FA Cup dreams start – and end – early this year with the FA Cup getting underway before most leagues. Ashington’s clash with Nelson recalled the glory days of both clubs, once rivals in Division 3 (N) of the Football League. Almost a century earlier, in 1926, they made in the FA Cup as both teams enjoyed their best runs in the famous competition. For Nelson that was a second-round tie; Ashington won it 2-1 and made it to the third round proper.
Ninety years later and much has changed. Instead of 5,000 fans, this game attracts 216. The Colliers of Ashington no longer have a coal mine to work in – Ellington’s closure in 2005 ended the deep mining traditions of the north of England. Nelson, a town which sprang up almost overnight to serve the Lancashire textile industry, has seen its old economic certainties similarly eroded. Max Boyce’s South Wales coalfield lament about how ‘the pithead baths are a supermarket now’ isn’t literally true, but Ashington’s gloriously ramshackle old Portland Park home is now an Asda; over the road billboards proclaim a regenerated town centre and new housing coming soon. The two football teams are still at the same level, but far from the pro game in Northern League Division One or the North West Counties League.
But Ashington isn’t all doom and gloom. Once renowned for a seemingly endless seam of footballing talent – Adamson, Milburn, two Charltons – the local team has moved to a smart new facility not far from the Woodhorn Colliery museum complex. Visitors with an eye to the past can combine a look at the work of the Pitmen Painters – including Oliver Kilbourn’s view of a local football match in the 1950s – before taking in a game at the club’s impressive new community stadium. That ground, Woodhorn Lane, is something of a model for how a local club can shake off the burdens of historic grounds that are long on character and memories but short on modern facilities and relocate to a high-quality home that meets the needs of football at their level. It might disappoint groundhoppers, many of whom see it as a cookie-cutter affair compared with the quirks of Portland Park, but it’s surely a more stable foundation for the future of the football club.
On the field, though, things don’t go so well. Ashington make a slow start, carved open by the pace of Kieran Turner inside 10 minutes and second best for much of the first half. In the technical area Steve Harmison prowls with all the latent aggression that once made him the finest test bowler in world cricket; Harmy, an Ashington lad, has confounded those who dismissed his appointment in Feb. 2015 as a publicity stunt. He’s also recruited his brothers Ben (centre-forward, unavailable for this game) and James (centre-half, good in the air but vulnerable against pacy strikers) to the Colliers’ cause. With Ben playing in the County Championship for Durham and Kent, and Jamie turning out for Northumberland as well as captaining the football team in the past, it’s another Ashington sporting dynasty to go alongside those footballing legends of old.
There’s a bit of hope as half time approaches. Ashington hit the woodwork twice, either side of Scott Gunn’s well-taken equalizer. Home fans take a moment or two from chewing over the failures of Newcastle Utd at Fulham the previous day to suggest that they’ll go on and win it in the second half; Harmison later laments that the team seemed to jump to the same premature conclusion. A penalty – as clear as you’ll see all season – gives Zach Dale the chance to win it for Nelson; Ashington’s cup campaign is over before the league has even started.
Woodhorn Lane, Ashington, England
FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round, Aug 6, 2016
Ashington 1 (Gunn) Nelson 2 (Turner, Dale)