He cost £80,000 from Scarborough. Nothing else in Borough Park is anywhere near as valuable.

Workington are kicking into a howling wind. Every attempt at a clearance progresses 20 yards then boomerangs back; goal-kicks don’t even reach the centre circle. The Boston No 8 is wearing black tights and you really can’t blame him.

The gale plays its part in the sixth minute when a series of hoofs out of defence fail to clear the penalty area and, after a couple of ricochets, Boston’s Jon Rowan gathers the ball to the right of the goal and confidently drills it into the net from ten yards.

Workington attempt to mount a comeback. The aerial route down field is blocked, but any attempt to pass your way out along the ground is also fraught with difficulty. The pitch looks like a herd of cattle have been grazing on it. When the linesmen sprint up and down the touchline, mud flies up behind them as if from agricultural machinery. Every once in a while the ball stops dead in a divot and a ruck forms around it, the players yelling and hacking until the referee calls a halt.

Boston’s centre-forward Micky Nuttell has the tense, taut look of an army sergeant and swears like he is auditioning for a part in Deadwood. “Fucking someone fucking help him!” he screams as Ellender tumbles with the ball between his knees and is surrounded by Workington players apparently intent on giving him a good shoeing. A minor scuffle breaks out. “Get him fucking sent off!” yells one of the boys who were earlier inspecting the rubbish bin, in a voice that hasn’t yet broken.

At half-time the media join club officials in the Bill Shankly Lounge. It is even cosier and more convivial than the clubhouse, a square room opposite the manager’s office that reminds me of the lounge of the “private hotel” in Cleveleys my family used to stay at in the 1960s when we made our annual trip to see the Blackpool illuminations. There’s a bar in one corner and a large veneer cabinet filled with coloured glass in another. There is also, as the Boston official had heard, a bloody good spread – three types of sandwiches, chicken drumsticks, mini pizza, sausage rolls and scones with clotted cream. A friend of mine who supports Hartlepool claims that Pools’ survival in the League in the days of re-election votes was due entirely to the lavish hospitality laid on for visiting officials. Either Victoria Park was the scene of Rabelaisian feasting or Workington learned the lesson too late.

The Shankly Lounge and the clubhouse are in an old stand that – if the painting on the wall is to be believed – once carried an advert across its roof for John Peel Pale Ale. At some point the roof has come down and the seating area has been covered with red corrugated sheeting. I imagine there might be an old fan trapped beneath it, still bellowing “Fer Christ’s sake lads, where’s your passion?” even though he can’t see the game.

With the wind behind them, the Reds attack more or less non-stop, but nothing much comes from it. Matthew Berkeley and Dave Hewson both shoot over. Simon Rayner in the Boston goal makes a brilliant one-handed stop diving to his left to deny Tony Hopper then bounces to his feet fast enough to clutch Lee Andrews’ blasted shot to his chest. A few minutes later Graham Anthony gathers the ball on the edge of the area and aims a deliberate curving shot towards the bottom right corner; it evades Rayner’s dive but bounces back off the post.

Behind the goal, Tommy Taylor’s Barmy Army keeps up a constant chanting that is all the more impressive considering there are only four of them. “Shall we sing a song for you?” they bellow at one point. Nobody responds. The home crowd is indeed strangely muted, with frustrations communicated by raised eyebrows and the occasional outbreak of communal tutting. They’re a phlegmatic lot, Cumbrians.

Back at the station waiting for the northbound train from Lancaster among skimpily clad girls heading for the bright lights of the Great Border City, an elderly man in a naval duffle coat who’d been standing by the programme seller when I bought my copy shuffles past on the platform, eyes watering from the combination of the cold air and the clouds of perfume. He grins ruefully as he draws level. “All hit and hoof,” he says.

From WSC 254 April 2008

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