From Wembley To The Himalayas: The Story Of Crook Town

Ahead of Northern League Day, Andy Hudson looks at a famous old football club.

 As many football clubs know: money can’t buy you history. You can try to buy a future but in football it’s the past and the present that matters. The future is pegged to survival. If a club can ensure that then everything else becomes a bonus. Football fans of many clubs always point at where they have come from and, if they are lucky enough, what they have achieved. Until you have your own history, no matter how great or how small, you will always be looked at as having never been at the top table.

The history of football is littered with many stories from the history of the game, some have been forgotten and some are remembered by only a handful people. One tale that falls into both of these categories is the story of Crook Town and their most famous son: Jack Greenwell.

Crook won their first major honour in 1901, twelve years after their formation, when they defeated Kings Lynn to lift the F.A. Amateur Cup in a replayed final. Both games were played in the south of England and so cost the club a fortune moving from Essex to Ipswich before returning home with the trophy. Soon after this victory they welcomed a young centre forward into their squad, a man who would become an important name in the history of one of the most well known football clubs in the world. In 1909 he appeared as a guest for West Auckland Town in their first Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy victory, the precursor for the World Cup, and then left his family and friends behind in the County Durham town where he grew up and travelled to Catalunya to sign for F.C Barcelona in 1912. Following 88 appearances for Barca, Jack Greenwell became their first official coach and would lead them for seven consecutive seasons; only Johan Cruyff has since coached the club for longer. Greenwell would win two Copa del Rays and five Campeonatos de Catalunya trophies before managing teams such as Espanyol (where he added another Campeonatos de Catalunya to his gold haul), Mallorca, Valencia and Sporting Gijon before the Spanish Civil War forced him to flee Catalunya and embark on a tour of Turkey, Peru and Colombia. He is still the only non-South American to lead a country to victory in the Copa America when he guided Peru in 1939. Jack Greenwell died in Bogota, a long way from the mining town of Crook, in 1942.

Crook’s history will always be bound to Barcelona because of Jack Greenwell. They followed Greenwell’s route to Barcelona a year after their famous son when they accepted an offer to tour Barcelona, at the time being the fourth English club to play against the team in blue and red after previous tours by United Hospitals, New Crusaders and Auckland Warriors The first game between the two sides saw the County Durham travellers defeat the soon-to-be world giants 4-2; the next two games of the tour ended in stalemates. Eight years later and Crook were back in Catalunya for a four match series against their hosts. This time they found out that Barca had improved, the opening three games won by the hosts by an aggregate score of 11-3 before the visitors managed to hold on for a 1-1 draw in the final game.

By the time Crook toured a year later for one last time, Barca had played friendly games against the likes of Newcastle United, Benfica and Sparta Praha. This time the black and amber clad amateurs fared better, losing the first game, drawing the second before winning the final match between the two sides by a score line of 3-1. These tours helped turn football into a dominant force in the region.

A final link between Crook Town and Barcelona involves the Spanish King, Alfonso XIII. In 1925, after the national anthem had been jeered before a Barca home game followed by a spontaneous protest against the Miguel Primo de Rivera dictatorship, which had been legitimised by Alfonso days after the 1923 coup, the club suffered reprisals by way of a six month ground closure and the forced removal of Joan Gamper as club president. Back in 1913 Alfonso had to cancel his visit to Barcelona to watch the Crook Town games when a number of attempts on his life were made, including an attempt by the Catalan anarchist Sancho Alegre.

As Barcelona’s fortunes flourished the fortunes of their Black and Amber friends went in the opposite direction for a spell. The ‘Crook Town Affair’ made front page national news when the club were found to be paying amateur players and then a doomed decision to go semi-professional saw the club almost bankrupt themselves. The club believed that they were shopped by another Northern League team, assumed to be Bishop Auckland. After the scandal all but halted football in County Durham, a result of Crook turning whistleblowers and the subsequent suspension of what is believed to be 341 players, everyone ended up being exonerated but those at Crook Town. Strangely enough, Sir Frederick Wall, secretary of the F.A who so valiantly upheld the honour of amateur football when presiding over the ‘Crook Town Affair’ was awarded an annuity of £10,000 from his former employers when he retired from his position in 1934 (today that sum of money would be worth over £90,000).

After reverting back to amateur status, fans flocked to see the club during the 50s and 60s, when they lifted the F.A Amateur Cup four times. Their Millfield home saw crowds of up to 17,000 squeeze in for big cup games while an aggregate attendance of over 170,000 saw them defeat close neighbours and rivals Bishop Auckland after two replays in the 1954 Amateur Cup Final, the games being played at Wembley, St. James’ Park and Ayresome Park. Crook’s left winger Jimmy McMillan played in the four Amateur Cup triumphs between 1954 and 1964 to set a competition record. He would retire having set a club record of 505 appearances between 1952 and 1968. Crook also reached the semi finals in 1958 and 1960 and the quarter finals in 1963 and 1966. During this same period twelve Crook players were selected for the England amateur side and the club toured Norway in 1962 as the F.A representatives of the F.A. to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Norwegian F.A.

Crook then became the first English side to tour India where they were defeated 1-0 by the national team in 1976 with over 100,000 fans watching on. The tour was arranged following a suggestion made to the club’s Indian doctor, Arun Banerjee. Over the course of six games there were half a million fans in attendance, including one game with over 40,000 fans crammed into a ground that was cut into a Himalayan hillside with neither crush barriers nor pitch perimeter fence.

The Indian organisers requested that Crook arrange a guest player for the tour, a member of England’s 1966 World Cup winning team. The original target was Bobby Charlton, who actually agreed to travel before having to pull-out due to injury. Instead it was Terry Paine, Southampton’s record appearance holder and a 1966 squad member, who guested for the tourists. Another Indian request was that the 1975 F.A Cup Final referee, Pat Partridge, should join the tour to officiate the six games. Everywhere the team went on the tour they received a rapturous reception. A year later the New York Cosmos superstars, including Pele, Carlos Alberto and Giorgio Chinaglia, toured India but Crook were the real golden boys a year before. And how do we know this? Ronnie James, Crook’s assistant secretary at the time, was sent a Calcutta newspaper when the Cosmos toured. The Calcutta media concluded that the New York all-stars would never be in the same league as the County Durham lads.

Millfield boasts two old stands, proudly standing side-by-side along one touchline. The grandstand cost £1,300 to build in 1925 and was condemned as unsafe during the late 1980s. Against all the odds, given the lack of money that the club has, it was successfully renovated and re-opened during the 1994/95 season. The covered terracing has a number of chips missing from the metal overhang with Frank Clark, once of Crook Town and later to move on to Newcastle United and then to Nottingham Forest where he lifted the European Cup in 1979, smashing a clearance off the stand to cause that first missing section; the metal falling and just missing a fan.

The Black and Ambers, currently in the tenth level of English football, may have lost their way over the years, slipping from the consciousness of the national public. But for a small group of proud men who volunteer so many hours to run the club, the achievements of the past, and indeed of the present where Millfield boasts old stands but with so much ground improvement work completed, whether it’s in the way of a new roof on their clubhouse or a newly laid path, are worth as much as a Premier League title. Crook’s achievements were against all of the odds and delivered with little expectation. These achievements emanated from the sweat of County Durham miners and the generations that follow them.

“Winning is great but it isn’t just about that; it’s about being involved” - Jeff Pattinson, Crook Town committee member, March 2011.

Northern League day takes part on Saturday 9 April.  If you are able to attend a game, please do.  You can find out more about Northern League day (and the Socrates Ryton event for football bloggers) here.

Andy is site editor for the excellent Gannin’ Away website, and you can find him on Twitter @HuddoHudson.