No game for me today as my parents have inconveniently arranged their Diamond Wedding Anniversary to clash with Benfield v Norton & Stockton Ancients.
It's the first day of winter tomorrow, so here's this.
In 1930 Chilton Colliery RA of County Durham met Stockton in a Northern League match. Chilton were leading 6-0 when four players walked off saying that could no longer stand the freezing cold. The referee refused to abandon the game. Stockton fought back, scoring four times, at which point one of the Chilton players collapsed from exposure and had to be stretchered off the field unconscious. The match official finally brought the players’ ordeal to an end in the 83rd minute. It was April the 19th.
In 1962-63 snow fell so heavily and lay so long that only six Northern League matches were played from 29th December through to March 3rd. In 1979 an FA Cup tie between Consett and Acrington Stanley was postponed eleven times and only went ahead finally after volunteers had worked for several days to clear 1,000 tons of snow from the Belle Vue pitch.
As you may gather from these stories, playing and watching football (and sometimes cricket) in the North East of England – a corner of the country Roy Keane always referred to as ‘up there’ even when he was manager of Sunderland - often requires a high degree of fortitude, and, for those on the terraces, enough thick clothing to lag a boiler.
In the first week of January this year I went to see North Shields play Marske United in the First Division of the Ebac Northern League. North Shields play at the Daren Persson Stadium, possibly the only football ground in England named after an undertaker.That day a south-westerly wind snapped in off the North Sea all the way from the Barents Straits, bringing tears to my eyes and chilling my joints until I felt my knuckles would pop like bubble wrap. Despite wearing two pairs of thick socks and walking boots, I got so cold that when I caught the Metro back into the centre of Newcastle I couldn’t feel my feet till Byker (which, as a friend pointed out, sounds like a song by Lindisfarne).
Yet North Shields is by no means the coldest place to watch football in the North East. Not by a long chalk. In the region that stretches from the Tweed to the Tees some football grounds, such as those at Easington, Horden and Hartlepool, expose themselves to the bracing sea gale, while others are perched on the side of North Pennine hilltops. Here from October to May winter mist hovers in the air like a bitter marital argument and sharp icy rain pecks and scratches at exposed skin. Over the past two decades I’ve shivered in swirling snow at Hall Lane, Willington; been blasted by hail at Brandon Welfare Ground, and frozen to my seat at Crook on a day when cups of hot Bovril were passed around as hand-warmers and firemen freed incontinent dogs from lamp-posts. I’ve watched a game at Stanley United’s infamously exposed Hill Top where the air was so chilled the match was temporarily halted because the pea had frozen in the referee’s whistle.
However, for skin puckering, nose numbing, ear-aching, brass-monkey neutering cold, none of these places can compare to Ironworks Road, the windswept, glacial home of Tow Law Town. The Ironworks Road ground was built and then rebuilt by striking pitmen back in the days when Northern League games regularly attracted four-figure crowds and the half and full-time scores were relayed back to the visitors’ home base by carrier pigeons. Tow Law’s mines are long gone, as is the foundry that gave the ground its name. The population of the town is now half what it was back in the 1950s. Temperatures remain stubbornly unaffected by climate change.
Tow Law lies a little over 1,000 feet above sea level on the eastern fringe of the North Pennines, which probably makes it the highest football ground in England (the fact is disputed by Buxton). From Ironworks Road on a winter afternoon (and there are an awful lot of winter afternoons in Tow Law) you can look westwards into a vast darkness unblemished by any of the spots of light that might denote distant farms or hamlets. A barbaric wind whips out of these barren wastes - the splendidly Dickensian-sounding Waskerley Common.
The world’s great winds often have names – the Freemantle Doctor, the Chicago Hawk – the wind in Tow Law has a name too. ‘We call it the Lazy Wind,’ Lawyers’ faithful fans joke, ‘Because It can’t be bothered to go round you, so it just goes straight through.’
To avoid the Lazy Wind, Tow Law’s fans sensibly gather in the shelter provided by a covered enclosure that presents its back to the dun-coloured moors. In this small enclave there is a micro-climate that feels almost sub-tropical in comparison to the more exposed parts of the ground. Even here things can be rough. ‘The weather was that bad,’ former Lawyers chairman John Flynn once said of a derby versus Crook, ‘you couldn’t see the snow for the fog.’
As a consequence of its location, cold is a recurring theme in the history of Tow Law Town FC. In 1925, for example, a team from Sir Bobby Robson’s home club of Langley Park had to abandon their bus in a snow drift and walk the remaining three miles to Ironworks Road. They arrived 50 minutes late, were beaten 6-0 by a Lawyers team who were on their way to a second consecutive Northern League title, and had to report before the management committee to explain their tardiness (the committee unimpressed by the namby-pamby excuse about the weather fined them £20). This happened at Easter. Little wonder that Tow Law was one of the first North East teams to install hot baths.
During the fierce winter of 1962-63 Tow Law was cut off for over a month, all roads blocked by snow drifts, food ferried in on coal trains that occasionally battled up the steep gradient from nearby Crook. By the time the thaw came the Lawyers faced such a backlog of fixtures they didn’t complete the season till the start of June.
The Lawyers reached the FA Vase final in 1998 after a 5-4 aggregate win over Taunton in the semi. Though they lost to Tiverton, they did enter the record books that day - with a population of just 2,200 Tow Law is the smallest town ever to appear in a Wembley final.
Prior to that outing, Tow Law’s greatest moment had come in 1967 when they played Mansfield Town in the first round of the FA Cup. The opening match at the Lawyers’ Ironworks Road ground was abandoned at half-time in a blizzard. In the re-match the Durham boys triumphed 5-1. “It was like playing at the North Pole” Mansfield’s manager, Tommy Cummings complained afterwards (that’s a man born in Sunderland, incidentally, not some bloke from Rio de Janeiro or Cape Town)
In the second round of the Cup, Tow Law drew 1-1 at home with Shrewsbury in front of 4,000 fans in a howling gale, then, with a home tie against Arsenal awaiting the winner, lost in the replay in the more clement conditions of Shropshire 6-2. “Shrewsbury,” declared London-born sports hack Frank McGhee in the Daily Mirror, “Have saved Arsenal from a fate worse than death – a trip to Tow Law in January.”
That seems a little cruel to me, not least because Tow Law has some of the friendliest fans and best home-made pies in football. However, it’s altogether harder to argue with the non-League groundhopper who noted, ‘You will never watch a game nearer to the moon, or be so grateful for a covered stand.’