Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Ernest Armstrong Memorial Cup final
Attendance: 350

I’d considered going for a walk on this fine Bank Holiday Monday and it felt like I was after I’d parked and began a woodland wander with my nephew Toby to the cup final. The approach reminded me of my trip to Shelley last September. Located deep in a large park beside a cricket pitch and golf course and with hoardings hung on the perimeter fence, the ground is so secreted that we heard it (i.e. the PA) before we saw it. That’s if you exclude sightings of floodlights extending above the tree tops like saplings emerging from the undergrowth in spring.

The analogy is fitting. For years Teesdale Park, today’s venue and home of Thornaby, was in a very poor state suffering badly at the hands of vandals partly because of its isolation. Now it’s practically been re-born and is the most improved ground in the Northern League. Bedding plants beside the turnstile hut made me wonder if I should’ve got mine in earlier. Next to them were two giant owls carved from wood. Garden features abound in another corner of the ground and outside the tea container while old tree trunks with ferns mark out the parking bays. It was all a bit –  dare I say it – National Trust.

Trees surround the ground on all sides. “Non-league nirvana” is how Toby described it. A steep grassy bank (reminiscent of Padiham) gives a superb vantage point from which to admire the Peter Morris stand and, to the left, a wonderfully rickety simple cover made from corrugated iron. Other sheets of it form part of the barrier. To the right is a small seated stand without a roof (but it looks like it once had one) which is so close to the goal that spectators are protected from errant shots by a large net. Some seats for the stands have come from old grounds at Scarborough and Darlington, paint came courtesy of Dulux and labour for the improvements was provided via the probation service. Oh and then there are the bus shelters ...

An early chance sent a ripple of applause around the ground which was bathed in sunshine. We felt like we were the cricket match next door than watching a football cup final. It was an afternoon for sitting on your jacket rather than wearing it while chatting to chum, a sporting contest providing ambience and diversion while pooches pottered and toddlers tottered around the pitch. Bliss. Toby lay back to sunbathe on the bank, only thinking to work out which team was which some way into the match.

I last saw Billingham during their nightmare season in February 2014 as they were on their way to breaking ‘goals conceded’ records. Things have looked up since – and continued to do so during the early exchanges of the game. They took the lead in the first half when a cross was flicked on then volleyed home from the edge of the box.

Promoted from the Northern League second division nine days previously, Norton were Billy’s equals in the main and grew in strength as the match unfolded. They missed two great chances in the dying minutes but then, deep into injury time they deservedly drew level with a volley from sub Nicky Martin playing his first match for two months. Toby and I had enjoyed the game but, as neutrals, didn’t really need an extra helping but, as is always the way in these situations, that’s what we got. Norton now had the impetus and sealed victory with another goal from Martin just before half-time of extra-time (see below). It was a highly competitive and passionate match in the best of Northern League traditions right until the final whistle.

The daughter of Ernest Armstrong gave a speech and then presented the trophy, her brother dishing out the medals. The afternoon had been a great advert for “community football” as Baroness Armstrong described it. The mood at the presentations was like the end of the village fete; you almost expected the cup to go to the grower of the biggest marrow than the winner of a football competition. A lovely scene in a sylvan setting to end the season.

The important Ernest: Ernest Armstrong was president of the Northern League from 1981-96, a Durham MP for 23 years and a former deputy speaker of the House of Commons. The knock-out competition named after him is played between teams in the second division.

Programme notes: Lambert and Jamieson of Norton both have “great feet” and Mitchell “knows where the goal is.” Love it. Great quiz question too: “Who is the ex-Aberdeen star who appeared on Top of the Pops twice on the same night?” Answer: Steve Archibald, singing for Scotland and Tottenham.

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