On the 18th of November in County Durham, a small ceremony took place on a windswept plot of land. It wasn’t a spectacular ceremony. There were no fireworks and Mariah Carey didn’t turn up in a pink Rolls Royce with her pockets stuffed with kittens, demanding a red carpet the ground before her to be showered with rose petals. Instead, there was a smattering of local council representatives, some people from the local residents association and some of the officials and supporters of the local football club. They were there to officially mark the start of development work at Tindale Crescent. Bishop Auckland Football Club is going home.
Bishop Auckland is probably the single most famous name of the amateur football era. Ten times winners of the FA Amateur Cup, and eight times runners-up in the same competition. Nineteen times – nineteen! – winners of the Northern League, the second oldest football league in the world. In the last golden era of amateur football in England, the 1950s, they were the kings of the non-league game. Their sky blue and navy blue shirts were famous the length and breadth of the country. As the non-league game moved on, however, the environment in which the Bishops found themselves stood still.
The Northern League refused to join the non-league pyramid until 1991, and its reduced stature meant that many of its top clubs left for pastures new. Bishop Auckland joined the Northern Premier League in 1988, getting promoted straight into its top division. They finished in second place in that league in 1997, narrowly missing out on a place in the Football Conference. Events off the pitch, however, were starting to overtake the club. In an area densely populated with football clubs, they struggled to maintain their support and were also hamstrung by the fact that they shared their Kingsway stadium with the local cricket club, meaning that redevelopment of the ground was almost impossible.
The club gave up on Kingsway – their home since 1886 – in 2002 and fell back into the Northern League, which is now a feeder to the Northern Premier League, in 2007. Since 2002, they have ground-shared at several different other clubs such as Shildon and West Auckland Town, but the cost of not owning their own ground has been ruinous for the club. The club had identified a new site at Tindale Crescent, two miles from Kingsway, as long ago as 1998 but funding difficulties, issues relating to a covenant and planning permission held the proposal up for years. In November of last year, however, the new stadium was finally approved as part of a £45m leisure village which will also include shops, a supermarket and a cinema.
Even then, however, the future of the club continued to hang in the balance. A rival company submitted a rival bid to build a supermarket in the town, and this held up the final confirmation that work could start until the company concerned – the water cooler manufacturers Ebac – surprisingly withdrew their plans. The scheme had reached the office of Baroness Kay Andrews, secretary of state for communities and local government before she confirmed that the plans did not conflict with national planning policies. With work now starting imminently (preparation work required means that construction of the stadium itself won’t begin until early next year), the Bishops should be in their new home not long after the start of next season at the latest.
With the club struggling on the pitch – they are currently in sixteenth place in the Northern League – the decision couldn’t have come soon enough. It is worth noting the support of three organisations in getting the work finally started at Tindale – the local council and local MPs, who all pledged their support to the project over a year ago, the Football Foundation, whose Football Stadia Improvement Fund granted a critical £250,000 towards the project and have been enormously patient in waiting for the planning permission to be rubber stamped, and, perhaps surprisingly, Manchester United Football Club, who donated a set of floodlights to the club by way of thanks to Bishop Auckland, who, whilst one of the top amateur sides in the country at the time – lent United three of their players in the immediate aftermath of the Munich air disaster in 1958.
Most importantly of all, however, it is the people of Bishop Auckland Football Club that have somehow managed to keep the club going against what has often looked like insurmountable odds. They more than anyone else deserve their new home after years playing away every week, and the town of Bishop Auckland should get behind its local team when it returns, if not before. Their dedication should also serve as an inspiration to others, and there are plenty of homeless clubs in England at the moment. If Bishop Auckland, after more than seven years and numerous problems, can find themselves standing on an empty plot of land wearing hard hats and grinning, anybody can.