The Northern League, ever quick off the mark, published next season’s fixtures at the weekend. But groundhoppers hoping to enjoy a game at Central Avenue, Billingham, will be disappointed. Saturday’s AGM was the last Northern League event to be staged there, bringing an end to almost 60 years of football in front of one of the most imposing stands in the non-league game.
Billingham Synthonia, the home team since it was built in 1958 and owners of the facility since 1999, are moving on. The costs of maintaining an aging facility are becoming prohibitive, while the ‘all under one roof’ design brings challenges of its own. When the team played its last game at the aging ground, club chairman David Hillerby highlighted a £1,400 monthly electricity bill and warned that the sole boiler was now 50 years old and, were it switched off, could never be restarted. Synners are planning to play the next couple of seasons at Station Road, Norton while they work out a way to return to their home town.
The old ground bowed out with a promotion-winning campaign: Synthonia finished third in Division Two and will head to Norton as a first division outfit. Fittingly, the win that secured promotion came in the last ever game at Central Avenue with a 2-0 success against Willington. There’s a sense that, on the field, the club is back where it belongs.
But there’s also a sense of loss as yet another venue steeped in non-league history closes its doors. Clubs all over the region, from Ashington to Consett to Bishop Auckland, can tell similar stories. Old-school stands, traditional grounds, come with history and tradition ground deep into their fabric. From tea-hut to turnstile, there’s a memory at every step. Unfortunately, those memories require maintenance. Built in a different era, they are often designed to house crowds unlikely to be seen again at this level. The main stand at Synners can house 2,000 spectators; last season’s highest crowd, for a Boxing Day derby against Billingham Town, was 600-odd. Often, they come with unwanted add-ons – an athletics track at Billingham did little to enhance the spectator experience. Then there are problems of wear and tear. Large, aging buildings tend to become a patched-up mixture temporary fixes that become permanent due to lack of time and resources for a proper job. Over time, ‘just good enough’ fades into ‘not quite right’; the money to solve the problem isn’t always available.
On a personal note, the end of Central Avenue cuts another string from the Northern League I first started watching. Back in 1994 I made my first trip here to see Durham City’s title-winning team wrap up a successful season. Now, like Durham’s own Ferens Park, and the grounds at Murton and Ferryhill, Central Avenue is another old venue set to disappear from regular use.
The fear, of course, is that the move out of town to Norton will prove to be another temporary fix that ends up being permanent. It’s not a long journey, but that sense of separation from the team’s base, from its core support, quickly becomes damaging. Hopefully the two-year agreement at Norton will conclude with Synners ready to move into a new home back in Billingham. Traditionalists will continue to lament the lost character of Central Avenue, but experience elsewhere shows how the right facilities can transform a club.