Peter Dixon, a man who has picked up so many runners-up medals his house must have silver-plated walls, finally got his hands on a cup.
The current Newton Aycliffe manager masterminded a 3-1 extra time win over West Auckland Town in the Durham Challenge Cup, a deserved reward for an impressive season with the Newtoners at the expense of his former club.
While in charge at West, Dixon had two trips to Wembley for the FA Vase final only to lose out against Dunston UTS in 2012 and Sholing Town’s inspired goalkeeper in 2014. West also came second in the Northern League and lost a Northern League Cup final to Team Northumberland during a spell of ‘so near yet so far’. His cup final curse continued when he arrived at Aycliffe last season, reaching the Northern League Cup final once again only to lose out to Shildon. Then and now, many of his players at Newton Aycliffe were also part of that West Auckland team, which might explain both their nervous start and jubilant finish.
Some might argue that the County FA Competitions are now an anachronism, devalued by the likes of Spennymoor Town and Gateshead using them as match practice for the reserves. But the joy on the faces of the victorious Aycliffe squad proved how much this cup still means. The players knew what it meant for the boss; witness John Campbell’s sprint to the bench to celebrate his spectacular equalizer early in the second half. They understood what it meant to the team’s small but devoted bunch of fans; Dennis Knight and captain Paul Garthwaite both picking up cautions as they raced topless towards the cluster of fans celebrating the extra-time goals on the balcony of the Bob Paisley bar.
Paisley, perhaps Liverpool’s greatest ever manager, might seem an unlikely name to crop up at a game like this played on a ground normally used by Sunderland’s women and u21s. But here in Hetton, his home town, he is fondly remembered. Not just for his success at Anfield, but also for his humility and his firm attachment to his roots. Off season, he was frequently found at the football clubs of Wearside and its hinterland; famously he had a crate of champagne waiting to congratulate Sunderland after a win at Liverpool on the last day of the 1980-81 season secured one of the Wearsiders’ many great escapes from relegation.
West Auckland, whose half-century wait to win a cup continues, also have an escape of sorts to celebrate. Early in the season they looked in danger of being cut adrift at the foot of the Northern League Division 1 table. In a toothless 0-2 defeat against Jarrow Roofing they looked like a team struggling to get to grips with a new manager’s ideas. Their path to this final was tinged with controversy – two opponents removed for playing ineligible players and the second, Whickham, kicked out of the cup just four days before the final. But manager Andy Campbell, once a Middlesbrough forward, deserves credit for turning his team around and laying the foundations for what should be a better season next time.
Campbell isn’t everyone’s cup of tea: as he kicks every ball from the dug-out his interjections tend to rub up opposing fans the wrong way while, in the nature of the North-east’s football rivalries, some will simply never warm to an ex-Boro boy. But after his success in getting Norton & Stockton Ancients promoted to Northern League Division 1 last season, Campbell is once again showing signs of some canny managerial nous and his team’s first-half performance here threatened to turn the league table upside down as West probed confidently after Darren Richardson’s early opener, reducing Aycliffe to a bag of nerves in defence.
But for all West’s improvements this season, cup final day belonged, unequivocally, to the man in the opposite dug-out.
Hetton-le-Hole, England. The Hetton Centre
March 25, 2016. Durham Challenge Cup final
Newton Aycliffe 3 (Campbell, Knight, Garthwaite) West Auckland 1 (Richardson)
More photos available in this Flickr group