At peak capacity Washington Colliery employed over 1,500 people and produced almost half a million tons of coal a year. While its produce was powering people’s homes, workers from the colliery were lighting up their leisure time too. Between 1926, the year an F-Pit works team joined the North Eastern League, and the outbreak of World War II, dozens of former Washington coal miners chiselled out careers at every level of the Football League and beyond.
Among the footballing exports from Washington Colliery FC were Gordon Dreyer and Harry Proctor, shipped first to Hartlepool United and then on to Hull and Norwich City. Harry Sillito went to Chelsea, Jimmy McGrath to Cardiff and Port Vale, and John Jobson, furthest of all, to Plymouth Argyle. Jack Tennant played at full-back for Stoke, Liverpool and Bolton Wanderers, teaming up at Burnden Park with another ex-Washington man in centre-half Jack Atkinson. Ronnie Starling, an inside forward nicknamed ‘the man with the fluttering feet’ for his speed and prowess on the ball, turned out for Hull City, Newcastle United and England, captaining Sheffield Wednesday to the 1935 FA Cup and later featuring prominently as Aston Villa returned to the top-flight in 1937-38. While Starling – still the last Wednesday captain to lift the FA Cup – earned the adulation of one side of Sheffield, yet another ex-Washington Colliery footballer would attain equal status in the other half of the city.
A child prodigy, Jimmy Hagan played North Eastern League football for Washington at the age of 14 before signing as an amateur at Liverpool on a weekly wage of £2 10s. Moving to Derby County, Hagan made twenty first-team appearances for the Rams, emulating his father, Alf, who had scored on his league debut for Newcastle against Manchester United and later wore the colours of Cardiff City and Tranmere Rovers. In November 1938, aged 20, Hagan moved to Sheffield United for a fee of £2,500.
Like Starling Hagan’s ball skills “bordered on the magical” and in a Bramall Lane career spanning both sides of WWII – during which he won wartime international caps for England and was among the troops that liberated Belsen-Bergen - he netted 117 times in 361 appearances, twice helping the Blades to promotion from Division Two. “A master craftsman,” Tommy Lawton once called him, “One of the most unsung achievers of his era,” wrote an obituarist in the Independent. Hagan’s only official England cap was awarded in a goalless draw against Denmark in 1948, by which time Sheffield’s golden boy was already thirty years old. Not that age ever threatened to dim the County Durham player’s talents – two years later he remained good enough to attract a British record offer of £32,500 from Sheffield Wednesday, while one photographer mocked up a photograph of the entire United team in Jimmy Hagan heads, a nod towards those who felt the club had effectively become a one-man show.
Hagan proved equally adept as a coach, taking Peterborough United into the Football League, West Bromwich Albion to a League Cup success and sixth place in Division One, Benfica to three successive league titles and the semi-final of the European Cup, minnows Grupo Desportivo Estoril Praia to back-to-back promotions and Sporting to second place in the league. In 1979 he added a second Portuguese Cup to the one he’d won with Benfica when his Boavista side beat Sporting in a replay. Three years after his death in 1998, Eusebio came in person to unveil a life-size statue at Bramall Lane. “Jimmy is still in my heart to this day,” he said. “He was a good player, a wonderful manager and a great man."
Born in Washington in 1909, Billy Furness worked as a clerk while playing for his home pit, later moving to nearby Usworth Colliery before joining First Division strugglers Leeds United for a fee of £50 in 1928. Usworth had a footballing lineage of their own; Billy Thirlaway playing for West Ham United, Birmingham and Cardiff City, Isaac ‘Taffy’ Spellman for Leeds, Tottenham Hotspur and Southend, and Jack Stelling donning the red and white stripes of Sunderland almost 300 times, missing a twice taken penalty against Manchester City in 1950 which would have all but guaranteed the league title for the Bank of England club. Furness waited a year to make his own first-team debut, eventually turning out in a home game against Middlesbrough in November 1929. The season finished with the Yorkshire side in fifth, the club’s highest league placing until the Don Revie-era forty years later. Relegated alongside Manchester United in 1930-31, Furness was instrumental in guiding his team to immediate promotion, scoring in eight successive matches- including a 5-2 win at Old Trafford - between October and December 1931.
Ever present as Leeds finished eighth in their first season back, Furness capped a triumphant season by lining up for England as one of six debutants in a 1-1 with Italy. The following year he was a non-playing member of the squad which toured Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and netted two goals in a record 8-0 victory over Leicester City. After two seasons of consolidation, Leeds struggled badly in 1934-35, narrowly escaping the ignominy of a return to the second division thanks to 16 goals in 34 games from Furness, including seven in just six games at the tail end of the league programme. May 1936 was an even closer run affair, Furness scoring in the final two home games, and the four points keeping Leeds in the top-flight as Manchester United were relegated in their stead. In the resulting squad overhaul, the now 28-year-old inside left was transferred to second division Norwich City for £2,700, the “masterly schemer” departing Elland Road after nine years, 257 league and cup appearances and 66 goals.
At Carrow Road, Furness simply picked up where he’d left off, scoring on his debut against Southampton and adding another 20 goals in just under 100 games. Unable to prevent Norwich slipping into Division Three (South) in the summer of 1939, he’d already struck twice before September 3rd when, just 24 hours after an equalising goal at Ipswich Town, war was declared and the 1939-40 season was suspended after just three games. When league fixtures finally resumed in 1946, Furness played another dozen times before joining the Carrow Road coaching staff as first trainer and then physiotherapist. In 1971, he was awarded a testimonial, Norwich City taking on a Billy Furness Select X1. Three decades later, his service to the club was recognised again when he was formally inducted into the Norwich City Hall of Fame.
What became of the club that Hagan, Starling and Furness left behind? The current Washington side recently lost 9-0 at home to North Shields and occupies bottom spot in the second division of the Northern League, nine levels off the English top-flight. Reformed by F-Pit miners in 1947 and Washington Amateur League champions seven times out of eight in the mid-1950s, the club’s post-war highlight was the visit of Bradford Park Avenue in the fourth qualifying round of the 1970-71 FA Cup. Over 3,000 ringed the Usworth Park pitch for the 3-0 defeat. Within a decade the ground was no more, ripped up to make way for an access road.
Voted into the Northern League in its 1988-89 centenary season, Washington had an 88-year lease on a ground at Albany Park before disaster struck in January 2009. Vandalism had long blighted the club, but a fire deliberately started in a portakabin proved near fatal, engulfing almost the entire stadium. The first team kit, laid out in preparation for the following day’s game, was stacked up in a pile and set ablaze, burning along with footballs, goal nets and first-aid boxes. While Albany Park was rebuilt, Washington relocated to Britain’s biggest automotive plant, sharing the playing facilities at Nissan Sports and Social Club. Although County Durham continues to provide footballers to England’s biggest clubs – statistics show the county has produced more Premier League footballers than any other – nowadays Washington’s biggest export is Japanese cars – the Mechanics are currently last of twenty-two clubs in the second division of the Northern League with a mere four points from twelve league games. In the opening month of the season the struggling club lost three successive home games by an aggregate scoreline of eighteen goals to one. Their highest attendance to date – just 93 – came in a goalless draw with Willington, a side that once helped attract over 88,000 to Wembley.
But that, of course, is another story.
Michael is on Twitter @DolphinHotel.
Thanks to Sunderland Public Libraries for the picture.