Horden Colliery 0 Billingham Synthonia 2

Non-League teams are increasingly from suburbia. So the visit of a steelworks team to a colliery town is an unusual event in one of the country's oldest competitions, the Northern League. Harry Pearson reports

Saturday afternoon in the north-east and its raining. It’s not a heavy rain. It’s the sort of fine rain that hangs in the air, all-enveloping like an unfinished argument. The bus from Peterlee to Horden drops me off at a stop next to a Spiritualist church. Down the road towards the porridge-coloured North Sea there’s a medical centre named after Manny Shinwell, the Labour minister responsible for nationalising the coal industry. Outside the Comrades Club a mother and a ten-year-old girl in a party frock unload a chocolate fountain from the back of a Renault Clio and scurry indoors. A poster in the window advertises a night of entertainment featuring “Donna, Promising Young Vocal Artiste”.

Horden Welfare Park – with its football, cricket and rugby grounds, its bowling green and flowerbeds – is an enduring monument to community spirit. Paid for by the miners through subscription back before the Great War it’s as neat and tidy as a front parlour when the vicar’s due. On the backs of the benches that line the paths are little plaques telling the history of the community – how many cinemas the town once had, when the railway station closed, the tonnage of coal the pit once produced and the number of men who died digging it.

In Horden 80 per cent of the workforce were once employed in the mining industry. The colliery closed in 1986. Since then the population has dropped by several thousand and local business seems almost entirely devoted to the north-east’s new boom areas – tattoos, tanning and taxis.

Today’s visitors, Billingham Synthonia, are another relic of heavy industry. Synthonia were founded in 1945, part of the social and sporting side of Imperial Chemical Industries’ vast Teesside operation. Like the National Union of Mineworkers, ICI was a paternalistic organisation. It looked after its 30,000 strong workforce and their families, providing them with a whole network of support from pensions to hockey fields, to medical care and subsidised beer. But ICI gradually shed its holdings in the region and in 2006 it left for good. The big HQ at Billingham is now empty, the windows smashed, the insides ransacked by vandals. Like Horden Colliery Welfare, Billingham Synthonia are a tiny reminder of what once was, like the hat of a dead man hanging behind the door in a widow’s bungalow.

There was more like them too, at one time. In recent times, though, the Northern League has seen many of the clubs from its traditional heartland, the Durham coalfield, disappear – Eppleton CW, Easington Colliery, Langley Park, Evenwood Town and Willington have all dropped out, replaced by sides from the Tyneside and Teesside commuter belts. Places like Morpeth and Stokesley, where there’s more money and fewer folk whose idea of a good evening’s entertainment is to set fire to the dugouts.

Not that there’s any evidence of that sort of thing at Horden’s ground. It’s recently been revamped using lottery money. The old stand – opened by local celebrity ref George Courtney back in the 1980s – now has indoor toilets and facilities for female match officials. Horden won the Northern League second division title last season. Now they are struggling to come to terms with life in the top flight. They lie fourth from bottom. Synthonia are a few places above them.

When I arrive at the Welfare Ground a bloke in a Horden warm-up coat is removing a couple of dog turds from the pitch, carrying them away on a shovel. There’s a Catholic social club over the west wall and the Horden social welfare centre over the fence to the east. Everything in sight is made of red brick. The streets run up from the headlands above the sea to the green hill where the colliery once stood, as if that was the only direction the population would ever expect, or need, to go in.

In the tea bar friendly middle-aged women, who seem purpose-built for a role as aunties, are frying chips and doling out cups of tea in Princess Diana commemorative mugs. I take mine into the main stand, which is, as it happens, the only stand. It’s a big old-fashioned shed, with a red corrugated roof, a press box and a bit of worn away graffiti pledging allegiance to the Horden Shed Army. I take a seat in the Stan Anderson enclosure. Anderson – the only man to captain Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough – is Horden’s most illustrious former player (Colin Bell played for the juniors). Synners can trump that though. They once had Brian Clough and Frank Bough.

Behind me a group of Synthonia fans talk in Teesside accidents so finely adapted to expressing scorn and contempt even their compliments sound like an invitation to a punch up. When three elderly Horden fans saunter into the ground from the nearby social club at ten to three one of the Synners fans booms: “Oh look. Here comes the Barmy Army.” The rest of the talk is of flu jabs and hip replacement operations.

Synners have rejected their old-style green-and-white quartered shirts in a favour of a wild mess of blue and yellow. Horden’s shirts are rather nice, a red-and-white hooped body with plain white sleeves. They carry the logo of Tweddle Children’s Animal Farm, inviting jokes about rustic tackles. The left-back wears a white polo neck under his that, combined with his thinning, slicked back hair and lean face, gives him the vague look of the 1970s comedy actor Patrick Cargill.

 The first period is played out in the swirling drizzle. After ten minutes the players’ shirts are soaked. Water drips from hair, ears and the tips of noses. On the skiddy surface it’s a struggle to stay upright. At one point four players and the referee are all sprawled on the turf. “Has somebody up there got a rifle?” one of Horden’s subs yells up at the stand. It’s too wet for anybody to laugh.

Thanks to the conditions, the play is not so much disjointed as completely and utterly devoid of any joint whatsoever – the football equivalent of a tapeworm. Occasionally there are outbreaks of coherence, but they never last long. Synners are kicking up the slight slope towards the ex-colliery and into the sort of breeze that sets the corner flags flapping. Occasionally they succeed in lumping a ball over the top to the swift number 11, Danny Earl, who looks the most likely to player to score, but never quite manages to get a shot away. At the break I look down at my notebook and find the only entry in it is: “Jack Pounder (H’den) sounds like character from Catherine Cookson mini-series.”

At half time something surprising happens. There’s a brief flicker of lightning somewhere to the south over Blackhall and Hartlepool and then the rain stops and the sun emerges shyly from amid the grey. By the time the two teams return to the field it’s genuinely warm and steam is starting to rise from the concrete terracing. The change in climate seems to inspire the two sets of players and the next 45 minutes, while in no way samba soccer, certainly has a bit more rhythm to it.

We get an inkling that a change has come when Horden come close to scoring in the first minute after the restart, Pounder’s volley from the edge of the box almost worming its way under Chris Porter in the Synners’ goal. The visitors break away from the resulting clearance and win a free-kick on the edge of the area. Horden’s defenders seem to have cleared the danger, but the ball drops to skipper Andy Harbron 25 yards out and he strikes a volley with real venom and accuracy, sending it flashing into the right-hand corner of the net. The celebrations that follow are testament to the quality of the strike and to the fact that Harbron is making a bit of a habit of scoring wonder goals – he’d blasted one in from even further out a few weeks back against Consett.

Once they are in front Synthonia start to knock the ball around with newfound confidence. The shaven-headed David Yale in the midfield pulls the strings and up front Nathan Jameson, a big fair-haired striker with the look of John Belushi about him, always seems to have space and time to control the ball and bring others into play. They get their second in the 60th minute. It’s another beauty, the ball moving via a series of crisp short passes from the halfway line, down the left and finally into the path of Colin Iley coming in from the right wing. He takes one touch before dinking it past the advancing James Winter.

Horden bring on an extra forward, Keith Devine, a huge man with the body of a cartoon strongman and an impressive goalscoring record. He’s all hustle and bustle, sprinting forward and banging defenders about at every opportunity. His introduction brings new urgency to the Colliers. The ball bumps around the penalty box, cannoning off knees and thighs. There’s a big shout for a penalty when Mark Stephenson tumbles over in the box and for a few minutes it seems as if sheer physical endeavour might be enough to rescue the situation.

It isn’t. The visitors continue to look the more likely side to score, moving the ball about with a purpose and accuracy Horden lack. Substitute James Magowan, who seems to be nicknamed Bimbo, almost adds the third, turning neatly on the left of the box and firing in a fierce, curving shot that Winter does really well to tip over the bar.

Throughout it all, good and bad, the Teessiders behind me remain resolutely unimpressed. “First touch like a bloody elephant,” one snorts as a ball bounces off a Synners shin. Another is listening to the Boro match commentary on headphones. “Adam Johnson’s scored a second,” he bellows at one point. “He’ll be away in January,” his mate growls. The pits, the shipyards, the steelworks and the chemical plants may have gone, but the region’s pessimism endures.

From WSC 274 December 2009