At 1,107 feet above sea level, they reckon Wearhead United have the highest football field in England. Alston, up the hill and over the border into Cumbria, plays at a higher level in the Crook & District League, but a lower altitude. Buxton and Tow Law, duking it out for the most elevated status in the land, are the pinnacles of the national football pyramid – but their fields have luxuries like stands and teahuts, disqualifying them from this rootsiest of the game’s grassroots. However, it’s not clear which bit of the ground is measured at 1,107 feet: the playing surface undulates like a miniature version of the hills that dominate this Pennine village. At least, unlike the hills, there’s no serious snow coverage, just a savage wind that recalls the days when club officials would revive flagging players with a judicious tot of brandy.
Height and longevity are the distinctive features here. The team is now 110 years old, its on-going survival a remarkable achievement given the declining population of Upper Weardale. The club’s own illustrated history, a handsome affair painstakingly researched by Ray Snaith to mark the centenary, highlights how much things have changed. Half a century or so before, Wearhead had five shops, a pub, a chippie, a cinema, a garage, a haulage business, a bank branch and even a railway station. Today, not even the policeman can be found.
It’s wild, tough country, settled by lead miners. Today, though, it’s dominated by agriculture … and that led to the most memorable game of the club’s history. Wearhead vs Stanhope, 2001. A 2-2 draw in front of a league record crowd of more than 900. Why so many? It was played at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, a gesture from then chairman Bob Murray in support of two Weardale teams whose home fields were closed due to the foot-and-mouth epidemic. In the Norman Wright Pavilion, a blessed shelter from the winds named after a heroically devoted club stalwart, photos and press cuttings from the big day out take pride of place; another wall features team groups through the ages, a potted history of the vagaries of football fashion as red-and-white stripes swirl at odd angles and the lengths of shorts, hair and beards rise and fall as sharply as the pitch outside.
Today it’s Wearhead vs Stanhope once again, the big local sporting rivalry in these parts. Neither team is in great form, struggling at the foot of Division Two with only winless Crook Wanderers below. In a village with a population of barely 200, raising a team of 11 is a struggle. The days when the now-defunct Weardale League could insist that teams only selected players who lived in the parish are long gone, but getting a consistent starting XI on the field each week is the biggest frustration for the management. Even Stanhope, hardly a metropolis even if it is Weardale’s largest town, seems to have a bit more cohesion about its team: the early exchanges see Wearhead pushed back, although the home team grows into the game as the first half progresses. At half time, with teamtalks in the open, frosty air, the talk is about the need to convert chances, rather than stem the flow of attacks.
It doesn’t quite happen. Stanhope score twice in the second half. A close-range finish from Aydan Bowers opens the scoring, amid complaints of handball, offside, or anything else the aggrieved home defence can think of. In a game with one club linesman, there’s plenty of scope for discussion about what really happened. The second goal, Stanhope’s knock-out blow, is clear-cut. Connor McArdle’s turn and shot makes it 2-0 with perhaps the best piece of football of the day.
Wearhead takes its name from the confluence of the River Wear, formed when Bollihope and Killhope burns meet. After 70-odd miles, the waters flow past another team in Red-and-White to join the North Sea at Sunderland; walkers on the Weardale Way talk up the contrast of industrial city and open moorland. But the same contrast applies even more vividly to the football. Days out at the Stadium of Light notwithstanding, this is as far from the pro game as anyone could imagine. Competitions like the Crook & District League, struggling on outside the embrace of the pyramid, still pit local teams against each other. It’s where the Mason’s Arms might face the Travellers Rest, or where a team can get a sympathetic response to a request not to play on a certain weekend. It where crowds grope hopefully towards double figures, if we count dogs as well as their owners and the kids of the players. And it’s where the love of the game, a passion kindled on an open, windswept field on the roof of England, continues to inspire.
Nov. 25, 2017
Wearhead Recreation Field, Wearhead, England
Crook & District League Division 2
Wearhead United 0 Stanhope Town Sports and Social 2 (Bowers, McArdle)
Att: about 12
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