The biggest shock of the FA Cup first round came at Bedlington, and Ken Sproat saw it all
Bedlington Terriers are a new name to many, but have gained a massive profile following their debut in the FA Cup first round. New unless you know me, that is. I have been preaching Terrier lore with wide-eyed zeal since moving to the town in 1990. Strangely, it is only in retrospect that I realise it was love at first sight. The early matches were turgid, lower Northern League Second Division fare.
The turning point was unlikely. Due to playing ineligible players and losing every week the Terriers had slumped to the bottom of the table with a points total of minus ten. The local amateur cup had paired them against a team from a lower league who had minus three points. Something perception-altering happened that day and I became engaged to my new love. I think it was the dugouts that did it, painted as they were with “Wors” and “Yors” instead of “Home” and “Away”. Instead of being slightly amusing they became the crux of the fabric of the club. Without the inconvenience of a better team in opposition, Bedlington clicked, winning 10-2. Modern history began at that moment. The Terriers moved upward, eradicating the minus points total and finishing only nearly bottom.
During the close season the club nearly folded, but thankfully it was a pair of local brothers made good in the construction and deconstruction business who took over as chairman and manager. A bizarre hodge-podge of stands began to appear sporadically and seemingly spontaneously around the Doctor Pit Welfare ground (the name stems from the last colliery in Bedlington, the “D” or Doctor Pit, which closed in the late Sixties). It seemed an entirely natural and organic experience, as if they were growing from the ground like brambles or ivy – just right for a town where allotment culture is strong.
On the pitch the team prospered, thanks partly to an influx of local players from clubs higher up the pyramid (especially Blyth Spartans) who were either unable to meet the travelling demands of higher league football or a bit too old to command regular places. Bedlington quickly became established as the team to beat in the Northern League First Division and the silverware began to flow.
Then the FA Cup comes along. Progress in the competition has been minimal until now. Pickering Town, a team from an equivalent position in the pyramid, were sent home on the end of an 11-1 hiding. Bamber Bridge, Whitby and Stafford Rangers, all well above Bedlington in football’s pecking order, were also dispatched, although only after two penalty shootouts (in one of which Bedlington, perhaps uniquely, had a player sent off).
Incredibly, Bedlington went into the FA Cup first round draw and became Colchester’s destination for a journey into the unknown. It didn’t seem real. My little team, the one who announce the domino card winner as the players leave the field, who have club lounge seats in the stand and an old conservatory as a press box; my team were there.
The main street through Bedlington runs up a slight ridge which is one of the few geographical features in an otherwise flat area. The ridge allows the visitor to appreciate the industrial panorama that lies around Ashington and Blyth, dominated by the giant chimneys of Blyth power station. The ridge may have had a major say on the match because Doctor Pit Welfare ascends its lower slope, making for one of the steepest pitches in football.
The entire area is a bedrock of Newcastle United support and this can make it a struggle for non-League clubs. The town of Bedlington has a population of about 10,000 and the Terriers normally attract about 150 to their games. The crowd for the Colchester game was swollen by a good number of Blyth fans who keenly follow the fortunes of the Terriers because no fewer than nine of the likely starting line up have played for Spartans. Winger Richie Bond and central defender Tommy Ditchburn scored in Blyth Spartans’ Cup victory at Bury three years ago. The Bedlington assistant manager is Tony Lowery, who played for Mansfield for a number of years and was also involved with that Blyth win at Bury. Colchester should have been under no illusions. Bedlington may be better known for a breed of dog that looks like a shorn sheep (and is the club badge) but this is not a footballing backwater.
As they neared the town, Colchester fans may have noticed the extraordinary number of landscaped pit heaps. However, there are no coal mines in the area any more. The entire area has a long-standing unemployment problem and the empty shops and “For Sale” signs bear testimony both to that and the proximity of the bright lights of Newcastle. The Bedlington players themselves are keenly aware of the unemployment blight – five of them work at the Wilkinson Sword factory which will close at Christmas.
The Colchester team bus looked so large, out of place and futuristic as it inched up the typical pit village approach to the ground that it seemed like a time warp scene from a science fiction series. It parked beside the bowling green.
I watched with interest as the Colchester players surveyed the ground and I got the vibes that they did not fancy the forthcoming experience. They peered up the Doctor Pit slope like boggle-eyed and open-mouthed novice skiers barely daring to look up the piste.
On Radio Five there was an item about the Terriers with the interviewees talking in the distinctive local accent. “A’v gert the grrrroond ayerl spyick ’n’ spyan” boasted the groundsman. At the ground itself everything Terrier was being writ large: the raffle as you walked in (but with extra prizes); the domino card; the “special programme” with terrible grammar and spelling; the teams chalked onto a stand-alone blackboard.
None of the total Terrier experience I’d grown to love was missing. The crowd filtered in. An atmosphere reminiscent of a domestic heat of It’s A Knockout was building. At half two it started to rain. Everything was coming together in perfect conjunction. Colchester United did not stand an earthly. And I think they knew it.
As the teams came on to the field, the crowd yelled individual encouragement to each Bedlington player then settled down to unnerve the illustrious (all is relative) opponents. Jason Dozzell took the brunt. “Tottenham reject” turned into “White Hart Lane hamburger seller”, which turned into the all-time bizarre “red sauce and onions, he served me red sauce and onions, rrrreed sahrse ’n’ ernyins”.
Trapped in a strange land Colchester wilted. As soon as Bedlington scored there was no way back for the bewildered U’s, dislocated from time and space in the black hole that was Doctor Pit Welfare.
It is no exaggeration to say that Colchester were lucky to get away with four. This could easily have been the record defeat inflicted upon a league team by non-league opposition. When you take into account the fact that Bedlington play in the equivalent of Division Seven (Extreme North), that they have no FA Cup tradition and that Colchester are an adequate Second Division team, the game I witnessed that afternoon must rank as one of the most remarkable of this ilk in English football history.
If I was staring in disbelief just looking at the first round draw, the most surreal experience of the day was yet to come: Match Of The Day.
From WSC 143 January 1999. What was happening this month