Kicking off this week, the Northern League, the game’s second-oldest still in operation, has inspired a new book launched at the same time. ‘Ancients and Mariners’ by Andy Potts explores the current state of this venerable competition and digs into its rich history.
Few fixtures carry the authentic whiff of the Northern League like a local derby between Willington and Crook Town. Two County Durham communities with rich football histories, separated by a few miles of the A690 as it heads towards the hills of Weardale. Two towns struggling to adapt to a life where the old certainties of heavy industry are long gone, but a new future is slow to arrive. As they faced off on Friday night, Willington’s 1-0 win captured something of the essence of the game in the long shadows of the Premier League.
Founded in 1889, the Northern League now comprises two divisions, for semi-pro and amateur clubs in Northumberland, County Durham, Tyne & Wear, Cumbria and North Yorkshire. Run through its honours list and historic names appear, Bishop Auckland, Blyth Spartans and Tow Law Town, woven into the football fabric of the north-east.
It’s a land of stories. For Willington, winning the FA Amateur at Wembley in front of 100,000. Bishop Auckland, another neighbour, were the opponents: every spare locomotive north of Darlington was pressed into service as a soccer special to take the Wear Valley to London. Later days saw Malcolm Allison and Alan Durban have stints in the dug-out at the Hall Lane ground, immediately after they parted company with Middlesbrough and Sunderland respectively in the 1980s. Non-league football was different then. The gap between pros and part-timers was not so insurmountable.
Even the gap to the mega-clubs was bridgeable. Jack Greenwell, Crook lad and guest player when West Auckland won the ‘First World Cup’ in 1909, went on to become a hero of Barcelona. After impressing in Turin with West Auckland, Greenwell was persuaded to swap Crook for Catalunya – a no-brainer today, but a different story in an age when the eight-mile trip to Bishop Auckland was adventure for many. Noted as a quick, intelligent passer of a football, the half-back the second longest-serving manager is Barça history behind Johan Cruyff. Some even credit him with the first stirrings of tiki-taka football.
As player and coach, he won various cups – although not the Trofeu de Catalunya, which sits in solitary splendour in the long-disused trophy cabinet at St. James’ Park. Crook put it there for safe keeping, having claimed it on a tour to play against their old buddy in 1922. Greenwell continued to carve out a career, taking Espanyol into the inaugural La Liga season. After fleeing Spain in the wake of the Civil War, he headed to Peru and improbably helped the country win the 1939 South American trophy. Only one European has ever coached a team to glory in that competition – he was a miner’s son from County Durham.
That kind of rich history is why the Northern League remains a vital, if overlooked part of the football world. It was also the inspiration behind ‘Ancients and Mariners’, an e-book exploring the state of the league. With a few exceptions, including one ‘better than Pele’ moment, the on-field action is ephemeral, a punctuation mark in a longer, more absorbing story. Commitment outranks quality. It’s a world where the characters and traditions, the half-forgotten heroes and hopeful dreamers emerge.
It’s not completely removed from the strains of the modern game. Even at this level, money talks. In the case of South Shields, impressively bankrolled, it loudly bawls ‘We are the Champions’ at a karaoke evening as it celebrates a four-trophy haul that culminated in FA Vase joy at Wembley. Yet, two years ago, the Mariners were on the brink of extinction, playing in exile at Peterlee and flogging cans of beers bought at the local supermarket to raise the money to pay the match officials. Fortunes change fast.
For some, too fast. The Ancients, Norton & Stockton, ran out of steam in the same season. Struggling for support, struggling to maintain interest in the face of a resurgent Middlesbrough and three near neighbours competing for promotion, they resigned from Division Two after 18 games. Haves and have-nots, even at this level. The game, and the region, in microcosm.
‘Ancients and Mariners’ is available at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B074LZ3T2L. It exists purely as an E-book, and can be downloaded onto Kindle devices for £2.49.