Everyone loves a plucky underdog. The battling outsider, summoned up from nowhere to compete at the highest level and, against all the odds, triumph. It’s the stuff of Hollywood, from Sylvester Stallone’s penalty-saving heroics in ‘Escape to Victory’ to Sean Bean enacting his childhood fantasy of firing Sheffield Utd to glory in ‘When Saturday Comes’.
But these myths and legends, those Steeple Sinderbys winning their FA Cups, have their roots in an unlikely true story that stretches from the County Durham coalfields to the playing fields of Turin. The story of West Auckland, and the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy.
Thomas Lipton, of the tea dynasty, was an early 20th-century sports nut. His passion was setting up international competitions, so that better international relations could be forged by means of Johnny Foreigner getting a sound beating on the playing field and thus learning the appropriate respect due to an Englishman. His enduring legacy is the America’s Cup, where hopes of promoting Britannia’s virtues haven’t always enjoyed plain sailing, but he also got involved in football. In 1909 he set up a four-team tournament to pit the leading clubs of Europe against one another. The first edition was enthusiastically endorsed by Germany, Switzerland and hosts Italy, who sent along their top teams: Sportfreunde Stuttgarter, FC Winterthur and a Turin representative team. England sent West Auckland.
Even at the time this was something of an anomaly. West were an amateur team of coalminers playing in the Northern League. They got the nod after the FA, showing its usual lack of foresight, declined to nominate one of the leading professional teams of the day to compete with their peers on the continent. A group of players, many of whom had barely travelled south of the River Tees, raised their own travel expenses to cross the Alps … and returned with the trophy after 2-0 wins over Stuttgart, then Winterthur. Among them was Jack Greenwell, a wing-half from nearby Crook, a future legend of FC Barcelona and the only man from outside of Latin America to lead a country to the South American Cup when he managed Peru to its first triumph in 1939.
Two years later, as defending champions, West Auckland returned. Yet another 2-0 win, this time over FC Zurich, set up a showdown with Juventus. Juve wasn’t such an Old Lady back then, and West’s wiles were too much for her. An emphatic 6-1 win saw the trophy heading back to England for keeps.
Except it wasn’t. The costs of the journey forced the club to pawn the trophy and for 50 years it was in the hands of the local hotel. The club, meanwhile, disbanded in 1912. A reformation in 1914 was disrupted by World War I and it wasn’t until 1934 that the team was back in the Northern League.
These days, though, there’s not much evidence of that history. The coal mine, like all of County Durham’s heavy industry, is long gone. Now the village has a rustic air, with 17th and 18th century buildings grouped around a large village green. Since 1967, when the pit closed, agriculture has been the main activity here and the football ground looks out across fields. The Thomas Lipton Trophy itself is lost, stolen in 1994 and never seen again. A replica is now held by the Working Men’s Club, its image crops up all over the homely Darlington Road ground, but unlike its earlier misadventures it feels as if the current absence is a permanent one. A striking sculpture of a miner and a footballer, installed on the green in 2013, is scant consolation.
On the field West Auckland are struggling. The team is in a relegation fight in Northern League First Division; manager Andy Campbell, once a flame-headed, fiery-tempered prospect at Middlesbrough, spends much of a 2-0 defeat at home to Jarrow Roofing remonstrating with anyone and everyone. Every error, every misplaced pass, prompts an agonised disclaimer to his assistant: “I told them not to do that!” Players, sheepish, try not to catch his eye and busy themselves barking out advice to each other. The hundred or so fans, long-suffering as a season starts with few wins to cheer, react with resignation as Jarrow take the lead when a free kick is allowed to travel too far across the box and the veteran Paul Chow forces the ball home at the far post.
Despite the history, it feels like yet another ordinary non-league day out – yet those far off days of global glory were not the end of the West Auckland story. The team won back-to-back Northern League championships in the early 1960s, and went to Wembley in the FA Amateur Cup final in 1961. There have been three FA Cup First Round appearances, most recently in 1999, losing in a penalty shoot-out after twice drawing with Yeovil Town. And in the past few seasons, as Northern League teams dominated the FA Vase, West twice returned to Wembley under the guidance of Peter Dixon. In 2012 they lost 2-0 to Dunston UTS in an all-Northern League final; two years later they were back only to be denied by Sholing.
However, much like the Italian Jobs of old, this proved to be a mixed blessing. Wembley appearances at this level generate excitement and attention, but precious little by way of cold, hard cash. And in football, money talks. Even at this level. Players found themselves in the shop window and moved on as did inspirational manager Peter Dixon following a clash with the board a few months after that second Wembley occasion.
Since then the club have struggled in the lower reaches of the Northern League First Division: Campbell, appointed after leading Norton & Stockton Ancients to promotion from the second division, is in charge of changing that script.