The Northern League is the second oldest football league in the world, and they are exceptionally (and rightly) proud of the fact. Even though non-league football’s big reorganisation of 2004, in which two regional “second” divisions were added to the Football Conference, pushed it a step down the ladder, it remains a league that is fiercely proud of its independence. The league built its reputation on the large number of senior non-league clubs in the north-east of England, and even now there are clubs that you will recognise amongst its ranks, such as former FA Amateur Cup giants Bishop Auckland and FA Cup giant-killers Bedlington Terriers and Whitley Bay. One of its oldest clubs is Ashington AFC, a club which represents a town that is beloved in the media as one of northern England’s traditional “football hotbeds” – a club that has been rail-roaded by its local council into the brave new world of out of town
Best known as the home town of Bobby & Jack Charlton and Jackie Milburn, Ashington’s football club has spent much of its 125 years living a hand to mouth existence. Nicknamed (perhaps unsurprisingly) “The Colliers”, the club remains fiercely proud of its history, which includes an eight year stay in the Football League. Placed in the Third Division North when the league expanded to four divisions in 1921, they were voted out in 1929, to be replaced by York City after a mining strike hit crowds to such an extent that they could barely attract 700 people to their last few matches. They were invited to join the Northern Premier League for its opening season in 1968, but were relegated after just one season after a financially ruinous season which would take them years to recover from. The club had been ill prepared for life in a higher division, and the increased wages and high travelling expenses were not compensated with higher crowds. The club axed its reserve team and even had to sell its Portland Park stadium back to the local council for £10,000 and lease its use back in order to stay in business, and it would be this decision that would come back to haunt them almost forty years later.
Fast forward to the present day and Ashington are still plugging away, towards the bottom of the Northern League. They have had a largely uneventful time of it over the last four decades, punctuated with a run to the semi-final of the final FA Amateur Cup competition in 1974 (they were beaten one stop short of a trip to Wembley by Bishops Stortford) and a very close shave with closure in 1994, when the entire club committee resigned after they were unable to field a team for a league match. Their future changed forever last year, though, when the local council called time on their time at Portland Park. The stadium, their home since 1907, had been the subject of a covenant preventing it from being used for anything other than sporting purposes for the previous century, but a change in the law allowed the council, who had been agitating for the club to move for some time, to force them from their home. They were saved from a bleak, homeless existence last summer when it was confirmed that new partners had been brought in and a new stadium was to be built at Hirst Welfare, on the outskirts of the town. The council, whose maltreatment of their local club is difficult to fathom, arranged a sale to Asda, and the club were told that they would be evicted on the 18th of February.
Already expecting the worst, the club had asked the Northern League to front load their home fixtures onto the start of the season. As a result of this, they have just two more home matches to play this from eleven remaining fixtures, and their remaining two “home” matches will be played at nearby Bedlington Terriers. The club marked their departure from Portland Park in style, bringing their final match against Seaham Red Star forward to a Friday night, the fifteenth of February, so that they could party in style and still have time to empty the ground before the eviction order came into effect. The town did them proud, with a near capacity crowd of 1,954 and a brass band there to mark the occasion, although Seaham spoiled the party somewhat by winning 3-2. The club’s biggest concern now is avoiding relegation. They remain precariously placed in sixteenth place, but only having two remaining home matches (both of which are effectively “away” matches) may well mean that they are looking nervously over their shoulders for the rest of the season. Their new ground is expected to be ready for the start of next season.
We may never know what the local council’s thinking was in forcing this sale through to build a supermarket on the land. We can certainly surmise that their interest in the local community is questionable if they rate Asda as above their local football club in terms of what will benefit local people the most. For Ashington, though, a local landmark has been lost, and for Ashington Association Football Club, unless they can steer clear of the drop this season, one set of question marks over their future may well have merely been replaced will another.