Saturday, 11 April 2015

Esh Winning 4 Seaham Red Star 3

Northern League, second division
Attendance: 34

I’ve wanted to visit Esh Winning in Co Durham for years ever since reading a description in the Northern League guide: “Ground is in a picturesque setting (bring your bird book and binoculars).” A paean in the Northern League 125th anniversary book is equally enticing: “For the view, for the welcome, there are few better places to watch football in the north-east”.

This was clearly a place to save for a sunny day. I’m normally preoccupied with the FA qualifiers in August and September and Esh seldom stay in the competition long enough for me to catch them. Other big matches for the lesser Northern League clubs are in short supply. So I selected the last home match of the season which is how this humdrum fixture has been in my diary since last summer.

Paradoxically, the smaller the settlement the more I struggle to locate the ground which was the case with Esh Winning who actually play at Waterhouses a mile down the road in a wooded valley. As settlements go this is pretty tiddly and the smallest to provide a home to a Northern League club. We’re talking a rural village here without exaggeration. I passed through it and just as I was starting to curse and look for a place to turn I saw an Esh Winning sign, its stag logo accurately reflecting the setting.

The ground is an absolute delight. You enter up steps in the corner for the arena to be revealed in all its quirky, home-made, higgledy-piddledgy glory. Where to start? The main stand catches the eye if only for the precipitous pitch of its roof reminiscent of nearby Crook and just as likely to catch the wind and let in sweeping rain, you’d think. Inside it are some weathered old seats, numbered, that I think came from a church. The benches they’re positioned on, the adjacent standing shelter and wonky rail around the pitch are painted (now flaking) in green and yellow.

Even more inviting and novel accommodation is provided by two small wooden shelters on a bank behind one of the goals. Nail a few planks to the front of them and they could be bird hides. In between are four park benches, two of which could’ve come from the Deerness Valley path which I’d cycled along in the morning (see notes at the end). Access up the incline is provided by paving slab steps with a steel rail, all painted green and yellow, of course. Wonderful.

Opposite the main stand and linked by a strip of astroturf  are four spaced out bus shelters which I don’t suppose are often populated. A blustery wind whistled through them as they creeked from side to side. The soundscape was like a square rigger out at sea, the players calling out like sailors. One of the floodlights lay flat on the ground (blown down, I guess) and nearby turbines were earning their keep. Judging from the robustness of the dugouts gales are commonplace hereabouts.

As I was absorbing the surroundings the goals were raining in. Esh, sitting two off bottom, hit the bar in the first two minutes and forced a great save from the Seaham goalie before streaking into an extraordinary 3-0 lead. It seemed that after sealing the title three weeks ago Seaham hadn’t so much taken their foot of the gas but stuck both feet out of the window having parked up in a lay-by for a snooze. They got one back then Esh, immediately and somehow cheekily, nabbed another. “Embarrassing” was the word I picked out among the expletives as the visitors stomped off at half-time.

Somewhat predictably it was all change after the interval. Now kicking down the slope, Seaham found their pride and got into their stride to dominate, getting two further goals back to set up a cracking finale. You’d have thought this was a cup-tie judging from the visitors’ passion and keenness not to waste a second. I’d have loved extra-time too. A super save by the Esh goalie preserved his side’s lead.

So Esh Winning won - and got revenge for a 12-1 spanking at home to Seaham in the Vase last October. The afternoon was a winner all round, as far as I was concerned. One of the my favourite grounds of all-time and second best outing of the season (after Warrington).

Not in the news: Esh aren’t big in the media. Their website appears moribund, they haven’t tweeted since last October and today there was no programme nor PA. In fact, the only announcement was when a fella wandered around the perimeter to say that the winning lottery number was 78. I rather like this old fashioned understatedness. Esh Winning are as discrete electronically as they are geographically.

Pub name games: Esh Winning Pineapple beat Liverpool Fantail in the FA Sunday Cup in 1978 in front of 1,500 spectators, the ground record. What a match that must have been – for the names of the teams alone. The Pineapple was the name of a local pub. By the way, the Red Star in Seaham is also the name of a pub in the town. Esh Winning is a name that could’ve been included in the Two Ronnies’ football results sketch. As well as the immortal East Fife 5 Forfar 4 they could’ve had “... and Esh Winning ... are losing.”

From Esh to England: Dating back to the 1930s Esh Winning’s two greatest former players are Raich Carter who went on to play 245 times for Sunderland and George Camsell who turned out 453 times for Middlesbrough. Between them they played 24 times for England.

Make a day of it: Bring your bike like I did and go for a ride around a loop of disused railway lines that passes the ground. I went south to Crook on the Deerness Valley Walk then crossed over to the Bishop Auckland railway path up to Broompark then back along the Deerness line. It’s 22 miles in all. Allow three hours inclusive of rests.

Further viewing: I couldn’t fit all the pics into the narrative. Click here for the full set in all its glory.