As far as scenic grounds are concerned, Ironworks Road is simply one of the best. Nestled deep within the rugged former coal fields of County Durham, this is the second highest ground in England. They make them tough here; and not just to survive the weather.
The undulating touchline – which wriggles it’s way from one corner of the sloping pitch to the other – looked pure and real. It was perhaps a sign of events that were to follow. Nothing would be straight forward. A few months after this match, in April 2020, a large sinkhole opened up on this side of the pitch. Built on old coal mining land, it wasn’t the first time that this had happened.
Unquestionably, the situation looks very bleak for the club. All income streams have been severed due to the coronavirus outbreak and even when football resumes, who knows whether their pitch will pass safety tests. They may be forced to ground share, forking out huge expense on rent and travel expenses. Despite sensationalist headlines in the local newspapers, the club will survive. They always survive – they have to.
After the decimation of industry in the local area, the turn of the new millennium brought no respite for the town. In 2001, the foot and mouth crisis ravaged local business and the economy. The football club found itself struggling financially with supporter numbers and gate receipts falling.
Sir Bobby Robson, who at the time was Newcastle United manager, was asked to hold a fundraising talk at the Ironworks Road ground to raise much needed funds. He immediately agreed and his stay went on late into the night. It helped saved the club. He held a similar event a couple of years later and went on to accept the offer of becoming the club’s Vice-President. His wife Elsie is still the club’s President all these years later.
Despite losing his ongoing battle with cancer in 2006, Bobby Robson’s legacy lives long at the club. A portrait of him hangs proudly in the clubhouse. Alongside him are images from the club’s day out at the old Wembley, in the FA Vase Final of 1998.
Times have moved on though. In order for the club to survive this latest setback, they need to be innovative and they have been just that. An unlikely source of help has arrived in the form of people who – in the whole – have never been to Tow Law and had no idea about the town or club until a few weeks ago.
Like many non-league clubs, The Lawyers launched an online fundraising campaign to help see them through this tumultuous period. On social media, it was shared and publicised by a handful of followers, including Jack, a YouTuber, from Horsham. Living 311 miles away, he had been managing Tow Law on Football Manager since January earlier in the year. He had never heard of the club until he was offered the managerial reigns.
Just by sharing the fundraising initiative to his 108,000 YouTube subscribers and 20,000 Twitter followers, Jack played a role in helping to rectify to club’s current plight. Donations began to flood in from from all over the country. So pivotal had this stranger been that the club offered Jack, through his YouTube channel Work The Space, the opportunity of being shirt sponsors for the following season.
The replica strips have been flying out. When I asked Jack whether he thought the shirts were being snapped up by people, who like him, had never been to Tow Law he was unanimous in his answer. “I would almost guarantee it. The club had never sold their kits online before. I know they’ve had orders from four different continents as of the start of the week.” He wasn’t wrong. Within just a few days, 100 shirts had been sold with the latest order coming from Queensland, Australia.
At the time of writing, close to £6,000 has been raised online. That is without adding the profit from the shirts sold. If only more non-league clubs could embrace social media like Tow Law Town have, they would all be in a better place.
Our visit to Ironworks Road was for a pre-season friendly against West Auckland Town, a Northern League heavyweight from down the road who were once considered to be one of the best teams in the world. It was hard to miss them as their burly players strutted out on to the sloping playing surface in their fluorescent orange shirts.
We had already been to one match on this July afternoon. Thornaby had cast aside Easington Colliery Welfare 6-0 in a midday kick-off. Paul had kindly offered to organise the logistics of this double-header, picking Ben and I up from Thirsk train station.
On the journey between the two matches, we stopped off at Central Avenue in Billingham. The former home of Billingham Synthonia was due to be demolished any day. Locals had ransacked the dilapidated shell of the ground, taking anything of any worth. Youths had burned the remnants in bonfires that had been assembled in the entrance to the tunnel. An utter shame; this was once one of the jewels in the Northern League’s crown.
The name, Tow Law, is translated to ‘Look out mound’ which was quite evident as we wound our way through the hills to reach the town. It is a place which is neighboured by a plethora of other footballing pit towns. Crook, Esh Winning and Consett; all names to make you salivate at the prospect of seeing proper football.
Parking was easy on Ironworks Road, pulling up opposite the main entrance. A two toned brick wall greeted us. It was constructed out of two different shades of brick and was divided horizontally with a jagged line. I imagined an opposition team’s coach driver had been unfortunate and got himself trapped down these narrow lanes one deep winters evening, knocking the entrance over in the process.
While the place is quiet and unassuming, Bobby Robson isn’t the only footballing icon to have connections to this club. This was where Newcastle United spotted a young Chris Waddle. Back in 1980, The Magpies paid Tow Law three instalments of £500 for the 19 year old who would go on to make 62 appearances for England and have a spell with Marseille.
I entered the clubhouse, which could be peered into from the main road but not entered. After ordering a pint, my accent, which clearly wasn’t local was detected by a couple of fans who were sat on a small table by the bar. “You’re not from Nelson are you?” came the inquisitive question from a lad with a cap on, drinking a pint. For the record, I’m not. But to an untrained ear, my accent would sound pretty similar.
Before I answered, I wanted to know why he was so sceptical about me. “It all kicked off when we went there in the FA Vase last season,” he explained. “We set off some smoke bombs and I was accused of being racist,” which he denied. He immediately followed up this colourful account by providing me with a politically incorrect description of the group of people he had allegedly offended. They had lost 5-2, a poor showing. I kept a straight face. I quite liked the bloke, he was friendly and harmless, just a little uneducated.
The hopeful sunshine which featured in the early moments of the first half didn’t last long. We styled it out in the rain; it wasn’t cold, it was just wet. Dan, a Braintree fan, and his mates had driven up from down south for this match. They kept discussing the conditions, remarking that they couldn’t remember weather liked it. They sat in the idyllic main stand, sheltering from the elements, discussing where the nearest carvery was; the closest one was Doncaster apparently.
The main stand is a work of art. It could be easily be photographed and used as a book cover. The snap could even re-produced as a high quality print for a partner and gifted as a thoughtful birthday present. Even the most hardened ‘anti-football’ wife or girlfriend would appreciate the five rows of black and white seats, surrounded by hand painted murals and signs. I haven’t yet tried. I’m biding my time. She’s still speechless after receiving a Frickley Athletic calendar for Christmas.
Tow Law took the lead, against their higher division opponents on 29th minutes. Lewis Milner nodded in Dan Harvey’s corner to give the Lawyers a narrow advantage in what was a scrappy affair.
West Auckland would go on to earn a draw in the second half. Former Darlington and Shildon striker Amar Purewal made up for earlier missed chances and scored on 56 minutes to set up an intriguing finale but it would end all square.
A final sound of the referee’s whistle brought a sudden sense of sadness. We had been at Ironworks Road for less than two hours but I was fixated and mesmerised by the place. It isn’t the easiest of places to get to, but I knew as we got back in the car that I would try my best to get back again one day.
It was a similar story for both clubs in the 2019/20 season that was eventually null and voided by the FA. Both would linger mid-table in their respective divisions, with Tow Law finishing eighth in the Northern League Division 2.
In the FA Vase, Tow Law would crash out in the opening round, following a 3-0 defeat at Shildon. West Auckland fared well, making it to the last 16, losing 2-1 at Plymouth Parkway in a tie that saw them make a 760 mile round trip to the South East.
Thanks to Ben for the photographs. I lost all mine when an unruly hard drive decided to crash.