If there was any room for sentiment in football, teams like Birtley Town would be far bigger. The Northern League Division 2 team represents a town with an explosive and surprisingly cosmopolitan past, once home to the Royal Ordinance Factory (since relocated to nearby Washington) and a WW1 workforce of Belgian refugees in the now former community of Elisabethville. Today, with the mines gone, the Ordinance relocated and road and rail bypassing the town, Birtley is a straggling cluster of houses sandwiched between motorway and mainline rail alongside the old Great North Road between Chester-le-Street and Gateshead. On a distant horizon, the Angel of the North spreads its wings, but blessings aren’t immediately apparent among industrial sites that look to have seen better days.
So Birtley Town, a club that has made the most of unpromising circumstances, does what community clubs do best. Plugging right into the local sports scene, it operates an extensive range of youth teams and a ladies’ team – a commitment consolidated by a merger with Birtley St. Joseph’s Juniors in 2002. Judging by the young line-up against Whickham, it also relies heavily on bringing those kids through to the first team to have a crack at Northern League action.
The ground isn’t going to win any beauty contests. Pinned up against the East Coast mainline, the functional spectator stands – one seated, the other terraced – have their backs to the passing trains. Factories stand at either end: the large AEI Cable works, with its forest of oddly shaped chimneys, presents an ominous backdrop. From the cooling towers of Billingham Synthonia to the wind turbines at Washington, industry old and new is a recurrent theme of Northern League grounds. Birtley Sports Complex, maintained with evident pride and steadily, carefully improved over the years, is a good example of a no-frills venue, albeit with the baffling sight of ‘Sligo Rovers’ carved into the cement down one side of the field.
The problems, though, come on the field. After becoming an established force in the Wearside League and moving up to Northern League level in 2007, crisis struck in 2009. The club’s main sponsor pulled out, the players almost all left and the season ended with 30 defeats from 38 games and a goal difference of -74. Only a lack of candidates for promotion preserved the club’s status, but subsequent seasons have seen the team remain dangerously close to the trap-door. This time around, with Blyth Town of the Northern Alliance and Stockton Town of the Wearside League both approved for elevation to the Northern League, there’s little chance of a reprieve for the bottom two: Birtley went into this game three points adrift of third-bottom Esh Winning, having played a game more. Must-win time.
In the first half, though, the likelihood of a home win seemed slim as Whickham dominated, save for one effort that clipped the top of the bar on the stroke of half-time. After the break Whickham looked destined to remain on top until Ross Peareth was sent off for seeming to use an elbow in an aerial challenge. Birtley sensed the chance to snatch a vital win, raised their game and began pushing forward.
Chances came and went, the home faithful went from urging patience to anxiously glancing at their watches and finally the sucker punch came. Mark Fitzpatrick, a threat all night, struck from long range late on, giving the visitors the points.
Another kick in the teeth, another nail in the relegation coffin. But even if this season does end with the drop, there’s grounds for optimism in the future. A merger with Northern Alliance team Birtley St. Joseph’s has been agreed for next term, maintaining the Birtley Town name and, it’s hoped, having a good crack at Northern League status. For the young footballers of Birtley, that hope is the best chance of getting a game in their home town.
Birtley Sports Complex, England.
April 6, 2016. Northern League Division 2
Birtley Town 0 Whickham 1 (Fitzpatrick)