A Different League

BILLY'S CONTRACT sees what we avoided

Having little or nothing better to do last Thursday*, well that's a bit of a white lie as I could have finished the decorating, tidied out the garage, washed the car, or perhaps returned the faulty garden sprayer to Lidl, had the chance to carry out some revision for a forthcoming exam or perhaps made a belated start on The Band of Brothers DVD box set which I was given six Christmases ago. Instead, however, I decided to take in the rescheduled derby match between Spennymoor and Darlington 1860.

Spenny's ground, for those not familiar with it, is pretty much surrounded by housing on all sides. As they were expecting a large crowd for this fixture, The Moors' website urged fans not to upset their near neighbours by blocking their drives and causing mayhem in the terraced streets by instead parking in the town centre or in the leisure centre car parks. I later discovered that the people who run the leisure centre are not entirely happy with this non-negotiated arrangement for obvious reasons.

As I left the leisure centre car park I asked a passing lady if she could tell me where the ground was located. Sucking in a deep intake of breath, a bit in like that of a motor mechanic who is about to give you a quote on replacing the gearbox, or even a lightbulb on a French car, she told me that the ground was over the other side of town. She said this as if she was talking about Manhattan not Spennymoor. She kindly gave me directions and warned me that it would be a nightmare getting parked. She nearly passed out when I told her I was going to walk. Returning to my car after the match, I timed the walk from the ground at just over eight minutes.

I made my way up Durham Road and I once again asked a local who was about to go into one of the pubs if I was on the right course for The Brewery Field. He obviously thought that I was a Loid who was not familar with the area. I gave him a flash of the Pools logo on my polo shirt and the first thing he asked me was if I knew Tommy What's-his-name*, a Pools fan who hails from Spenny. To which I replied that I did. With that he started to give me directions to the ground but half way through them he said "I'll walk down to the ground with you and have a drink in the Tavern instead." On the way his pal, a disaffected, or should I say disinfected, ex-Sunderland season-ticket holder, joined us and told me that he now supported his home town club instead and much preferred the craic and the banter on the terraces in the non-league scene than the so called professional leagues.

The Tavern is the nearest pub to the ground and would seem to be the Spenny fans' local. It turns out that some of their bar staff man the turnstiles on match days. Raj Singh take note. Having supposedly trekked from one end of the town to the other via the Khyber pass I felt that I was worthy of a pint and popped in.

Who was the first person that I bumped into but Tommy What's-his-name***. I was surprised to see that there were almost as many Darlo fans as Spenny fans in the Tavern. There was no police presence and no bouncers on the doors and best of all there was no trouble. Which is the way it should be.

It later occurred to me that both teams play in similar black and white strips and as such each set of supporters probably could not distinguish who was friend or who was foe. I was expecting both sets of fans to be walking to the match hand in hand which was nearly the case as both Loids and Moors mingled with each other on the way to the ground. All very genteel.

I left the pub in the company of two other Spenny fans who gave me the ins and outs of their players and who to watch out for. They told me that they were playing catch up on the rest of the league as they had had numerous home matches cancelled owing to the constant waterlogging of their pitch. This meant that they were playing on average three games a week. They had asked if they could play games at Pools, but the league hierarchy would not sanction this for some reason and as such they had to play one of their matches at Harrogate's ground, who in turn charged them £3.5k for the privilege. £8 saw me sat in the main stand, which is not bad price but more expensive than Pools for a senior season ticket. The Popular end is now all-seater, which was part of the league criteria required if Spenny wanted to move up to the National League in the event of their securing promotion.

Just before kick-off an injured David Foley, carrying a 2 litre bottle of water nearly a foot taller than himself, took his seat behind me.

I purchased a programme just to familarise myself with the players' names. I noted that Darlo 1804's leading goal scorer Reece Styche was number 17 and ex-Poolie Phil Turnbull was number 12. Both teams came out and at first I thought that neither of these two players had been selected until I noticed that both teams numbers ran from number one to number eleven and that the players' surnames were not printed on the rear of the shirts. A bit like in the good old days of football. Turned out that Styche was number nine and Turnbull number four. I am guessing that this saves the expense of smaller clubs having to in'vest' in dozens of shirts to 'cover them' for the season.

Talking of football shirts, Darlow 1812 took to the field in a maroon away top which looked very similar to the one Pools had a few seasons back. Rumour has it that 1886's new away shirt for next season is going to be light blue, similar to the one Pools wore between 1993/95 seasons with Camerons name emblazoned across the front. This, it would seem, hasn't gone down too well in some Quaker quarters.

The match started off at a pace with Spenny, kicking downhill, tearing into Darlo 1899 and were a goal up after a couple of minutes. The Moors should have been out of sight by half time with right winger Robbie Ramshaw causing the Quakers all kinds of problems. Talking of being out of sight, in one of the neighbouring gardens adjacent to the ground, near the corner flag of the Spenny popular end, someone had been burning their grass cuttings and the smoke kept drifting over the field of play in various degrees of density. Two security chaps were seen looking over the fence but it looked as if no one was at home and this, along with that lovely smell of burning grass pretty much persisted until the final whistle. Only in non league football!
"Football how it should be played: going forward with pace, with the ball on the deck and with no danger to passing aircraft."

As is the way, against the run of play, Darlo 18/6d grabbed a lifeline when Styche brilliantly turned Spenny's centre half out wide and scored a very good equaliser. Styche is a centre forward with attitude but judging by his celebrations he thinks a lot more of himself than the fans do. Certainly Spenny's anyway.

Second half Darlo 1818 took control and looked more organised with Turnbull pulling the strings and their chunky winger Stephen Thompson started to make his presence felt. He caught the Spenny full back in possession and it was from his resulting cross that the Spenny central defender nodded the ball back to his keeper only to find he was well off his line, resulting in a very soft own goal.

Spenny kept pushing but with having to fulfil so many fixtures per week you could see them tiring before your eyes and in the last twenty minutes Darlo ran the show but without really threatening Spenny's goal and ran out comfortable two one winners. Darlo historically appear to have the Gipsies' curse on Spennymoor and seem to be their bogey team. In their five meetings since the Quakers joined the non-league set up the best The Moors have achieved. despite  being the better team in most of these meetings, is a one all draw. Sadly for the Moors this fixture pile up has done for them as they have missed out on a play off spot.

This match was billed in Spenny's programme as the one that they have been waiting for, but in truth it did not feel like a proper derby match in terms of the game itself or of the atmosphere generated by both sets of fans. A crowd of 1,850 was recorded. 700-plus from Darlington 1872 made the gruelling 15 mile journey, which was about the same number of fans that Pools took to Tranmere for the last away game of the season.

Leaving the ground I bumped into two more Poolie season-ticket holders, which brought the total up to four on the night. I came to the conclusion that we were all behaving like jealous boy/girlfriends who, after a tempestuous relationship, can't get their exes out of their mind and miss them so badly that they have to spy on them, and this was the scenario with Darlo 1853. We four Poolies just wanted to see who our Ex was playing around with these days. I'm sorry, Spenny, but Darlo 1837 will always forever be ours. Go and get your own derby rivals.

I throughly enjoyed the game and and comparing it to watching Pools and the National League in general was interesting. I have seen Spenny several times under Jason Ainsley's management and they are a joy to watch. Football how it should be played: going forward with pace, with the ball on the deck and with no danger to passing aircraft.

All their players look comfortable on the the ball. When the ball was played side to side from midfield it was done in an attacking motion going forward and arriving in their opponents' half very quickly, unlike Pools where the ball is aimlessly kicked from side to side, slowing the pace down and inevitably going nowhere apart from back to the keeper. Apart from the costly headed backpass resulting in the own goal I cannot recall either side making a direct back pass to their respective keepers. In Spenny's case I could understand why, as their keeper did not exactly inspire much confidence. For the record 1886's keeper was Stephen Pears's son Aynsley. Unlike Pools, when either side won a throw-in they knew how to handle it, which was quickly, players making themselves available and making space for themselves to receive the ball instead of being in Pools mode, standing around like something from Madame Tussaud's.

What I thought was innovative was that, whenever Darlow 1888 won a corner, Spenny put three men up across the half way line and another midway between there and the penalty box, resulting in Darlo having to bring four players back. Essentially this meant that Darlow 1891 were defending the corner they were taking for fear of a breakaway from a clearance. It was literally four on to four.

Another thing that I liked was that there was none of this feigning injury and rolling around on the pitch after the slightest of contact, which is a regular occurrence within the National and the Premier Leagues. From what I have witnessed this season it appears to be a particular trait of many of the southern teams in the National League, in the hope to break up their opponents' rhythm or to run down the clock. I am given to understand that the correct term for this kind of play is "cheating."

The referee was very good but one of his linos looked very young indeed, which drew the attention of one Spenny fan who shouted at him. 'Get back up to your bedroom and finish your homework!' No talking headsets for the officials, just like British Rail back in the day: all flags and whistles.

Would any of the players from these two sides make it into Pools' current first team? Certainly. The two central defenders from either team probably would, but there again that is not saying a lot as most Sunday League central defenders could secure a place in Pools' central back line. The two wingers, Thompson and Ramshaw, looked confident and could beat their men and put in decent crosses for the forwards to feed off, as well as carry out defensive duties and put a tackle in where and when required. Based on this one-off showing, either winger could secure a place in Pools' starting line up.

Spenny also had a blond-haired, ex-Darlo lad, who wore the number four shirt. I did not get his name, but he was everywhere and ran the game. It would take two of our current midfielders to do the work that he did. Playing devil's advocate, would any of the current Pools players get in the Spennymoor side? A few undoubtedly would, but some would do well to make their bench. Darlow 1879 would be a better bet for many of them.

Apart from the chew of getting to Spennymoor itself, anytime I go there the satnav takes me on a different route via Chilton and Kirk Merrington or through Ferryhill or Tudhoe (pronounced Tudda) and I am sure that on one occasion that I passed through Royston Vasey. Having said that, if Pools had gone pop I think that I would be a regular on the terraces at the Brewery Field, or if not, perhaps South Shields. As the Irish say: "The craic was mighty." 

Next up I am going to a wake, which will be held at the Stadium of Light on May 6th. Will the Mackems keep The Wolves from the door? Full report in August's Monkey Business.

* It will be three Thursdays back by the time you read this.
** Not his real name.
*** See above.