Friday, 27 June 2014


Four years ago Bedlington Terriers got a bit of attention when a US billionaire, fittingly called Bob Rich, sponsored the club. Mr Rich paid for the pitch to be relayed and bought the Terriers a huge electric scoreboard. Unfortunately when the club groundsmen plugged it in it fused the floodlights.

Back in 1998 Bedlington had a good run in the FA Cup. No electrical troubles resulted.

When asked for directions to Bedlington Terriers' football ground, the man in the chip shop points eastward to a patch of pale, glimmering blue that breaks the darkness above the roofs of distant houses. "See them bright lights?" he asks. "Well, that's it."

Since the Terriers trounced the Second Division's Colchester United 4-1 in the first round of the FA Cup last month, the glow the Arnott Insurance Northern League club has been casting over the small Northumberland town has been as much metaphorical as literal.

There was plenty of evidence of why that might be so at Doctor Pit Welfare Park on Wednesday night. To keep the players in the pink for today's away tie at Scunthorpe, a league fixture with South Shields had been postponed and a news-media event arranged instead.

The original FA Cup was on display, courtesy of the sponsors AXA, committee men delivered china mugs of tea to assembled hacks and photographers and three separate camera crews filmed the team jogging in front of the pitch-side advertising hoarding, unexpected national exposure for H Ternent, Family Butcher.

In the clubhouse a bespectacled gent was trying to interest a young female fan in a Bedlington baseball cap: "Keep your head warm. £4.50."

"It'll spoil my hair."

"Not this 'un, man. It's adjustable."

The Christmas decorations were up beside the pennants of visiting teams and the framed signed shirts from Spurs and Forest and the tape deck was rolling out Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.

Things did not look quite so festive when the current manager Keith Perry arrived at Doctor Pit Welfare Park five years ago, and not just because it was March. "We were bottom of the Second Division of the Northern League, struggling to put together a committee or a side or to drum up support, on the verge of going under," he recalls, still flushed from a round of television interviews.

The Bedlington-born Perry was brought in by Billy Ward, a legendary local figure, who had been involved at Welfare Park and its predecessor at West Sleekburn "A" Pit for close to half a century, as player, manager, director and chairman. During that time the club's suffix changed frequently (from Mechanics to Terriers via Colliery Welfare, United, Colliery and Town) but their fortunes rarely altered. A handful of Northern Combination and Alliance titles and league cups excepted, Bedlington were strugglers.

In 1993, however, the threatened disappearance of the town's football team shook local people from their apathy. Relegation and oblivion were avoided. That summer the newly appointed committee set about rebuilding the club, literally. Keith Perry, who runs a building company (his brother, Dave, the chairman, is in demolition), dug the holes for the floodlight pylons himself.

In the following year, beneath their new lights, Terriers took the Second Division title at a trot. Last season they repeated the feat in the First, finishing 12 points clear of their nearest rivals and completing a double by defeating the neighbouring non-league giants Blyth Spartans in the Northumberland Senior Cup final at St James' Park. Nowadays they are regularly watched by crowds nudging 300, a considerable figure in a league in which the two playing staffs can often outnumber the fans.

Colchester's visit attracted a club record gate of 1,600, even the most wildly optimistic (or pessimistic if they had travelled from Essex) of whom could not have expected to see the home side triumph so comprehensively. That they did was down to a couple of goals by John Milner, Terriers' all-time top scorer, a masterly display at right-back by John Sokoluk, a Scot with a Ukrainian father and experience with East Fife and Berwick Rangers, and the visitor's undisciplined collapse when things did not go their way.

It may not be so easy today. As well as home advantage the element of surprise is missing. Not only did Bedlington's hammering of Colchester serve warning to future opponents, Scunthorpe's manager Brian Laws also has an impeccable source of local information. His brother John lives 100 yards down the road from Welfare Park and has watched Terriers' last five matches.

Despite all this, Perry is unfazed by the trip south. "The gulf between non-league and league used to be an ocean, now it's a pond," he says. "When I look at Scunthorpe's record and see they've conceded 18 times at home I have to think we've a chance of scoring."

His notion is supported by fact. Last season the Northumbrians notched 120 goals in 38 Northern League outings. It is 42 games in all competitions since they last failed to find the net. "We shan't be playing for a draw," Perry says, "but I tell you what, I'd love to get them back up here."

If the Terriers do earn themselves a second chance, do not rely on the floodlights for navigation to the match. The whole of Bedlington will be shining.

(Unfortunately that didn't happen. Scunthorpe won 2-0)




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