Amateur dramatics

Non-League football in the north-east was once a rich source of playing talent for the professional game, but many of its clubs are in crisis now. Harry Pearson reports

Shotton Colliery Recreation Ground on a damp Saturday in January. Shotton Comrades are taking on Ferryhill Athletic. Beyond the perimeter fence on one side of the pitch is a small airfield. Every fifteen minutes or so light planes take off to drop sky divers. During dull moments of play you can watch the parachutists spiralling slowly earthward.

Comrades are relative newcomers to the Federation Brewery Northern League. They joined thirteen seasons ago and have yet to get out of the second division. They have no club house – half-time and post-match refreshments are served in a log cabin that wouldn’t look out of place in Last of the Mohicans and matches on the parks pitches adjoining the ground often attract more spectators.

Compared to Ferryhill Athletic, Shotton Comrades are high flyers. They are in the top half of the table; their kit is new and fashionably baggy. Ferryhill’s by contrast is tight and skimpy. The red shirts have two white bars on the chest as though someone has erased the name of a previous sponsor using a giant bottle of tippex.

Shotton’s players pass the ball to one another and create chance after chance. Ferryhill’s only tactic is to whack the ball down the field and wait for it to come back again. Ferryhill have won the Northern League title three times and once attracted a crowd of 13,000 for an Amateur Cup tie with Bishop Auckland. That was all a long time ago. Last year Ferryhill, crippled with debt, sold their ground and moved in with Brandon United. Brandon’s ground is on a windswept hill above a post-war council estate. The clubhouse is a windowless bunker and on my only visit they had to withdraw the brandy from the raffle prizes because it had floaters in it.

Brandon Welfare Ground is the sort of location that would inspire Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. It hasn’t had a similar effect on Ferryhill. Athletic have accumulated just five points all season (though such is the startling ineptitude of Alnwick Town that even this tally is enough to keep them off the bottom).

The effect on Brandon’s pitch of having weekly matches played on it has not been good either. Now Ferryhill are proposing another move. To Spennymoor dog track. The owner of the dog track clearly has the notion of a multi-sportsplex in mind. Ferryhill Athletic will play in the middle, greyhounds will race round the outside of them and on the outside of the greyhounds will be a harness racing circuit. Compared to Sir John Hall’s grand schemes this may not seem like much, but there is a pleasant regionalism about it. All that needs adding to the plan are a few pigeon lofts and a row of fives-and-threes tables and Spennymoor dog track will form a microcosm of Durham’s sporting sub-culture.

Despite the range of attractions on offer, the move to Spennymoor dog track, should it happen, may not prove popular with Ferryhill’s dwindling band of fans. Once at Evenwood Town I heard a Ferryhill man say: “I’ve only one thing against Adolf Hitler and that’s that he didn’t bomb Spennymoor.” In the long list of the Führer’s crimes this may seem a small one, but it illustrates the fierce parochialism that once served the Northern League so well.

The Northern League is the second oldest football league in the world. During the days of amateurism its teams dominated the non-professional game, appearing in 39 of the 71 FA Amateur Cup Finals (five were all Northern League affairs), winning 24 of them. Famous players and managers came out of the Northern League: Bob Paisley from Bishop Auckland; Brian Clough from Billingham Synthonia; Frank Clark from Crook Town; Raich Carter and George Camsell from Esh Winning. South Bank alone produced seven full England internationals.

The Fifties were the heyday of the Northern League. Big crowds watched successful teams. The Sixties weren’t too bad either. Crook won the Amateur Cup in 1962 and 1964, North Shields in 1969, and then . . . something happened.

It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what. The collapse of heavy industry and the subsequent destruction of many of the communities served by Northern League clubs undoubtedly played its part. At one time money was deducted each week from the pay packets of steel workers in Consett to go towards the upkeep of the football club. The same was true in most pit villages. The locals took an interest in their team partly because they were subsidizing it. The importance of community spirit in fostering non-League football is easily assessed by looking at two Northern East new towns. Newton Aycliffe, with a population of 27,000, currently has no football team above parks level, while Peterlee’s Northern League team draws around 25 fans from the town’s 25,000 inhabitants.

And then there’s the non-League Pyramid. The Northern League’s decision to initially opt out of the Pyramid, when the Conference was created (as the Alliance Premier) in 1979, and then opt in a few years later meant that its place in the hierarchy was usurped by the two division Northern Premier (Unibond) League. From being on the highest rung of the putative non-League ladder the Northern League now finds itself on the fourth rung down of a very real one.

The effect of the Pyramid has been twofold. Firstly, the better supported and more successful clubs, amongst them Bishop Auckland and Blyth Spartans, have moved up into the Unibond. Whitby Town, currently the only club in the FBNL who pull in regular crowds of more than 300, seems sure to follow. Secondly, the Pyramid has imposed arbitrary ground standards which many clubs struggle to meet. Shotton with their 20 or so fans must still provide covered seating for 100 and covered standing for the same number. Peterlee recently attempted to circumvent this rule by handing out umbrellas to supporters. It didn’t work.

Squeezed between falling crowds and the need for ground improvements many clubs have got into financial problems. Some have disappeared altogether, amongst them Langley Park (honorary president: Bobby Robson) and South Bank. Were it not for the undoubted enthusiasm and hard work of the people who run them, many other clubs would have gone, too.

Looking round Durham City’s old ground, Ferens Park, a few years ago my friend Pete remarked that it was a lot like being in church. “Not many people,” he said, “And those there are mostly over sixty. When you die you wonder who’ll come.” Apart from the fact that in church your rarely hear anyone shout, “Where’s your flag, linesman, wedged up your arse?” Pete’s analogy was pretty accurate. The congregation seemed in terminal decline.

Thankfully, there are now some grounds for hope. Clubs like Crook and Ashington, both of whom almost went out of business a few years ago, have shown that it is possible to generate crowds by building links with the community, particularly local schools. On the field, too, there has been success. Four FBNL clubs – Bedlington Terriers, Guisborough, Whitby and Durham – made it through to the last 16 of the FA Vase. The first three have made it as far as the quarter-final, though the Terriers face a home replay. There is a feeling that a Northern League team could make a Wembley appearance for the first time since 1969; even cautious talk of an all-Northern League Final, a special train to carry the supporters, a big day out.

Whatever. No one involved with the Northern League is anticipating a quick fix. When Consett travelled to Mansfield for the first round of the FA Cup this season they took 800 loyal fans with them. At the following week’s home fixture the gate was 29.

At Shotton Colliery Recreation Ground, Comrades finally score after wasting a ten gallon hat-full of opportunities. They don’t add to it. At the final whistle a woman whose son was playing for Ferryhill jokes with some Shotton fans about how the game turned out harder for them than they imagined. “You thought you’d hammer us into the ground, but you never,” she says. If the Northern League is ever looking for a motto, it might just serve.

From WSC 121 March 1997. What was happening this month