For the antidote to modern football, try a January afternoon in Crook. Millfield, one of the grand old ladies of Northern League grounds, has everything for the purist. The sense of history is as heavy as the pitch; midweek snow is mercifully gone, but its legacy remains in the damp earth. The mist comes down even before kick-off; as the ref leads the teams out he immediately asks for the floodlight to go on. And, stalking the ample terrace, echoes of great days of old flitter into the imagination.
On the way to the game the radio told me about Martin O’Neill’s appointment at Nottingham Forest – and his reluctance to take the job ahead of Frank Clark in 1993. Clark was one of many Crook Town legends. The greatest of all, perhaps, Jack Greenwell, was instrumental in establishing Barcelona as a force in Spanish football in the 1920s; nobody was manager of the Catalans for longer until Johan Cruyff’s twin spells at the Camp Nou. A photo shows Crook on tour to visit their old marra in Catalunya; Greenwell himself a smudge beneath the glass.
It wasn’t all about glory elsewhere. When this corner of County Durham dominated the FA Amateur Cup, Crook Town were one of the big names. Local rivalries with Bishop Auckland, five miles distant, and Willington, closer still on the road back towards Durham were played out in the Northern League but also in the race to lift the major national prize from non-league teams. Crook managed it five times, a six-figure crowd came to Wembley to see them play Bishops in the 1954 final, 60,000 more went to Newcastle for the replay. Even in Crook, 10,000 or more would pack onto the Millfield terraces for big cup ties. Photos in the clubhouse tell the story; sepia-tinted memories of yesteryear, with a telling decline in attendances when the images start to appear in colour.
Today, the crowd is numbered in dozens. A Division Two game with Ryton & Crawcrook lacks the lure of an Amateur Cup clash with Walton & Hersham. Much of the terracing is grassed over; signs warn against standing on the bank. It’s an oddly unwelcome reworking of a familiar story in these parts: the reclamation of spoil tips applied to a sports ground built by local miners. Happily, though, much survives. A main stand that’s a spot of lattice-work away from being an Archibald Leitch in miniature, a corrugated iron barn over the western terrace that, photos suggest, dates back to at least the 1960s. Even the old, exposed toilets remain, although today’s visitors are politely directed to the more sanitised facilities in the clubhouse. It feels like a place that should be subject to protection orders yet football grounds remain desperately vulnerable. Reaching out into the community, Millfield draws its biggest crowds of the season for the annual Crookfest music festival, a compilation of cover bands on a bank holiday weekend.
If the music is ersatz, the football is full of gritty realism. The pitch, heavy and bobbly, encourages an up-and-at-’em approach. Crook seize the initiative from the kick-off and score within seconds thanks to a thumping volley from Lee Hume. Joe Smith quickly races through to add a second and the contest is all but over. Ryton, frequently struggling in the Northern League, work hard to stay in contention but another from Smith secures a 3-0 win. Crook might feel they could have had more; at times the team were guilty of overplaying when a shot looked to be the better option. Up in the stand, the comforting aroma of chip fat swirls up from the ‘Only Foods and Sauces’ tea bar. It might not be a return to past glories but, for a couple of hours, all’s right with the world.
Millfield, Crook, England
Northern League Division 2. Jan. 19, 2019
Crook Town 3 (Hume, Smith 2) Ryton & Crawcrook Albion 0