At the foot of the Northern League, a flicker of interest stirred. Olivier Bernard, once a Premier League left-back with Newcastle, was taking over as manager of Durham City following the resignation of Wayne Gredziak last week. Bernard, who is also the club’s owner, had done this once before on an interim basis, filling in after Ian Chandler’s departure in 2015. That time, he got a 1-1 draw against Bishop Auckland. Three years on, the situation was very different.
When Chandler left in October 2015, City were a first division team with their own ground at New Ferens Park and hopes of challenging at the top end of the table. Following a disastrous dispute with the owners of that ground and three years of ground sharing, first at Consett and now at Willington, the club has been stripped of its experienced players and is rooted to the foot of the Northern League. Relegation to the Wearside League seems depressingly likely; City are three points adrift of Brandon United and have just two league wins all season.
Prior to the game, Bernard had invoked the spirit of Sir Bobby Robson, his old boss at Newcastle. A smart PR move – Sir Bobby’s legendary status in the region makes him an impeccable source – but one that didn’t really translate to the dug-out. While Robson tended to approach his role with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy allowed out of lessons to chase a ball around, Bernard was a less demonstrative presence on the touchline. Aware that the visit of in-form Heaton Stannington would be a tough test for a team short of confidence or experience, he spoke of the need for attention to detail and hoped to frustrate a visitor on a winning streak.
The plan worked, briefly. The opening stages were evenly contested, but once a well-worked move saw Joe Kerridge put Stan in front there was little left for Durham. One decent first-half chance might have changed things, but a good save denied Joseph Whelan. Even so, at half time there was cautious optimism. Things were not as bad as expected, the talk from the bench was that City had ‘more than matched them’ but defensive shortcomings were exposed.
In the second half, though, it all went wrong. Again, Stan scored early – a free header at the back post this time – and proceeded to take control of the game. A flurry of late goals pushed the scoreline to 5-0, a little flattering to the visitor but all-too familiar for struggling Durham. Bernard, who had said before the game that he hoped his spell in the dug-out would be brief, stood down almost immediately; Billy Harper, previously with Shildon’s junior and Blyth Spartans Reserves takes over with an unenviable task ahead of him.
The problems don’t just lie on the field. The club faces an on-going struggle to get a ground of its own, particularly one in its home city. Sky-high property values and a shortage of vacant land mean finding a site is tough; finding the funds to support the project is a greater challenge. Saturday’s game attracted a meagre crowd of 52, most of whom seemed to be from Tyneside. Lovers of the ‘Two men and a dog’ cliché of Northern League football would have been heartened by the presence of four four-legged fans from Heaton Stannington, led by the famous Heaton Stan Harry but right now it feels like a dog’s life for the struggling Citizens.
Hall Lane, Willington, England
Nov. 25, 2018. Northern League Div. 2
Durham City 0 Heaton Stannington 5 (Kerridge 2, Fox, Holland 2)