A City, a United, an FC and an AFC – football in the City of Durham
A perennial argument amongst football trivia fans is which city can lay claim to being the largest without a football league club. Maidstone, Wakefield and Croydon all lay claim to this dubious honour depending on the qualifying criteria utilised.
With a population of 65,000 the city of Durham rarely gets a mention in these discussions, dwarfed by those mentioned above. Yet as a historic catherdral city with a strong student population, is it too ridiculous to wonder if Durham could, or should, have a football league club in its midst.
Despite the obvious advantage of a benefactor, the fact that the village of Nailsworth, Gloucestershire can be the home of football league club Forest Green Rovers with its population of less than 6,000 suggests that there is hope for Durham.
Durham City AFC are the oldest club in Durham, whether you trace their roots back to the previous incarnation founded in 1918 or from their reformation in 1950. City have enjoyed a turbulent time in the last 20 years, winning the Northern League in 1993/94 but being unable to take up promotion. In 2007/08 City again triumphed and this time, with the help of a benefactor, invested in the squad and achieved promotion to what was then the Unibond Premier League, one away from the equivalent of the National League North. City fans began to dream of National League football, and the very ambitious began to question whether the Football League was a possibility. However, the wheels quickly came off when the benefactor pulled out following a FA ruling that City would not have been promoted any further due to a ban on artificial playing surfaces. City took a hammering all season and dropped down to the Unibond North where they survived another year before applying to the Northern League ahead of the 2012/13 season.
In October 2015 it was announced that City would be leaving New Ferens Park due to a dispute with the owners of the ground. Somehow City themselves didn’t own the ground following their move from (old) Ferens Park, instead it was owned by former City chairman Austin Carney and his associate Stuart Dawson. Since then City have not played in Durham, spending a year in exile at Consett before moving marginally closer to Willington. Crowds have dwindled with many unwilling or unable to make the 10 mile journey, with only 54 fans watching their final game before lockdown, a 1-2 home defeat to Birtley. City were almost certainties for relegation from the Northern League down to the Wearside League before being handed an unlikely reprieve as the season was expunged.
Since then City have appointed former Celtic and Villa man Didier Agathe as their new manager and have made a slew of signings from the Netherlands, many of whom come with an exciting pedigree. Their social media channels are a buzz of excitement about the forthcoming season, but sadly their is no concrete news on a return to Durham. Behind the scenes they remain keen to work with the council and the University, and hopefully there will be a breakthrough soon.
Following City’s decision to leave Ferens Park, the Saturday afternoon football void in Durham was filled in 2018 by a new club, Durham United. Sponsored by the nearby Infinite Air trampoline park, they began life in the Wearside Development League which they won at their first attempt. They had no issues with ground grading and took up their position in the Wearside First Division and were in ninth position at the time the season was suspended and eventually scrapped. Like City, United are ambitious and their stated aim is promotion to the Northern League. They have a comprehensive youth set up and have entered a reserve team in to the Wearside Second Division to allow a pathway for the junior players ahead of moving in to senior football. United are engaging with local business and have announced a stream of sponsorship deals ahead of the coming season.
When the Wearside League announced its new line up, the second tier was awash with Durham clubs. The aforementioned Durham United Reserves lined up along side Durham City Reserves and two newly formed clubs, Durham FC and AFC Durham.
Durham FC are a brand new club playing their first season of senior football in 2020/21. Evolving from the Durham City Juniors section, they have secured a lease on King George V field at Framwellgate Moor and plan on making that their home. With a slick website and a manager keen to engage with the local media, they have impressed in the early days, but the real test will be when the season starts. Like United, Durham FC have a strong youth set up with teams starting at under 6s right up to under 18s with the stated aim of moving players through the youth set up to the senior side.
The fourth and final Durham side listed is AFC Durham, another club making their debut in the Wearside Second Division. They are based in Brandon, a few miles from the city, and have been active on social media with a string of player signings and sponsorship deals being announced. Like United and Durham FC, they aim to link their youth set up to the senior side, and will be one of four Durham sides battling it out in the Wearside Second Division.
Is Durham, a small city with no recent football pedigree, able to support four clubs using its name and for them to flourish? It seems that with City investing heavily in the management and playing side, their ambitions are to improve their league position rapidly whilst making an effort to return closer to Durham.
Durham United have the infrastructure in place to climb the ladder, and a lot will depend on the playing side. If they can build on their early success and continue to build in the community, then they can seize the chance of being, as they state on their website, the only club playing within the city of Durham. A second promotion to the Northern League would drastically enhance their profile and give them a chance to rival Durham City, and potentially create an exciting Durham derby.
Durham FC and AFC Durham appear to be more community minded, with the obvious issues around ground grading potentially limiting any ambitions Durham FC may have. Whilst King George’s is a decent pitch, it lacks many of the amienities required for promotion beyond their current status.
With many fans desperate for the return of football, there is a reasonable expectation that 2020/21 could be an opportunity in the face of adversity for many local clubs, and with different aims, locations and appealing factors, here is hoping that all of the Durham sides can flourish. Whilst social media plays a big part in local football, getting out in the community with posters in shops, and coverage in the media is key to building a profile. This, coupled with growing apathy to the professional game could open new doors for a club able to harness their potential. Despite different demographics, non-league clubs such as Dulwich Hamlet have thrived building an alternative to the modern professional game, with a quality experience appealing to those fed up of £50 match tickets and £10 hot dogs. If a Durham club could emulate this and get things right on the pitch, who knows what might happen in the long run.
PS The focus was on clubs with Durham in their name, but within the similar geographic criteria you can also find Brandon United in the Northern League and Coxhoe Athletic in the Wearside League, two fine clubs with long traditions in the local football scene.
Keep an on Footy in Durham to see how these sides progress throughout the season