Saturday, 22 March 2014

Tow Law Town 1 South Shields 1

Northern League, second division
Attendance: 170

There are many interesting grounds at the lower levels of the non-league pyramid but I still need a reason, however slim, to visit them or else I just end up feeling like anorak (which, of course, I'm not). The problem is that smaller clubs seldom have notable matches nor last long in the FA Cup.

Tow Law Town, in rural Durham, has long been on my hit list. As soon as I heard they were playing their 3,000th match I was programming the sat nav. Chris Waddle, their illustrious allumni, wouldn’t be there but, heh, it sounded like an event of sorts and there was free admission to boot, all of which roughly trebled the average home gate. Community spirit was positively oozing out of the packed sports bar, above, named after Steve Howard (ex-Luton and Leicester and Tow Law’s second greatest ex-player). Inside people played dominoes and there was a display of the club’s history including the scrapbooks and programmes of late superfan Lily Craggs. The scene was set for a vintage afternoon in many respects. The Northern League is as close as you can get to sporting time travel and I absolutely love it.

Bob and Elsie
The occasion started with a pitch invasion. It couldn’t have been more benign or more fully authorised: the League chairman beckoned us over to join him and the dignitaries for a photocall. This year the League celebrates its 125th anniversary and guest of honour today was Bob Rogers, grandson of its founder who has flown over from Hong Kong for the various celebrations including Tow Law’s 3,000th match. He said that Tow Law reminded him of small town outback Australia where, as a young man, he had worked as a farm hand. Also present was the widow of His Royal Sir Bobby Robsonness who is Tow Law’s president. (Bobby was merely vice-president and both of them will have appreciated the home side’s black and white strip).

Everything I’d read about Ironworks Road Ground had remarked on how cold it gets up there at the second highest football ground in England (behind Buxton). I’d always had in mind a midwinter visit to experience full Pennine exposure and thought I was wimping out going in spring. Not a bit of it: I needed each of my five layers.

As you’d expect at such a high altitude, the views beyond the main stand are superb stretching across Weardale. And also as you might expect, the ground includes a wind turbine that I expect seldom stops for long. It’s sited on the top of six terraces along the back of which a railway line used to run. A train driver once stopped to ask the score.

I don’t normally like the club name or nickname picked out in their main stand but when the letters aren’t printed on seats but handpainted on a brickwall as is the case of ‘The Lawyers’ I’m willing to make an exception. The mural at the back of the stand is nothing short of a masterpiece, the figure of a judge picked out in meticulous detail. The art reminded me of well dressing in Derbyshire and, appropriately in these parts, the banners of mining unions.

You could argue that the murals should show someone from the old ironworks or mines as Tow Law is much more associated with that type of employment than the legal profession;  the nickname is purely a play on words, Tow Law being the Old English for ‘look-out mound’. The words ‘home’ and ‘away’ on the dugouts and the ‘litter’ on the bin are handpainted and there’s another superb enamel on wood artwork, above, behind one of the goals. Someone is a dab hand with a paintbrush to say the very least.

Either side of the second painting are two single rows of 13 flip-up seats (in black and white like the grandstand) with a notice above saying that no standing is allowed in front of them in compliance with FA rules. I can’t think that has been much of an issue in recent years. Tow Law have had their big moments, though, most notably a run to the final of the FA Vase run in 1998 and a 5-1 FA Cup thrashing of then third division Mansfield in 1967 in front of 5,500 spectators. Just beyond one of the rows of seats in a corner is what looks like a escape hatch in the perimeter wall or, from the outside, the entrance to a burial chamber.

The first half was pretty uneventful but the match improved after the interval. The Lawyers took the lead on 68 mins with a deflected shot only for Shields to spoil the party 12 mins later with a similar blaster from the edge of the box. The Mariners could’ve won it, hitting the bar and missing an open goal from five yards out in the lively closing minutes.

So: P 3,000, W 1,246, D 565, L 1,189, F 5,701, A 5,680. A draw only today, perhaps, but Tow Law’s 3,000th was a darn sight more successful than Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th!

Programme notes: The ref was Mr P Osgood. No relation, surely? The Tow Law reserve goalie’s claim to fame is appearing in Status Quo’s video for Jam Side Down filmed on HMS Ark Royal. Great story too about a Tow Law fan from Italy who comes over for a match at least once a season and it’s always nice to see an ad from the milkman in a programme.

Golden oldie: It’s been a gala weekend of nostalgia for the Chris Waddle Fan Club. Members could’ve been part of his original club’s history today then, tomorrow, watch the great man in action with his All Stars team in a charity match at Hallam in Sheffield.

Second best (not really): Dulwich Hamlet of the Isthmian League are the only club in the national league system who’ve played more games than Tow Law in the same competition.

A horse on the pitch: While in the Durham fells I visited two former Northern League grounds. The home of Stanley United (which left the league in 1974) is now a field for horses, sheep and cattle and an old stand is a barn. The much-loved ‘little house on the prairie’ which once provided the changing rooms and clubhouse has long gone but an advertising hoarding for British Coal poignantly remains.

The other ground was Hazel Grove in Cockfield, the “wonder village” as it was dubbed after reaching the final of the FA Amateur Cup in 1928. The pitch is still railed and a new clubhouse is under construction. Players will continue to enter the pitch between two dugouts that have survived for at least 20 years according to old pictures. Either side of them are the stumps of two wooden poles that used to support a canopy connecting to the old clubhouse. For more on these two grounds see their guides on the excellent Pyramid Passion.

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