the real fa cup

Green, Green Grass Of Home

Despite the ‘proper’ football season being over a week away, the FA Cup gets underway this weekend with extra preliminary rounds being played up and down the land.  Of particular significance are ties at Durham City and Stockport Sports FC, because they will be the first games in the history of the FA Cup to be played on a 3G artificial pitch.  For Durham City, taking on Northern League rivals Newcastle Benfield on the 3G will be a vindication, of sorts, following the turbulent times they have suffered of late, partly due to their playing surface.

The first incarnation of Durham City had 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 mid-table 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. Following their reformation in 1950 City played for two seasons back in the Wearside League before joining the world’s second oldest football league, the Northern League. In their first season City finished 12th of 14, but improved in their second season, finishing 4th. 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, signaled 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 NPL 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 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, because of their 3G artificial pitch.

At the start of the 2006-07 season Durham City had installed the 3G 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 differing views. City knew from 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. 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 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, because they had no budget with which to pay the players.

It was expected that the club would drop back to the Northern League, but following a meeting of the committee it was decided that the club would fulfil its fixtures in the Unibond Premier League. City drafted in youngsters from their youth academy, run 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. This was to become the theme for the season for City. The next four games saw City lose 7-2, 4-1, 4-0 and 8-0. As the season continued so did the heavy defeats but City continued to fulfill their fixtures against the odds. In reality the team was mainly made up of 17 and 18 year olds with little 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 United 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 still finished the season on 0 points after losing the remainder of their games.

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. They remained inconsistent throughout the season, but worries of a second successive relegation dissipated after a five game unbeaten streak through March and April. City finished the season in 17th position after recording 13 wins and 10 draws from 44 games.

After battling on for another season in the Evo Stik North and again finishing mid-table, the club made the decision that the demands of being the most northerly club in the Evo Stik were too much, and the resigned and applied to join the Northern League once again.  City were admitted, and line up alongside Darlington 1883 and the financially extravagant Celtic Nation from Carlisle as well as Northern League stalwarts Spennymoor, Bishop Auckland and Whitley Bay for what promises to be an exciting if not marathon season with the Northern League division one having 24 clubs this season.

On 13th July 2012 the FA announced that for the first time FA Cup qualifying matches can be played on artificial grass, allowing Durham City the chance to make history this weekend.

Preview by James Williams.  Read more from James on his Twitter feed and on his Footy Ramblings blog.

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