Saturday, 15 February 2014

Billingham Town 1 Crook Town 4

Northern League first division
Attendance: c 100 tbc

When I read that Billingham Town were in danger of recording the highest number of goals conceded by a Northern League club in a season (see footnotes) I immediately consulted their fixture list hoping either to witness a rare fist-pumping win (they’ve only won once all season) or a goal feast. Town’s new manager was in charge for the first time so perhaps the former outcome was more likely. Either way a trip to the Teesside would get me out of the house on another of those miserable, grey February afternoons.

Billy was, indeed, chilly. I stepped out of the car straight into a giant puddle and the match started in spitting rain. Just inside the turnstile my son asked quite reasonably: “What’s that bus shelter doing there?” There were two in fact: on their backs, taped off and with the timetable for the service between Stockton High Street and Peterlee still attached. They will provide cover for spectators in wheelchairs.

Bedford Terrace (as the ground is humbly named) has two stands: one basic, modern steel shelter on the far side and a cantilever grandstand clad in blue corrugated steel and with a peculiar shape when viewed from either end. I also liked the way that the respective directors’ boxes are accessed either side of the tunnel. Above them in the middle is the announcer’s box which, with its veneer panelling and stark single striplight looks like the accounts office in a garage. Curiously, you can’t access one side of the stand from the other without exiting and going right around the back and you have to leave the ground to enter the clubhouse via the car park.
The ground sits within a cleft of railway lines. Trainspotters get a great view from the grandstand of passing traffic which today included two coal trains, Arriva trains and Grand Central trains. Three cooling towers of the town’s chemical works loom at a distance over another corner of the ground.

Predictably, the match was a very one-sided affair in favour of the visitors right from the start. Billy held on for the first 32 mins though until a defender sliced a clearance into his own net. It never rains but it pours, to be use a topical metaphor. Crook doubled the lead and would have gone in at the break five or six goals ahead had it not been for their proligacy in front of goal.

In the second half Billy got one back, a neat move and wall pass in the penalty area resulting in a tap in. The scorer, his team and the home support seemed equally surprised as if waiting for an offside whistle. But no they had actually scored. “What’s it like to score a goal?” one Crook fan meanly yelled. The announcer followed up with: “The scorer of Billingham’s first goal of the year is Matthew Dixon!”. The side’s duck stretches back over 12 hours of football to Dec 21.

The goal gave Billy something to build on – for the rest of the season if not this match since, after a brief purple patch when an equaliser briefly seemed conceivable, they went 3-1 down to a header. Crook ended the match by reasserting their dominance and with the best goal of the afternoon. Nicholls burst through the home defence and angled a drive into the top corner. Next up: a friendly against a York City XI on Tuesday which gives the new gaffer (love that lingo) another chance to shape his team.

The weather had cleared up considerably in the second half and what I think is called the sun started shining. The floodlights remained off and I drove home on the A19 under a prawn pink sky. Smidgeons of spring at the end of a wild, wintery week. For me that was the best result of all.

Record breakers: The record for the most goals conceded by a Northern League club in a season is 177 by the now defunct Ferryhill Athletic in 1996/97 when eight fewer matches were played. Today’s match puts Billy on 163 in the ‘A’ column, just 15 goals away from ignomony with 10 games remaining. Hmmm. Their nadir this season was the 14-0 pasting against Stockton Town in the Durham Challenge Cup in November followed by an 11-0 defeat by Celtic Nation just three weeks later.

Players, please: Billy have registered 85 players in total this season which was nearly as high as today’s attendance. Six lads made debuts today. The club’s most celebrated ex-player is Garry Pallister of Middlesbrough, Man United and England.

Old and new media: To find out if today’s match was on I rang the Northern League’s postponement line. Almost as quaint as the League still operating a Clubcall service (currently suspended). Whatever next? Teletext?

True colours: Here are some impressively liveried Crook supporters. I don’t know which is more impressive: the black and gold of the dog’s jacket or the umbrella.

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