The following piece about the Northern League appeared in When Saturday Comes in March 1997. I wrote it after a trip to 'The East Durham Triangle' with Mike Amos. According to Mike 'The East Durham Triangle' is a chilly coalfield version of one around Bermuda. 'It is a strange and terrible place. Football clubs just disappear there' he says. He has plenty of evidence to support the idea: Eppleton, Easington, Murton and Horden have all fallen out of the Northern League in recent times, while the likes of Blackhall Colliery have sunk without trace. Since the same area has churned out a steady stream of top class players - Colin Bell probably the best - the whole thing is, as Toyah so rightly said: a mystery, a mystery, a big question mark in history.
In 1997 the Northern League was probably at its lowest ebb - crowds were poor, vandalism and arson were rife, eccentric millionaire Brooks Mileson had yet to appear with his sponsorship money and the beginning of the run of NL Wembley appearance in FA Vase finals was still a year away. To make things worse every clubhouse served nothing but the sort of tanker-delivered sta-brite beer that's so stuffed with chemicals it makes your piss glow in the dark.
Things have improved a lot in the seventeen years since, though not for either of the teams featured. At the end of the season Ferryhill were suspended from the Northern League - the move to Spennymoor dog track having come to nothing (the dog track is now a housing estate). They reformed shortly afterwards and entered the Wearside League but continued to struggle and went under altogether in 2006. Shotton Comrades were relegated from the Northern League to the Wearside League at the end of the 2004-5 season. After just four games of the next season lacking cash and enthusiasm for the never ending uphill battle they jacked it in altogether - another victim of the East Durham Triangle.
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 through the drizzle.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 won the Craven Cup last season and 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 faded and the two white bars on the chest make it look 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. They are a team who always seem to be kicking uphill and into the wind - even though the pitch is flat and the day calm. 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 Darlington Road stadium and moved in with Brandon United. Brandon’s ground is on an exposed hillside above a post-war estate that once overlooked the Durham village's three collieries. The clubhouse is a slit-windowed bunker - a defence post against the destructive miscreants who plague the area - and so filled with cigarette smoke it might double as a kippering shed. On my last visit they had to withdraw the brandy from the raffle prizes because, the ticket seller said cheerfully, ‘it had floaters in it.’
Brandon Welfare Ground is the sort of location that might 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 Greyhound Stadium. 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 for the Geordie Nation 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 Greyhound Stadium, 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 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 deep-rooted community spirit in non-League football is easily assessed by looking at the difficulty of fostering football in Northern East new towns. Peterlee’s Northern League team draws an average of around 25 fans from the town’s 25,000 inhabitants, Washington hardly fairs any better, while Newton Aycliffe (population 27,000) has barely a team above parks level [Newton Aycliffe FC entered to Northern League in 2009. Gates are a couple of hundred.].
And then there’s the non-League Pyramid. The effect of the Pyramid has been twofold. Firstly, the better supported and more successful clubs, amongst them Bishop Auckland, Whitley Bay and Blyth Spartans, have moved up into the Unibond [Bishops and Whitley have since returned to the NL]. Whitby Town, currently the only club in the NL who pull in regular crowds of more than 300, seem sure to follow [They did]. 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. Lancaster Gate was unimpressed.
The way people follow football has changed too. 'At one time football fans went to a match every Saturday,' Mike Amos, chairman of the Northern League says, 'They might support Newcastle, but if Newcastle were playing away they'd go to Blyth, North Shields or Whitley Bay. That's no longer true. In the 1960s, if Sunderland weren't at home you'd see an increase in attendances at non-League games across County Durham - nowadays it barely makes a difference.'
The affection for football in the region has narrowed to the love of one club. Given the financial commitment involved in following top level football perhaps that's understandable.
Television doesn't help either. 'I was at a League Cup match at Evenwood last Wednesday,' Amos says, pausing to watch as Shotton's centre-forward balloons a half-volley over the bar in a manner that suggests his right boot is shaped like a golfer's sand-wedge. 'Freezing night. There was 25 hardy souls out at the pitch side, and twice as many sat in the clubhouse in front of Manchester United v Barcelona.'
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, the oldest club in the North East. Were it not for the enthusiasm and hard work of the people who run them, many others would have gone, too.
Looking round Durham City’s lovely 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 they 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 cause 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 NL 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.
Not that anyone 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 well serve.