At Anfield, Liverpool, a dreary 0-0 draw had just finished. At Annfield Plain, a Wearside League promotion place was up for grabs. The home team, admittedly, wasn’t in contention, but league leaders Cleator Moor Celtic were hoping to follow up last year’s Shipowners‘ Cup Triumph with the league title and promotion up the pyramid.
‘This is Annfield’, read the sign at the entrance. ‘Howay the Lads!’. But a wind-blasted field in the hills of County Durham is a long way from the Premier League. Annfield Plain AFC is a team with a long history, playing in the North Eastern League from 1925. That was a pro league, a trip to Roker Park to play Sunderland Reserves was an annual highlight. My father remembers seeing them in the early 50s, the fact that they claimed a draw at the ‘Bank of England Club’ could be a testament to the quality of the non-league scene in the region at the time. In the same era, the club won the Durham Challenge Cup in 1953; a decade later, now a member of the Wearside League, the team reached the FA Cup First Round for the third time.
Ambitious, Annfield Plain had sought a place in the Football League shortly after World War II; the proposal was never put to the vote amid concerns about away teams struggling to get to their games. Then came the gradual decline. A stroll around this pit village on the edge of Stanley uncovers some fine buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century: the town library, the primary school. But the best known, the old Coop, is a museum piece at nearby Beamish and the development in the latter half of the 20th century is undistinguished. The rustle of rough prosperity that came with the mines is now a distant memory, the modern-day village is too big to claim the status of a rural retreat on the fringes of Tyneside but too small to forge a strong identity of its own. The football team, once a source of pride, battles on in the face of limited local interest. As the game drifted to an end, with Cleator Moor 3-1 up, one old-timer observed that Annfield Plain had once again shown that it wasn’t too far from competing with the ‘crack’ teams. “If we could just get a settled side,” he concluded wistfully.
Instead they were reduced to whistling up a sub from the terraces. The final incoming sub, who played the last 15 minutes or so, arrived at the ground complaining of knee problems. He spent the first half in the stand sheltering from the drizzle and discussing the drinking capacities of his team-mates (‘He’s OK on pints, he’ll drink like 10 or 13 before it starts to hit him, but then one short and he’s gone!’, or ‘He won’t be out tonight. He’s like me, can only do one night at a time’). At half time, badgered by the boss, he reluctantly dragged his boots into the dressing room and played a cameo late in the game.
There were bright spots for the home team: the goalie did well, with a particularly fine save late on. The consolation goal was well taken. But the game was lost early on, with Celtic scoring from their first serious attack – Callum Birdsall’s flick from a free kick to the near post – and continuing to press home that advantage throughout the first half. Birdsall impressed again to set up Keiran Maguire for the second goal, Maguire then bundled home a third from close range.
But Cleator Moor, one of several unlikely Cumbrian outposts in the Wearside League, were also a different proposition from that cup final day at Richmond. Back then, vociferously supported, they brought two coach loads of fans across the Pennines to celebrate a trophy. Today, with the league title and a likely promotion to the North West Counties League close enough to touch, the travelling party was far smaller. At step 7, even a successful team has to battle to maintain interest.
Derwent Park, Annfield Plain, England
April 28, 2018. Wearside League.
Annfield Plain 1 Cleator Moor Celtic 3 (Birdsall, Maguire 2)