There’s something of a big-match atmosphere in Thornaby as the North Riding Senior Cup brings Middlesbrough – with all the glamour of a Championship high-flyer – to Teesdale Park.
OK, it might not be a senior Boro team: when even non-league teams are fielding weakened XIs in County Cup ties there’s little likelihood of Stewart Downing turning up to run around against a Northern League Division 2 team. But there are run-outs for first-team defender Chris Wheater and promising teenage Brazilian Joao Morelli, arrived last summer on a tie-up with Boro hero Juninho’s home-town team. That stirs enough interest to lure 220 fans down to one of the great survivors of the local football scene. That’s four times the average gate this season, and double the previous best of 95 for a Northern League derby against Billingham Town. It’s one of those nights where the hard work put into keeping Thornaby FC afloat seems to be paying off.
Today’s Teesdale Park is a small, tidy non-league ground. No frills. A compact stand with covered seating, now dedicated to the memory of Peter Morris, a long-serving club secretary who collapsed after reffing a game, a corrugated iron bus shelter of a terrace at one end and smart new seats behind the other goal, looking like a more permanent take on a lot of the accommodation at community sports arenas in Russia’s lower leagues (see Burevestnik or Rubin Kazan amateurs and be grateful that this stand allows fans to climb higher and enjoy a better view of the action). In front of the clubhouse there’s a well-tended garden; shipping containers for the tea bar and committee room are functional rather than aesthetic, but there’s a visible sense of pride and good housekeeping.
Tonight’s a special night for three Thornaby players: Rocky Andrews, Theo Furness and Kieran Edwards all spent time with Boro’s academy, and while they ended up on the wrong end of a 5-1 scoreline, the team was far from disgraced on this brush with the big(ger) time. Boro’s coaching staff made all the right noises after the game, talking up the spirit and quality of the home team.
But for many years Thornaby, known as Stockton from 1980 to 2000, was not a place to attact plaudits. While the nearby road looks like a paradigm of sleepy middle class suburbia, with its golf course, cemetery and cricket club ringing the Teesdale Park shopping complex, the football ground had a harder time of things. Tucked away down an unlit alley, lost in the woods, it was fatally vulnerable to vandalism. As the region’s fortunes declined, symbolised by the loss of the world-famous Head Wrightson works, so the football team was harried to the brink of extinction. The factory was next door; after it closed down Margaret Thatcher herself came to visit the site on a ‘walk in the wilderness’ designed to show a suspicious region that Westminster was alert to its plight. That made little impact on the footballers, but the spray cans and firebombs of local hooligans did. The words ‘bomb site’ were used to describe the state of the ground. The club changed its name from Stockton to Thornaby in 2000, hoping to boost local support, but to little avail. By the mid 2000s the poor facilities led to a compulsory demotion from Northern League Division 1 and put the club in danger of complete collapse.
Then came the fightback. The survival story. Thornaby is trying hard: youth teams, women’s teams, a tie-up with Middlesbrough Ladies. Renewing and improving the ground; building work is tentatively underway on the flat roof behind the seating at the top end. There’s even a woodland trail, trying to transform the trees that once shrouded the vandals into another positive resource for the club.
On the pitch the gap in class is obvious. Morelli hits four and repeatedly tests home goalie Michael Duff. The stopper generally impresses, making his frustration at Boro’s – and Morelli’s – fourth all the more acute: a low shot from the edge of the box seemed to go through Duff, scant reward for his point blank saves in the first half. But this time Thornaby can take consolation from their contribution to an entertaining game; one that should encourage fans to come back again another day.
The team’s tale of survival deserves more local support. A couple of hundred to watch an impressive Boro youth team is a nice boost to the club coffers – but it’s the day-to-day crowds that need to improve. Somehow the club – like so many others – needs to persuade more people that there’s football worth watching outside of the Premier League; that sport doesn’t have to be enjoyed largely on TV. That mid-table in the Northern League can still deliver the kind of honest endeavour so many fans claim is all they want from their preening prima donnas in the big time. The day after this game rumours of a training ground bust-up emerge from Middlesbrough. Head coach Aitor Karanka didn’t take Friday’s training session and was not in charge for the weekend trip to Charlton. In Thornaby, you sense, there’s a greater sense of teamwork.
Thornaby, England. Teesdale Park
March 10, 2016. North Riding Senior Cup, semi-final
Thornaby 1 (Mitchell) Middlesbrough u21 5 (Morelli 4, Kitching)