We had a fine day out at Ironworks Road last Saturday, quite literally. Contrary to all expectations, coats were shed and sunglasses sported as the sun smiled down on a game that included a 50/50 tackle so ferocious I swear to God I heard the ball screaming.
Later in the week I went into my local bank.
Woman behind the counter: 'By, your very brown. Have you been skiing?'
Me: 'No. I was in Tow Law on Saturday.'
Today I am taking The Professor on his annual pilgrimage to see Olga.
Here is a shorter, edited version of a piece that appeared in issue 19 of The Blizzard. If you want to read it all have a look here: https://www.theblizzard.co.uk/product/issue-nineteen/
When former Northern Ireland and Middlesbrough winger Terry Cochrane signed for South Bank in 1992 the Teesside non-League club had problems. Thieves got in the ground at night, lifted tools from the shed, forced entry to the club house, fled with booze. The Bankers took measures. They bought a powerful Rottweiler. When training ended for the day, they let him loose and locked the gates. That night thieves broke in again, stole the dog.
That’s South Bank, Terry Cochrane said, fella has two ears they think he’s a cissy.
South Bank lies three miles east of Middlesbrough. Locally they call it Slaggy Island in honour of the ring of spoil heaps that once cut it off from the outside world. It’s not as glamourous as that nickname makes it sound. South Bank was the home of the Smith’s Dock shipyard, of Bolckow Vaughan and Dorman Long steelworks, clusters of iron foundries, warrens of brickyards. Blast furnaces, smelters, rolling mills and fabrication sheds converted ore to pig iron, iron to steel. They shaped it, cut it, and shipped it out. Through most of the 20th Century Slaggy Islanders lived their lives under a cloud of bitter smog. You had to catch a bus to see the sun.
Yet there was a power and a magic to it. The sparks off arc welders and angle-grinders danced in the darkness and at night the sky was dyed a dirty orange and pulsed like a heart. When South Bank’s most celebrated son, Wilf Mannion called his hometown ‘the enchanted city’ he wasn’t being ironic.
South Bank FC was founded in 1868, the first football club in the North East of England. The Ellis Cup, was launched - as the South Bank Amateur Challenge Cup – in 1889, which makes it either the fourth or fifth oldest football competition on the planet (the Northern League –of which South Bank was a founder member – began the same year).
Originally for under-18 teams, the Ellis Cup soon expanded to include senior sides too, not just from South Bank but from across Teesside and down into the mining villages of the North York Moors and Cleveland Hills. Over the next century over 100 players who’d turn pro played in it, amongst them some of the most influential figures in the English game.
George Elliott, my grandfather’s boyhood hero, played in the Ellis Cup for Redcar Crusaders, signed for South Bank shortly afterwards , then for Middlesbrough. Aided by two other Ellis Cup Slaggy Islanders, the Carr brothers, Jackie and Willie, Elliott hit 31 goals in 32 league matches in 1913/14 helping Boro to third place in the English top flight, the club’s highest ever finish.
George Hardwick’s father worked in the ironstone mines of East Cleveland. The mine shut down. Money was so short it could crawl under a duck. Hardwick’s mother picked up old jumpers, pulled the yarn apart and knitted George a red jersey and matching socks to play his football in. He turned out in the Ellis Cup for Saltburn, moved on to South bank, signed for Middlesbrough in 1937. A cultured full-back, Hardwick had a matinee idol moustache and the face and physique to match. When he smiled women’s legs turned to jelly. My Granddad called him ‘Gorgeous George’ and blew sarky kisses to him from the Ayresome Park chicken run. Hardwick laughed off the abuse. He captained club and country, people whispered happily of an affair with a Hollywood ‘It Girl’ : Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, accounts varied.
The Golden Boy, Wilf Mannion was born in Napier Street, South Bank. Mannion won the Ellis Cup with South Bank St Peter’s when he was sixteen. His side played South Bank East End in the final. East End’s stopper got no closer to the blond inside-forward than kicking the ball into his groin. The stopper’s name was Harold Shepherdson. Three decades later, as Alf Ramsey’s assistant he’d be leaping off the bench at Wembley when Geoff Hurst scored England’s fourth, the manager barking ‘Sit down, Harold, I can’t see,’ at his back.
The influence of Slaggy Island’s football trophy spread far beyond Teesside. Future Leeds United capo, Don Revie played in the Ellis Cup for Middlesbrough Swifts. Man United boss, Matt Busby, a serviceman at Catterick Garrison, helped Portrack Shamrocks defeat Cargo Fleet Home Guard in the 1946 final. Ken Furphy turned out for Stockton West End, went pro with Everton, achieved great things coaching Watford and ended up in the USA in the 1970s managing New York Cosmos, pairing Pele with Giorgio Chinaglia up front.
My friend’s Dad was the goalkeeper for the village team. Years later he’d recall an Ellis Cup match against Great Broughton – managed in those days by the village postmistress Nancy Goldsborough - when a shiny-eyed teenage centre forward banged in a hat-trick and at the final whistle wandered over, patted my friend’s Dad on the arm, told him ‘One day, when I’m playing for England, you’ll brag to your mate’s about this,’ smiled and introduced himself, ‘I’m Brian Clough.’
‘If he hadn’t been so little, I’d have planted him,’ my friend’s Dad said, telling the story for the thousandth time.
From the late seventies onwards hardship battered Teesside. The steelworks and the shipyards shut. The population of South Bank dwindled. Shutters went up over doors and windows, shops closed, derelict streets were bulldozed. Football clung on. Barely.
After Terry Cochrane quit, South Bank’s ground was attacked routinely and severely. Vandals smashed the windows. Arsonists burned down the clubhouse, torched the main stand. Somebody took a sledgehammer to the dugouts, carted off the bricks. By the late 1990s the pitch was three feet deep in grass, a stadium that had once held 8,000 for cup ties looked like a bomb site. Unable to fulfil fixtures, the Bankers had long since been suspended from the Northern League they’d co-founded.
Now there’s a community centre, named Golden Boy Green in honour of Wilf Mannion where the ground once stood. There’s a skateboard park and a basketball court, no football, no memorial. These days South Bank FC play at Harcourt Road sharing the pitch with Eston Villa and Middlesbrough Homeless. They’re in the Stockton Sunday League. In 2015 they got to the final of the Ellis Cup, won it in a penalty shoot-out against North Ormesby Cons.