In 1998 Tow Law Town, made it to Wembley to play in the final of the FA Vase. The following article about Tow Law (nicknamed “The Lawyers”) appeared in The Guardian the day before the Wembley match. A week after the final - which I attended in the bleary-eyed state of a parent with an 18-month old, teething child - I had a letter from the Lawyer’s chairman, John Flynn. He said that everyone at the club was so pleased with the article they had had it framed and put it on the wall in the clubhouse gent’s toilet, “So the lads can read it whenever they're having a leak”. When I went to see Tow Law play a year later the article was still hanging above the urinals. The nicest compliment I have ever been paid.
IRON MEN DIG DEEP FOR SILVER
After Tow Law’s FA Vase quarter-final victory over Sudbury Wanderers one Suffolk newspaper offered the opinion that the North-east town was “practically in bandit country”. You can see how a reporter might get confused. Tow Law’s isolated position and its long, straight main street certainly have the whiff of the Great Plains about them. You half expect to see tumbleweed blowing past the war memorial. Which is maybe not so surprising. After all this is wild West Durham.
For the past fortnight motorists on the A68 have no longer had to resist the subconscious urge to whistle a Sergio Leone theme as they pass through Tow Law. Instead they have simply marvelled at a community in the last stages of Carlsberg Vase fever. Since the Arnott Insurance Northern League side overcame Taunton in the semi-final to book their place at Wembley tomorrow, the town council and local businesses have invested in £400 worth of bunting in the team’s colours of black and white and a competition has been organised for the best shop window display. Last Sunday the congregations of all the local churches sang “Abide With Me” in preparation for the big day.
Tow Law, population 2,200, have sold more than 3,000 tickets for Saturday’s clash with Tiverton Town of the Screwfix Direct Western League. “A lot of people in the North-East have a soft spot for Tow Law,” Lawyer’s chairman John Flynn says. Much of the fondness surely stems from the sheer adversity of the place and the fortitude of its inhabitants. Tow Law is one of the highest towns in Britain. Perched on an exposed hillside with the Dickensian name of Waskerley Common, the small former coalmining community it is battered by howling, icy gales throughout the year. The Thermometer rarely rises. Some times it snows in June.
Until the 5-4 aggregate win over taunton, Tow Law Town’s greatest moment had come in 1967 when they played Mansfield Town in the first round of the FA Cup. The first match at the Lawyers’ Ironworks Road ground was abandoned in a blizzard. In the second the Durham boys triumphed 5-1. “It was like playing at the North Pole” Mansfield’s manager complained afterwards.
In the second round Tow Law drew with Shrewsbury then, with a home tie against Arsenal awaiting the winner, lost in the replay. “Shrewsbury,” declared Frank McGhee in the Daily Mirror, “Have saved Arsenal from a fate worse than death – a trip to Tow Law in January.”
Tow Law lies a little over 1,000 feet above sea level on the eastern fringe of the North Pennines. From Ironworks Road on a winter afternoon (and there are an awful lot of winter afternoons in Tow Law) you can look westwards into a vast darkness unblemished by the spots of light that might denote distant farms or hamlets. A barbaric wind whips out of these barren wastes and Tow Law’s faithful fans sensibly gather in the shelter provided by a covered enclosure that presents it back to the dun-coloured moors. In this small enclave there is a micro-climate that feels almost sub-tropical in comparison to the more exposed parts of the ground.
As a consequence of its location, cold is a recurring theme in the history of Tow Law Town FC. In 1925, for example, a team from Langley Park had to abandon their bus in a snow drift and walk the remaining three miles to Ironworks Road. They arrived 50 minutes late and were beaten 6-0 by a Lawyers team who were on their way to a second consecutive Northern league title, and had to report before the management committee to explain their tardiness. This all happened in April. Little wonder that Tow law was one of the first North-East teams to install hot baths.
The Ironworks Road ground was built and then rebuilt by striking pitmen back in the days when Northern League games regularly attracted four-figure crowds and the half and full-time scores were relayed back to the visitors’ home base by carrier pigeons. Tow Law’s mines are long gone, as is the foundry that gave the ground its name. The population of the town is now half what it was back in the 1950s. The football club is a fixture in a shifting world.
“Sometimes,” John Flynn says, “when I’m driving back across the Pennines and the team are training I can see the floodlights far off on the horizon like a beacon guiding me home”. It was the floodlights, perhaps the most distantly visible in British football that first got Flynn involved with Tow Law Town. Six years ago he helped raise the money to pay for them.
The Teesside born Flynn has lived in Tow Law for more than twenty years. He is a solicitor in nearby Consett, a former steeltown that’s reputation for roughness must keep him in constant employ. That a man of his profession should be chairman of the Lawyers is entirely appropriate and explains why Tow Law’s pre-match raffles sometimes forego the more traditional North-East prizes of whisky and cooked meat in favour of a free last will and testament.
The Northern league is the second oldest football league in the world. Despite its history and prestige it has had a thin time of it over the past decade. Attendances have dwindled, many of the bigger clubs had advanced up the non-League pyramid and those that have remained have sometimes struggled to stop their players departing for the greater cash rewards of playing Sunday pub football.
Tow Law’s home crowds average around 100, they have no interest in leaving the Northern League and according to Flynn little trouble in recruiting and holding on to players despite the fact that many travel more than thirty miles to get to their home ground. Tow Law is a place where the remoteness fosters a spirit of community, even in those who don’t actually live there.
One player the Lawyers didn’t manage to keep was Chris Waddle, who spent the 1979/80 season at Ironworks Road when he was eighteen, netted 23 goals and left for Newcastle United for the princely sum of £1,500. Much to Tow Law’s disgust Newcastle paid in instalments.
Few of Tow Law’s current team have had brushes with the big time. Paul Hague, the giant centre-half whose muscular physique and mane of dark hair have earned him the nickname “George of the Jungle” turned out for Cork City in a European Champions Cup tie with Galatasaray; the forward Trevor Laidler lined up in the same Tynesaid U-13s representative team as Alan Shearer; a few other have suffered the pain of rejection by League clubs.
Most though are what manager Peter Quigley refers to as “true grassroots players”, men who have spent their entire footballing careers in a world where the merchandising outlet if a fold-down picnic table, the half-time pies are all home-made and you encounter match day programmes exhorting supporters to bring a thorn bush with them to the next game so that the club can plant a vandal proof hedge round the back of the changing rooms.
Quigley is a grass roots man himself. He played as centre-forward for Dunston and then, as manager, took the same club from parks football to the first division of the Northern League. This is Quigley’s first season at Ironworks Road. When he leads the team out at Wembley it will be just reward for all those years juggling a full-time job with what is a time-consuming passion. In the 44 days leading up to the Wembley date Tow Law Town have played 20 matches. And Alex Ferguson worries that his players are tired.
For Flynn the reward has come already, The financial windfall of the Vase run will pay for the Ironworks Road pitch to be relaid and some retaining walls to be strengthened.
“For the last five weeks,” he says, “anything that would normally have depressed me like getting beat 7-2 at home by Billingham Synthonia, I’ve just said to myself, “So what, We’re going to Wembley”.
Everyone at Tow Law is similarly uplifted. Even a minor controversy over whether Town’s longserving mascot, 10 year-old Sam Gordon, would be allowed to lead the team out has been resolved in the Lawyers’ favour. In fact the only cloud on Tow Law’s horizon is the chairman. A lifelong Middlesbrough fan, Flynn’s three recent trips to Wembley have all ended in tears.
“I think,” says Peter Quigley of the potential Jonah in their midst, “me and the lads will probably lock him in the broom cupboard before we set off”.
[Unfortunately either Quigley forgot, or Flynn escaped. The chairman was at Wembley and Tiverton defeated Tow Law 1-0]