The Importance Of The Northern League

Why is the Northern League so important? Here's Michael Hudson.

On March 25th 1889 nineteen clubs from across the north east of England met in the Three Tuns Hotel in Durham City.  The meeting had been organised by Charles Craven, a goalkeeper with Darlington FC, who duly took their place as one of the ten founding members of the Northern League.

What is now renowned as the world’s second oldest surviving football league got underway on September 7th, Darlington travelling to Newcastle East End in the first round of fixtures.  Darlington St Augustine’s won the inaugural title with twenty-six points, edging Newcastle West End on goal difference.  A team called Middlesbrough finished sixth that season, just ahead of South Bank.

When West End folded three years later, East End relocated across the city to their rival team’s former ground, St James’ Park, adopting the name Newcastle United.  They finished runners-up to the evocatively titled Middlesbrough Ironopolis in the season which followed, joining the champions and fellow Northern League side Sheffield United as entrants to the Football League Division Two.  From now on, the Northern League was for amateur clubs only.

Not that it affected the success of its members as Middlesbrough and Bishop Auckland triumphed in two of the first three FA Amateur Cups.  By the end of the century, they’d been joined on the winners’ list by Stockton and Crook Town.  Before much longer, the Northern League would even have its own world champions.

Even today, nobody is entirely sure how West Auckland Town ended up in the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy.  Organised by a tea magnate, the English FA had snootily refused to take part in the four-team tournament.  Instead eleven coalminers paid their own way to northern Italy in 1909 and, once there, defeated a team from Stuttgart and the Swiss side FC Winterthur to bring home the trophy.  They returned two years later, this time beating FC Zurich and a local team by the name of Juventus to win the cup outright.  Juve have made up for their disappointment by winning fifty-one major competitions.  West Auckland went bankrupt after paying their travel costs and had to pawn their prize trophy to the landlady of a local hotel.

Jack Greenwell, a forward with Crook Town, had guested for West Auckland in their first European success.  In April 1912, having scored twice in his farewell appearance against Stanley United, he returned to the continent to sign for Barcelona, where he scored ten goals in 88 appearances.  Although his new club won two Campionat de Catalunya, they couldn’t defeat Crook, who travelled to Spain for three friendly matches, winning one and drawing the remaining two.  Greenwell was later appointed Barca’s first official coach, leading the club to a further five Campionat de Catalunya and two Spanish Cups.  Second only to Johan Cruyff as the longest serving coach in the Catalan club’s history, he also managed Espanyol, Mallorca, Sporting Gijon and Valencia in Spain, led Universitario de Deportes to the Peruvian title and became the only non-South American to lift the Copa del America after his Peru side won all four games of the 1939 final round.

Back in England, Bishop Auckland – with future Liverpool legend Bob Paisley in defence - were now emerging as the dominant force in Northern League football.  Ten-time FA Amateur Cup winners and Northern League champions a further nineteen times, the club reached its peak in the mid-1950s.  After losing out to Crook in the second replay of the 1954 FA Amateur Cup (over 100,000 people had seen the first game at Wembley), they won the trophy three seasons in a row, adding the Northern League title in 1955, when they also made it as far as the fourth round of the FA Cup before losing to eventual semi-finalists York City. The winners that year were Newcastle United.

Three years later, when a plane carrying Manchester United home from a European Cup quarter-final slid off an icy runway at Munich Airport, Bishop Auckland lent three of their players to the devastated Old Trafford club. Bob Hardisty, defender and Great Britain captain in the 1948 London Olympics side coached by Matt Busby, arrived in Manchester along with Derek Lewin and Warren Bradley.  All three played in United’s reserve team, Hardisty doubling up as a coach. “Just stand in the middle of the pitch and give the youngsters the benefit of your experience. There’s no need to do anything else at all,” Busby told him. The three Northern League men made their Central League debut against Burnley in front of a crowd of 11,000. “I remember being amazed at the crowds thinking we must have been brought to a first team game by mistake,” Lewin recalled. “They said the gate was 11,000 but there must have been as many as that still outside.”  Bradley did well enough to earn a part-time contract when Busby was fit enough to return to work. After making his first-team debut against Bolton Wanderers, he turned out for the Reds a total of 63 times, scoring 20 goals. In May 1959, little over a year after playing in the Northern League, Walter Winterbottom selected him to play for England on their tour of Mexico and the United States, where he played three times and scored twice.  The support Bishop Auckland provided is still remembered at Old Trafford, who donated a set of floodlights for the Durham club’s new stadium when it opened last year.

Brian Clough, Gary Pallister and Chris Waddle all started out in the Northern League. Frank Clark went from Crook Town to Newcastle United, where he won a European Fairs Cup medal and lost an FA Cup Final before joining Clough at Nottingham Forest.  In 1979 he played left-back in Munich’s Olympic Stadium as Forest beat Malmo to win the first of their two European Cups.  Three years earlier, his old Crook team had become the first English club to tour India, losing by one goal to nil to the Indian national side in front of yet another 100,000 crowd.  Another Northern League side, Blyth Spartans, had just famously come within a single minute of reaching the quarter final of the FA Cup.

A second Northern League division was added in the early 1980s but the geographically isolated League’s decision to stay out of the National League System led to the loss of some of its most ambitious clubs.  Bishop Auckland left for the Northern Premier League, as did Blyth Spartans, Spennymoor United, 1969 European Amateur Cup winners North Shields and Whitley Bay. With the exception of Blyth, they would all return to the Northern League following serious financial difficulties.  Finally joining the national pyramid at a stage five levels below the Football League, the Northern League is now resurgent once more, a rejuvenated Whitley Bay lifting the FA Vase on three separate occasions since 2002.  “The league is healthier, stronger, more fit for purpose and more relevant to the realities of the early 21st century,” says Mike Amos, League chairman for the past fifteen years.  Long may it continue to be so.

Appetite suitably wetted, you should immediately head to for some information on how you can help the Northern League

As well as writing for IBWM, Michael is responsible for the splendid ‘Accidental Groundhopper‘  blog. You can follow him on Twitter @DolphinHotel.