Football, SPORT

The Great Fires of Spennymoor 1


With Spennymoor Town F.C. about to walk onto the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium for the final tie of the FA Vase on Saturday 4th May, we look back at the event that brought about the demise of their predecessors at The Brewery Field…

The supporter who carelessly threw a cigarette butt behind a fruit machine at the Spennymoor United Social Club at the Brewery Field on Christmas Eve 2003, began a chain of events that would eventually destroy the town’s long-established football club, and leave the Unibond League they were members of, in chaos. The Brewery Field, once owned by B. P. Junor’s Tower Brewery, had been the home of Spennymoor United since 1904, They had played there in the North-Eastern League, the Northern League, and finally in the Unibond League. North-east sides had never had an easy time of it in the Unibond League, mainly due to their geographical isolation from the other clubs in the league, who were all located across the Pennines in the North-west. Gateshead came close to extinction, Blyth Spartans experienced severe financial difficulties, and Bishop Auckland, in 2010, lacked a ground of their own, although they finally managed to remedy that situation. They once ground-shared at The Brewery Field, an arrangement that was terminated amidst accusations that the club’s fans were ‘litter louts’ and that nobody connected with The Bishops ever cared enough to clean up after them, although to be honest, fans of the two teams had always had a healthy loathing for one another.

But until the early years of the new millennium, Spennymoor United had seemed to be one of the more stable minor league clubs, with ground facilities well above the average of their peers, mainly thanks to the support of local councillors, as well as businesses like Thorn (who supplied and fitted the floodlighting at the ground as a show of their support for the town and its football club) decent crowds – even a strong away following – and income from a social club that was well placed for local housing, although that proximity also proved to be a cause of annoyance to local residents. United won promotion to the Unibond League’s Premier Division in 2002-03, but early on Christmas Day in 2003, a serious fire gutted the social club building. It took five appliances two hours to bring the blaze – which both police and fire investigators later agreed had been caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette – under control. For some reason still either unexplained or undiscovered, the building was not insured, and only the smoke covered shell of the club remained standing a year later, the only physical evidence that the building had ever existed.

The loss of the social club’s facilities was a severe blow to the team’s finances, and was probably one decisive factor amongst many when, in January 2005, the club’s owner, businessman Benny Mottram, announced his intention of standing down, following a long-running dispute with Spennymoor Town Council. Mottram had insisted the lease on the ground was illegal because a former member and clerk had signed it; the council said the contract was held in escrow, which made it legal. Supporters not well versed in the intricacies of property law, could only scratch their heads in disbelief that any of this could be happening at their club. For their part, the council stated that they had put £200,000 worth of grants, sponsorships and loans into the club, and had never charged more than a nominal rent of £20 a week. Many members of the council were fans of the game, too, they pointed out, and had a lot of respect for the team, and for the prestige its on-field successes brought to the town.

As the club’s problems, on and off the field, mounted, crowds dwindled, until, after being heckled by supporters, both during and after a defeat by Bamber Bridge in February, the owner stormed out of the ground in high dudgeon. About a month later, manager Graham Clark also left for good – after a 5-1 Good Friday thrashing at Gateshead in a game that proved to be one of the last Spennymoor United would ever play.

Already in serious trouble for failing to fulfil fixtures, with Mottram even blaming one non-appearance – a Sunday match at Witton Albion – on the religious convictions of two of his players, both of whom were Catholics, The Moors were left in the impossible situation of having to play 10 games in 23 days with a seriously depleted squad. Every missed game led to fines and points deductions being piled one on top of the other, until by mid-April, it was obvious that Spennymoor United would never be able to complete their season, leaving the Unibond League with a massive headache. They eventually decided to expunge Spennymoor from the season’s records completely and annul all points won by teams against them, which was a little hard on league leaders Workington Town, who thereby lost six points and missed out on being champions, with the title going to Farsley Celtic instead. Under the circumstances, no one was very surprised when Workington appealed. A further complication arose from the fact that there had not been a quorum at the meeting that had reached the decision. The Unibond League were left with egg on their faces, and had to not only postpone the semi-finals of their Premier Division play-offs, but also had to publish two different league tables – in one of which Spennymoor United’s record remained intact; the other with it expunged – until a further meeting could be held.

When the new meeting took place, it reached the same decision as the previous one. An appeal to the Football Association followed and football’s ruling authority decreed that Spennymoor’s unplayed matches be treated as 0-0 draws, but with all three points awarded to their opponents. This meant that the league had still another set of champions – Hyde United.

Farsley Celtic and Burscough (who missed out to Prescot Cables on entry to the play-offs in the third and final version of the league table) made a joint, but unsuccessful, legal attempt to overturn the ruling. Workington fared better. Denied automatic promotion as champions, they made it safely through the play-offs, eventually beating Farsley 6-5 on penalties in the final. Rossendale United were reprieved from relegation from the Unibond First Division when Spennymoor United were formally expelled from the League on 24 May, 2005.

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