The sign in the car park struck a chill note – ‘No ball games, by order of Horden Parish Council’. There’s a bitter irony here: after more than 100 years of football, Horden CW could be driven out of business after a dispute with the Parish Council. Far from preventing scuffed motors, the local authority could end up breaking local hearts.
Word of the crisis had got around: Twitter, various fan forums, local papers. A crowd of about 200 – a bumper turn-out – came to see what could be the last rites against Jarrow. There were locals, greeted like old friends in the main stand. There were groundhoppers, curious to grab perhaps a last glimpse of football at Welfare Park; their hats and jackets betrayed loyalties from far and wide – Warrington Town, Oldham Athletic.
The crowd was raucous, by turns optimistic (Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause Horden FC’s gonna be alright) and vituperative (We are the council haters). The team, based in the town or nearby, seemed distracted early on but weathered some early pressure to win 3-1. Lax defending presented the opener midway through the first half; two goals from corners in the second sealed the deal. The club hopes to complete its fixtures and maintain its Wearside League status, accepting the financially ruinous fate of playing away from home until the end of the season if necessary. A meeting with the Parish Council on March 1 is expected to make the long-term future clearer.
So why should anyone care? County Durham is not short of non-league football and among Horden’s near neighbours, teams like Peterlee Newtown and Shotton Comrades have dropped out of the Saturday leagues in recent years. The Welfare Park ground, lashed by a bracing wind, nestles between terraced houses like a throwback to a ‘grim oop North’ kitchen-sink drama from the 60s. The football, full of honest endeavour, is far from the glamour of the Premier League, or even the Northern Premier League. Fans praise robust tackling, misplaced attempts at flair attract derision. To the outsider, the whole thing could seem like an anachronism, notwithstanding the 1,770 messages of support attracted by an online petition and handed to the council on Feb. 25.
But look deeper, and you see the ties that bind the football club to a wider community that has endured a battering over the past 30 years. Once a proud part of the Durham coalfield, Horden (and nearby Easington, Shotton, Seaham and more) have seen their collieries close, their livelihoods shattered, their futures turned into semi-remembered histories. With few means of retaining any kind of identity, sports teams increase in importance. They give opportunities within the community, from youth team action to the veteran groundsman performing wonders to keep the pitch playable amid a miserably wet winter. That’s a labour of love, just like sprinting around the ground to retrieve lost balls – “It keeps me fit!” – or taking up refereeing, paid for through the club as the sole tangible reward for his efforts.
These are the people that the Parish Council should surely be trying to support and encourage. Instead, on the face of it, a dispute revolving around unpaid debts involving individuals no longer at the club could spell the end. The lease on the Welfare Ground expired in 2013, the Parish Council is apparently unwilling to negotiate anew and a court hearing last week in Newcastle confirmed its right to evict the footballers. By the letter of the law, that may well be so; in terms of community spirit it feels like a cruel blow for a place that has already endured too many assaults in recent years.