Foul weather makes getting football matches on increasingly difficult. A lack of action puts a hole in the blog, a gap reinforced by the recent Winter Olympics which took me away for several weeks and brought me home to be buffeted by the ‘Beast from the East’. So it’s worth taking a moment to applaud Durham City – and landlords Willington – for managing to stage the last game I saw.
Durham City vs Chester-le-Street is something of a derby. However, the status of the Citizens is increasingly complex. This midweek game, in shivering temperatures, brought up the fifth ‘home’ ground I’d seen Durham play on. It’s a run that started at Ferens Park, the old one by the river in the centre of Durham, sold off for housing in 1994. That deal seemed to usher in a bright new future for the club; a year of ground sharing at Chester was followed by the opening of a purpose built new home – New Ferens Park – on the edge of Durham. It took some time for the team to live up to its new surroundings, but a link-up with Sunderland’s reserves brought additional groundkeeping resources to bear and, eventually, the team won promotion to the Northern Premier League. Sadly, by then, the SAFC connection was over and a plastic pitch had to be installed to cope with a boggy playing surface. That halted Durham’s push up the leagues and pushed the club back among the also-rans of the Northern League.
Then came the big clash: Durham’s new owner, Olivier Bernard, once a dashing Newcastle United full-back, fell out with the people in charge of the ground. Efforts to broker a truce foundered when it proved impossible to get both sides in the same room, never mind finding common ground. Durham moved on again, playing at Consett for a season and a half before reaching a new agreement with Willington for 2017-18.
Talk around the club is all about getting back home. Updates veer from optimism about potential new sites to disappointment about lack of progress. Online rumours are rebutted in programme notes, but there’s not much clarity about the future. The team, showing signs of promise under manager Ollie Hotchkiss, finds itself in midtable in Division Two, with promotion ambitions undermined by the battle to hold on to players when budgets are tight. But, two-and-a-half years after being locked out of New Ferens Park, the long-term future does not feel secure.
That doesn’t dim the enthusiasm of the small but dedicated band of City fans who gather behind the goal to barrack the referee and the opposition. In a game where quality goals are mixed with goalkeeping howlers, they have plenty to keep themselves amused; behind the dugouts, not everyone is impressed. Chester wins it 3-2, the clubhouse does a roaring trade on a cold evening – but Durham’s future feels very hand-to-mouth.
Hall Lane, Willington
Feb. 6, 2018. Northern League Division 2.
Durham City 2 (Pattinson 2) Chester-le-Street 3 (Stephenson, Heppelwhite, Peck)
Att: not given