The road from Durham to Tow Law climbs steadily into the North Pennines – and into the kind of fog that seems certain to render football impossible.
Yet the Ironworks Road ground is open for business as Tow Law Town host Alnwick Town in ethereal early February conditions. It’s barely possible to pick out one end of the field from another; the floodlights sputter on and off but make little impact against the gloom. In the clubhouse, someone spots a photographer and commiserates: “You’ll not get any decent photos out there, lad.”
Such is life at England’s second-highest football ground. It’s 997 feet above sea level, on a ridge facing up the Wear Valley. Only Buxton, just over 1,000 ft, is higher but probably not so exposed. On a clear day, it’s rumoured, the rolling hills beyond the main stand make a spectacular view. Not many have seen it. More often clear skies afford the chance to watch the next bank of cloud roll up the valley, bringing either rain or snow depending on the season.
Alnwick are getting off lightly. Invisibility isn’t much of a price to pay compared with some. Back when winters were real winters, Northern League football adopted a devil-may-care attitude to snowy games. A one-sided Bishop Auckland match in the 50s was famously enlivened by the Bishops’ goalie building a snowman to keep him company in the six-yard box. Back in 1925, though, Tow Law secured its place in the annals of heroically bad footballing weather by managing to stage a game against Langley Park in the midst of a severe snow storm.
How bad was it? Well, the Langley Park team bus got stuck in the snow three miles from Tow Law. The team completed its journey to Ironworks Road on foot, arriving 50 minutes late. Barely defrosted, they went on to lose 6-0 to a Lawyers’ team bound for a second successive league title. Then, to add insult to frostbite, they got a chilly reception from the league management committee, which fined them £20 for showing up late. This was no mid-winter clash, no cold Tuesday night in December. It was an Easter Bank Holiday clash. That’s Tow Law for you. By the team the Lawyers got within an ace of an FA Third Round tie against Arsenal in 1962, reporters claimed that Shrewsbury ‘saved the Gunners from a fate worse than death … a trip to Tow Law in January’.
In between outbreaks of appalling weather, Tow Law has managed a few claims to fame. They’re one of the longest serving members of the Northern League, football’s second oldest league competition, having joined in 1920 and stayed ever since. In the inter-war years, at the peak of the amateur football boom in this part of the world four-figure crowds would come to the Ironworks Road ground, built by striking workers from the foundry and coal mines that sustained the town but remained agonisingly vulnerable to any economic downturn. This was the club that nurtured the talents of Chris Waddle, whose rags-to-riches story as the boy from the sausage factory who went on to play for England and star in Europe is grounded in slight mythology: Waddle points out that he actually worked in a factory in Low Fell that produced seasoning for sausages and similar meat products, but he never actually stuffed a sausage of his own.
The 1990s saw two more Tow Law fairy stories. The team, now representing a village with a population of barely 2,000, won their third Northern League title in 1995 and followed up that achievement by becoming the smallest place ever to send a team to Wembley for the FA Vase Final of 1998. The black-and-white contingent that saw their 1-0 defeat to Tiverton Town was more than twice the population of the town. Despite a Wembley defeat – something of a tradition for teams from the North-east in the 1990s, when Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough all suffered FA Cup Final defeats under the Twin Towers – the story captured the imagination of fans all over the world. In 2011 two fans travelled from Genoa, Italy, to watch a Northern League game here after Davide Stefano spotted a story online about the team’s 5-1 FA Cup thrashing of Mansfield in the 60s and the Wembley run of ’98.
The 2015-16 team is some way from the heights of Jarrod Suddick and the stars of that side. Bobbing along in lower midtable in the Northern League’s second division, they spend much of the first half here struggling to come to terms with conditions that, in all probability, should have caused the match to be abandoned. Half time, though, brought a break in the weather and – with the players now able to see each other clearly – an improvement in the football. Goals from Adam Knowles, Dean Thexton and the pick of the bunch from David Parker helped the Lawyers to a 3-1 win.
Ironworks Road, Tow Law
Feb. 6, 2016. Northern League Division 2
Tow Law Town 3 (Knowles, Thexton, Parker) Alnwick Town 1 (Jackson)
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