3G or not 3G – How an artificial pitch nearly killed Durham City (part one)

3G or not 3G – How an artificial pitch nearly killed Durham City (part one)

When speaking to someone from south of York, the answer to their second question after telling someone you hail from Durham is usually “about fifteen miles south of Newcastle”.  However, whilst making the usual introductions one does at university, one knowledgeable chap’s second question was “do Durham City still play at that nice ground down by the river?”  After gathering my thoughts I had to inform him that alas they did not, and had done was to become a norm in the subsequent years for various clubs; moved from an old ground with character and location to a purpose built arena on the an industrial estate.

That nice ground by the river that he spoke of was Ferens Park, named after Alderman Ferens, the President of the club who purchased the ground for Durham to play at after they reformed in 1950.  The previous incarnation of Durham City had initially been inaugurated in 1918-19 where they played in the Victory League which was set up to celebrate the end of the First World War.  After three seasons they were admitted to the Third Division North where they finished a respectable 11th in their first season.  However this was to be the highest City would finish, and at the end of the 1927-28 season they finished 21st and were not re-elected, with their place for the following season being awarded to Carlisle United.  City’s home record was P21 W10 D5 L6 but the damage was done with an away record that read P21 W1 D2 L18.  After their failure to be re-elected to the Third Division North, Durham joined the Wearside League where they played for ten seasons until disbanding in 1938.

Ferens Park

Following their reformation in 1950 City played for two seasons in the same Wearside League before joining the world’s second oldest football league, the Northern League, for the first time.  In their first season City finished 12th of 14, but improved in their second season, finishing in 4th place.  It was in this era that City had their biggest attendance when 7,000 packed in to Ferens Park to watch City lose 0-3 at the hands of Tranmere Rovers. 

In 1993-94 Durham City won the Northern League for the first time, and under ambitious Chairman Bob Kerry they signalled their intent to accept their place in the Northern Premier League.  However at this time Ferens Park did not meet the criteria for promotion and the new ground that was being built on Belmont Industrial Estate on the outskirts of the city was suffering delays in construction.  As a result City were refused permission to take their place in the Northern Premier League and remained in the Northern League, having to ground share with Chester-le-Street for the 1994-95 season whilst New Ferens Park was completed.

City did move in to New Ferens Park for the start of the 1995-96 Northern League season but were unable to replicate their previous achievement in winning the first division until 2007-08.  This time City did meet the ground requirements and they took their place in the Unibond First Division North for the 2008-09 season.  Not satisfied with a season of consolidation, City strengthened their team with a number of former youngsters released from the region’s professional ranks, and won the Unibond First Division North at their first attempt.  They strengthened further in the close season ahead of their debut season in the Unibond Premier, but were dealt a devastating blow when the Unibond administrators announced that City would not be allowed to take up any place in the Conference North or even the Unibond play-offs due to their 3G artificial pitch.

At the start of the 2006-07 season Durham City installed a 3G artificial pitch at New Ferens Park, in order to increase revenues from hiring it out, and also to reduce wasted expenditure due to match postponements during the harsh winter months.  The 3G pitch installed by Support in Sport (SIS) came with a 1,700 hour estimated lifetime as opposed to a conventional grass pitch which has an estimated usage of 300 hours.  City calculated that the pitch would last a minimum of six seasons and be used by all teams at the club, from the seniors down through the youth teams of both boys and girls.  In addition to this, the pitch became a revenue stream in its own right, with then League Two club Darlington hiring the pitch for training when their own practice ground was out of action as a result of inclement weather.

City drew their first game in the Unibond Premier, a solid start as the new signings were still gelling together.  However, it was after the first game that City were told that they would not be promoted or allowed to play in the play-offs due to their pitch.  FIFA are big fans of the artificial pitches and they are approved for use in UEFA competitions, however the authorities in England had different views.  City knew when they first installed it that they were not permitted for FA Cup competition, during which time they had to play their games at nearby Brandon United but had no indication about the leagues above.  Whilst the artificial surface was allowed in the Northern League and the Unibond League, the Conference divisions did not allow such surfaces.  On hearing this news, Durham’s main sponsor withdrew from their financial support from the club, apparently not happy at a ceiling being placed on City’s potential progress and therefore their exposure.  As a result Durham had to release the registration of all their first team playing squad, as they had no budget with which to pay the players their expenses and appearance fees.

Following a meeting of the committee it was decided that the club would fulfil its fixtures in the Unibond League rather than apply to rejoin the Northern League.  City drafted in youngsters from their youth academy that was overseen by former Sunderland and QPR defender Richard Ord.  In their first game following the dissolution of the first team squad Durham travelled to Stockbridge Park Steels where their young team was beaten 6-0, with a certain Jamie Vardy amongst the scorers.  This was to become the theme for the season for City and their young team.  The next four games seen City lose 7-2, 4-1, 4-0 and 8-0.  As the season continued, as did the heavy defeats, but City continued to fulfil their fixtures against the odds.  In reality the team was mainly made up of 17 and 18 year old’s with zero senior playing experience, bolstered on occasion by a smattering of players brought in from the Northern League.  On 23rd January 2010 City travelled to Boston United, a club that was playing league football less than three years previously.  City lost 10-0 and their plight was brought to the attention of the nation on Sky Sports flagship show Soccer Saturday.  Program host Jeff Stelling was rooting for Durham to register a point having lost all of their games.  On 13th March 2010 Stelling and City fans were able to cheer the first points of the season following a 2-1 away win at FC United of Manchester, the club formed by Manchester fans disgruntled with the financial burden placed on the club following the Glazer family take over.  City won their next game as well, a 4-3 home victory over Whitby Town, but following a points deduction they finished the season on 0 points after losing the remainder of their games, completing the season with a 6-2 away defeat at Buxton.

It was widely expected that City would drop back down to the Northern League and begin to rebuild, but the club decided to stay and fight in the Evo-Stik First Division North; newly named but the same league they had won 12 months earlier.  City consolidated their finances and whilst they did not have the budget for which they had planned the previous season, they were able to sign some more senior players from Northern League clubs, including ex Newcastle United youth player Tommy English, who had been with the club for their back to back promotions.  City added youngsters released from Sunderland and Leeds United to their squad and were confident of a more serene season than the previous one.  However things didn’t initially go to plan and after picking up two draws to start the season, City had to wait until their 8th game of the season before registering a victory.  City remained inconsistent throughout the season, but worries of a second successive relegation dissipated after a five game unbeaten streak in through March and April.  City finished the season in 17th position after recording 13 wins and 10 draws from 44 games.

City struggled to attract crowds to New Ferens Park and this is one reason why they relied so heavily on the failed sponsorship deal.  Durham is almost equidistant from Newcastle and Sunderland and the split of football fans in Durham itself is pretty equal, if not slightly in favour of the red and whites.  City once had an affiliation with Sunderland, with the Black Cats reserve team playing at Ferens Park and Durham City receiving donations of training kits from Wearside.

On 21st April 2012 City announced their resignation from the Northern Premier League with the intention to return to the Northern League. They were accepted by the FA and the league and started the 2012/13 season in more familiar surrounds, albeit with a much bigger fish in the pond in the shape of reformed Darlington 1883, the reincarnation of Darlington FC. Stability, a chance to take stock and rebuild, you would imagine the future was once again looking promising for Durham City…