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Wednesday, 15 March 2006

2901: A Piece of the North East’s Fo

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by : Paul Grech

When Alan Shearer recently scored his 201st goal for Newcastle to become the highest scorer in the club’s history, some of the media’s attention focused on Jack Milburn, the man whose record he had broken. If you chanced upon one such report, then the name of Ashington FC will be familiar. For it was this small North East club that Milburn got his first chance to play the game at a senior level.

Formed in 1887, the club’s golden era came in the 1920’s when they were founder members of the Third Division (North), where they played for eight seasons before eventually drifting off to the non-league. Apart from Milburn, the club’s most famous sons are Bobby and Jack Charlton both of whom turned out for the Colliers, even if as ball-boys.

Today, the professional clubs’ academies and centres of excellence greatly diminish the possibilities of clubs like Ashington from having the likes of the Charlton brothers running after loose balls, much less nurturing the next Jack Milburn. Yet doing so has never been their main focus: in most cases such clubs are the sporting heartbeat of the community.

Only that, in Ashington’s case, not everyone within the community seems to appreciate their contribution. What’s worse, it is the section that you would least expect to be ungrateful that is guilty of just that.

For the past twelve years, Ashington have been well aware of the Wansbeck District Council’s eagerness to sell off the club’s Portland Park for development. This year – ironically the 99th in which the club have played there – they’ve finally found a buyer and have given Ashington FC notice to leave their home at the end of the current campaign.

Since it has been coming for so long, in itself that decision has not been a major shock. That there are no apparent plans to re-house the club is.

Gary Bell is a life-long fan of the club and is distraught by Ashington FC’s current plight. “In 1907 the Duke Of Portland gave the people of Ashington Portland Park for their use. He placed upon the land a covenant that stated that the land could only be used for sport and recreation,” he explains patiently. “Unfortunately there has been a change in the law with regards to covenants and the council are now in negotiation to buy that covenant to allow this development to go ahead.”

“Is it not therefore reasonable that the council should replace this land by giving the people of Ashington a new football stadium to replace to one that is being taken from them?” It is certainly a legitimate question that deserves a better answer than the one currently being provided by the council; “Wansbeck Council is fully committed to working with the club to ensure the long-standing football tradition in Ashington is maintained by identifying a site for its long-term move to a new ground.”

Yet so far nothing has been decided. For Bell, this is unacceptable. “The council have had twelve years to have a site ready for development to provide a replacement ground before we had to vacate Portland Park. Still they are unable to provide any clear indication of where or when this will be. If they can't get their act together in twelve years then why should we believe that they will suddenly come up with the goods?”

“Secondly the council in previous discussions with the club about failed developments have always maintained that they would provide us with a ground and facilities to at least the standard that we currently enjoy, now when it comes to the crunch it would appear that the council are reneging on this promise and have told the club that they will need to obtain their own funding to build a ground. This despite the vast profits that they stand to make on the sale of Portland Park.”

It is a worrying state of affairs which could orphan this proud footballing town of its club. Bell is under no illusions as to what would happen should they be deprived of their lifeline which is their own ground and clubhouse.

“If we are to move out of Ashington for any length of time then it will be meaningless whether the council eventually provide us with a new home or not as, without the resources to raise the funds to run the team, we will cease to exist long before the new facility could be built.”

“The town has always been linked with two things football and mining. The mining is now gone and so the people of Ashington cling proudly to their football achievements. The only time England has won the World Cup two brothers born and raised in the town graced the side. This is an achievement no other town, village or city can match. Newcastle's greatest centre forward was also born and raised here, living all of his life in the town he loved so dearly. This is the heritage that they are blindly tearing from the heart of this community.”

“The club itself provides a focal point for people of all ages. We have youth teams from the age of 8 upwards, we have girls’ teams, a women's team is under development. Our clubhouse plays host to many community groups with diverse needs.”

“When we die this all dies with us.”

As has happened elsewhere throughout England, the club’s fans won’t allow this to happen without a fight. Bell and a group of Ashington FC supporters have launched the Keep Football in NE63 campaign where they’re aiming to add as many signatures as possible to a petition that will eventually be presented to the District Council.

“The reaction has been fantastic so far and at times quite moving. We have almost 900 signatures on our on-line petition. Many of these have included messages of support which show the strength of feeling that there is on this matter. These messages come from locals and ex-pats as well as people who have never been to Ashington before but have heard of our plight and feel moved to back us.”

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