It’s been a rough few years for Bedlington Terriers. One of the Northern League’s strongest teams around the turn of the century, and the last team from the competition to beat Football League opposition in the FA Cup, their dreams are rather more modest these days. Scrapping at the lower end of the second division, trying to nurture a young squad – much changed in the aftermath of relegation – and finding things tough.
The FA Vase – Bedlington reached the final in 1999, the last team from the North East to play under the twin towers of the old Wembley – handed the Terriers a tough task against an upwardly mobile Bishop Auckland team hoping to finally begin its climb back up the leagues and maybe rekindle a great cup tradition of its own.
In the heart of Northumberland’s coalfield, Bedlington is a surprising town. Its roots go way back; monks from Durham stopped here with St. Cuthbert’s relics back in 1069, hoping to avoid the clutches of William the Conqueror. The 12th-century church is the highlight of the modern-day heritage trail around the market square. Post-industrial gentrification is sneaking in; family homes go for around quarter of a million according to the local estate agents.
More recent industrial heritage is less visible. The collieries are long gone, their names recalled in road signs and the Doctor Pit Welfare Park, home of the Terriers. For the most part, it’s a typical modest non-league ground. A stand down one side that looks somewhat ramshackle, a clubhouse with a balcony level for VIP guests (vacant for this game), a locked club shop and a tea bar doing a roaring trade in burgers. Teams head down the tunnel to ‘The Kennels’ for a final team talk; Bedlington’s goalie re-emerges at half-time to beg for an energy drink from the bar.
But in one corner there’s a rare sight at this level: an electronic scoreboard, installed in 2010 when US billionaire Robert Rich became the club’s honorary president. The same connection saw the team make a Trans-Atlantic tour the following year, but was less helpful when 2013 brought a winding-up order over an outstanding £15,000 loan. Rich politely explained that he didn’t see himself as a benefactor and the club was on its own. The cash was found and bankruptcy was avoided, but the scoreboard is no longer in use and dreams of a wealthy foreigner bankrolling the club to glory have long been forgotten.
Money problems continue. The club may be solvent but it can no longer attract the pedigree of players that took it to Wembley, or to repeat Northern League titles. Today’s Terriers are a young breed. A single image from Saturday’s game highlights the problem: two fresh-faced defenders struggle to get back and protect the goal from another raid by Andrew Johnson, a 29-year-old goal machine. Experience got the better of youth here; Johnson scored two, Bishop went on to win 3-0.
Where next for Bedlington? The league table – and especially the goals against column – points at a long winter to come. There are a number of nervous-looking teams at the foot of Northern League Div. 2, and the Terriers are among them. But despite facing a much superior Bishop Auckland team, led by one of the best strikers in this league, they gave a battling performance that was a noticeable improvement on the 6-1 stuffing they suffered last time they played Division 1 opposition in a cup tie. There’s enough here to stay out of danger and give the club a chance to rebuild.
As for Bishop, they look like a handful for most teams. Up front, Johnson fully justifies the hype and there’s plenty of intelligent prompting from the midfield to help out. In recent years, Bishop’s oft-stated desire to climb the pyramid has prompted mockery from outside the club as the Two Blues tended to stutter in mid-table. This season, though, they could be serious contenders if they can maintain their bright start … and perhaps not be too distracted by an FA Cup run that has already reached the Second Qualifying Round.
Doctor Pit Welfare Park, Bedlington, England
FA Vase First Qualifying Round, Sep. 10, 2016
Bedlington Terriers 0 Bishop Auckland 3 (Johnson 2, Griffiths)