Following his quite excellent piece for us about non-league videos a couple of days ago, we are pleased to welcome Mike Bayly back from the Non-League Day initiative. Mike wrote a book called “Changing Ends”, about a season in non-league football, last year, and this excerpt from the book traces the history of Dudley Town FC, the representatives of the largest town in Britain never to have hosted league football.
Dudley Town were formed in 1888 and played their games at the Shavers End ground in the Birmingham League. The club remained dormant after the Great War, but was reformed in 1928, entering the Cradley Heath and District League and then the Worcestershire Combination. In 1932 they moved into the Sports Ground, built as part of a project to provide work for the large unemployed population during the inter-war years. Over 16,000 people attended the opening match – a clear indication of the potential support available to a rising team.
In the early 1930s Dudley dominated the Worcestershire Combination, but the financial strain of a move to the Birmingham League saw the club fold shortly before the Second World War. After the war, the club was once again resurrected; re-joining the Birmingham League which was later renamed the West Midlands Regional League. The 1960s onwards marked a high point in the history of the club, both in terms of performances on the pitch and interest off it. 8,200 saw the Robins play Worcester City in 1964, over 7,000 turned up for a prestigious friendly against Wolves to celebrate the installation of new floodlights in the ground and nearly five and a half thousand witnessed a hard fought FA Cup First Round tie in 1976 against York City which earned a creditable replay.
Perhaps of most significance during this halcyon period was the match (or even ‘matches’, if apocryphal stories from an older generation are to be believed) Dudley Town played against Manchester United in recognition of Duncan Edwards, the footballer born in Dudley in 1936 and described by Bobby Charlton as “the best player I have ever seen”. Edwards’ life was cut short in the Munich air disaster of 1958, aged just 21, though as noted on the independent Manchester United supporters’ trust website, “he is still talked about and remembered, not only by the fans of the club for which he played and loved so much, but also by football fans throughout the British Isles, Europe, and indeed the world.”
The game, which marked the opening of the Duncan Edwards Social Club, saw Dudley come out 3-1 winners. “Matt Busby brought along a United XI minus the first team squad who were away in Sweden,” recalls Patrick Talbot on the Black Country society website, “although there were lesser mortals like Fitzpatrick, Rimmer and Aston playing.” In 1999 a statue commemorating the player was unveiled by his mother, Mrs Sarah Edwards, and Bobby Charlton, in Dudley Market Place. There are also two stained glass windows at St. Francis’ Church, Laurel Road, Dudley in celebration of his life; his grave in the Borough cemetery is constantly adorned with red and white flowers.
Although average league attendances hovered around the 400 mark towards the end of the 1970s, there was demonstrable evidence that success could, and indeed did, bring the crowds in. When the Southern League Midland Division was finally secured in 1984, with a 2-0 win against local rivals Stourbridge, Dudley were all set to play two levels below the football league for the first time in their history, and with ground improvements in place, including VIP section, press box and loud speaker system, as well as a partisan support, it should have marked the beginning of a golden age in the club’s history. And then disaster struck.
During the summer of 1984 mine workings under the adjacent cricket ground collapsed. It wasn’t the first time this had happened; since the 1930s there had been twelve documented collapses, and judging by the reported warning signs on display, spectators often entered the ground at their own risk. Unfortunately, the collapse of 1984 was too significant for the authorities to ignore and the 40ft hole which appeared led to the club’s stadium being closed down and condemned. It was cruel irony that the mines, so long a source of prosperity for the town, would prove to be the club’s undoing. To compound matters, Dudley’s sports ground was considered one of the finest stadiums outside of the professional game, its main 1,800 seat stand now preserved only in increasingly rare photo footage and supporters dwindling memories: there are probably only a handful of people left who can remember attending a game there. As Patrick Talbot recalls in his splendid reminisce on the long departed Cricket and Football ground, “part of my sporting heritage collapsed and crumbled away with the limestone (that day)”.
The ground has now been redeveloped by the council as ‘Castlegate’, a modern entertainment complex of cinemas and eating establishments. The name has the ring of a scandal, and, from a historical perspective, rightly so. There is little to mark the site that was once home to thousands of fans and a half century of sporting endeavour. A generation of Dudleyites may grow up never knowing their proud football past; mixed with the smog of traffic fumes and fast food outlets, there is more than a whiff of sadness that so many memories have been bulldozed into the ground.
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