A glance over the honours list in the Durham Challenge Cup is a walk back through history. Since the competition was first played in 1884, it tells a tale of how the region developed – and how the game developed alongside. It’s a list that debunks old clichés, specifically the one about how local football was hewn almost exclusively from the mine shafts of the Durham coalfield. Of course, many pit villages feature among the winners, but the early years show winners from other backgrounds. Sunderland, a club founded by schoolteachers; Darlington, a market town and agricultural hub; Bishop Auckland Church Institute and, before long, Bishop Auckland AFC, both with links to the clergy and academia. It’s not until 1896 and Tow Law Town’s first triumph that we see a true pit village lifting the cup. After the Lawyers, plenty followed: Leadgate Park, Annfield Plain, Ferryhill Athletic, the tell-tale CW suffix denoting the Colliery Welfare teams of Blackhall, Horden, Ryhope or Eppleton.
There are ripples of national history: back-to-back wins for Jarrow in 1933 and 1934, against a background of a collapsing shipbuilding industry and deep economic depression. Within two years, the famous Jarrow Crusade set off for London: how many of the marchers might have been involved with the football club? Later, in the final years of the Durham coalfield, the 1980s began with Horden CW winning the cup twice and ended with Eppleton CW’s solitary success. By the end of 1993 the last pits in the Durham coalfield were closed. Sad to say, many of the associated football teams have gone with them.
The honours list also shows how football has changed. From 1884 to 1929, Sunderland dominated. The Red-and-Whites’ 20 wins overall have yet to be beaten. Hardly surprising, given that Sunderland was one of England’s top teams in that period, winning five of their six league championships and boasting of the ‘Team of all Talents’. The next time the club’s name features on the list, in 1966, it’s as Sunderland Reserves: evidence that fielding lesser teams in cup competitions is not a Sky-era stunt for the early stages of the Football League Cup. This year’s competition saw Sunderland enter the U23s, while Gateshead and Spennymoor Town were among the non-league teams to put out youthful teams in the competition.
Sunderland’s juniors, and Hartlepool Utd’s A-team fell to Dunston UTS. Their opponent in the final, played at Eppleton’s old ground, would be Consett. The Steelmen were seeking their first win since 2007, Dunston had never won this cup despite their Northern League and FA Vase triumphs in the early 21st century.
Consett had the more vocal support – the Conny Army brought two coachloads down from the hills, hung their banners behind the goal (‘We used to make steel, now we make ready meals’ – local history in a pithy couplet) and settled in for a raucous evening. When their team raced into a 3-0 lead in the first half-hour, the celebrations started early. The front two of Michael MacKay and Michael Sweet gave the Dunston defence a tortuous time from the off, sharing well-worked goals and assists between them. Dunston’s reply late in the half was another good goal from Dale Burrell. Dunston goalie Neil Harrison was left with his head in his hands when he allowed a Sweet shot through his legs to make it 4-1 and put the game beyond reach; with the Conny Army at his back, he wasn’t going to be allowed to forget that one in a hurry. A late lob from Michael Hall reduced the deficit but the cup was destined for Derwentside long before an unseemly late scuffle saw Burrell sent off for an apparent stamp on David Dowson.
It was a happy ending for one of the Northern League’s best-supported and best-run clubs. The team has worked hard to embed itself in the community since moving to its new ground, and this win felt like a real lift for the whole town. Consett’s fans streamed on to the pitch at the final whistle in good-natured jubilation and, a decade after their previous win, the Steelmen – perhaps now the Ready-meal Men? – could dine out on a new triumph.
Hetton Centre, Hetton-le-Hole, England
April 26, 2018. Durham Challenge Cup Final
Consett 4 (MacKay 2, Sweet 2) Dunston UTS 2 (Burrell, Hall)
Groundhoppers Blog recently released its first E-book, ‘Ancients and Mariners’, following the stories of the teams in the 2016-17 Northern League season. If you enjoy the content on this blog, please consider downloading a copy from Amazon for just £2.49.