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Feethams' football glory days recalled

Echo Memories adds its voice to the farewell tributes to Feethams football ground, which has also hosted lacrosse and baseball during a chequered sporting career.

IT would be inappropriate for this column, with its historical bent, to allow Feethams football ground to be bade farewell without offering its own goodbyes.

The full story of the ground's beginnings was told in Saturday's supplement, which marked the last game to be played at Feethams after 120 years.

The full story of the football club, and football in general in Darlington, begins with one figure: Charles Samuel Craven.

He was born in 1863 near Chesterfield and came to Darlington in 1879 - presumably to be involved with the town's railways, because he was an engineer by trade. By inclination, he was a goalkeeper.

Craven started playing with Haughton-le-Skerne, which was possibly the first club in Darlington. In the first Challenge Cup organised by the newly-formed Durham and Northumberland Football Association in early 1881, Haughton reached the final.

On their way, they beat Bishop Middleham 7-0 in the first round and Ferryhill 2-1 in the second. They had a bye in the semi-final and lost 1-0 in the final to Newcastle Rangers.

In the cup's second season, 1881-82, Haughton-le-Skerne were drawn at home to Darlington Grammar School. The Grammar School had entered the previous year's competition but had withdrawn at the last moment.

In the late 1881 fixture, the Grammar School beat Haughton 4-2. They then drew Tyne in the second round, but decided Newcastle was too far to travel and so withdrew.

In 1882-83, only one Darlington team entered the Challenge Cup. That was Hurworth. They were drawn against Derwent Rovers, but were expelled for failing to arrange the fixture in time.

This lack of Darlington representation in what was regarded as the region's premier footballing competition concerned Craven and others so much that a meeting was held on July 20, 1883, in Darlington Grammar School - it was in the Leadyard, where the Town Hall car park is today.

The Darlington and Stockton Times explained that there was "no club, urban or rural, sufficiently powerful to worthily represent Darlington".

More than 30 people attended the meeting, many of them representing a small club in the district, which shows how the town's footballing community had splintered.

The meeting was chaired by the school headmaster, Philip Wood MA, and it was unanimously decided that a proper football club should be formed.

Craven, of 17 Garden Street, who was then honorary secretary of the Haughton club, was elected secretary of the new club and told to go away and organise it.

He stuck himself in goal, and the fledgling Darlington FC played their first couple of games in North Lodge Park before moving to Feethams.

They made an immediate impact on the Challenge Cup, reaching the final in their first season, 1883-84. That final against Sunderland was "a most unpleasant match", according to The Northern Echo. Darlington lost 4-3 but protested about the referee's decisions, so Durham Football Association ordered a rematch.

Darlington lost the rematch 2-0, but The Northern Echo did list their team: Craven was in goal; the backs were TJ Cleave-Warne (captain), A Pryce, HJ Hodgson, J Moore and JCP Maynard; CL Glover and T Wright were the right-wingers and WE Kirsop and AC Tofts were on the left-wing; TW Dixon, a Grammar School teacher, was the centre.

There are no longer any Cleave-Warnes in the Darlington phonebook - nor, for that matter, are there any Kirsops or Toftses - but it would be fantastic if anyone in the area recognised an early Quaker from their family tree and could tell us about him.

Having been involved with the formation of Darlington FC, Craven had another idea in 1889: forming a North-East league.

According to the Northern Goalfields book, compiled by Brian Hunt and edited by the redoubtable Mike Amos, Craven was "entirely responsible" for inviting 19 Northumberland and Durham clubs to a meeting at the Three Tuns Hotel in Durham City on March 25, 1889. It was this meeting that decided to form the Northern Football League - a league which is still going to this day and boasts that it is the second oldest in the world.

Indeed, when the short-lived North-Eastern Football League was formed a little later it dismissively referred to its rival as "the Craven League".

Craven's career as an engineer took him to Leeds in 1890, then Kent in 1893, before he went to work on the railways in Rhodesia.

He is still remembered in North-East footballing circles: last night the Craven Cup final was played at Horden between Ashington and Evenwood.

THERE was great and intense rivalry in those early footballing days. Also founded in 1883 was a team called Darlington St Augustine's. They were based around the Catholic church and they played at Chesnut Grove, in Valley Street.

This stadium was probably the best in the North-East - but not good enough for Mr Craven. When he held his inaugural meeting in the Three Tuns in 1889, St Augustine's were not among the 19 clubs invited to attend because by him they were "considered too small fry".

However, as only seven of the 19 agreed to join the league, Mr Craven was forced to approach St Augustine's and beg them to make up the numbers. Graciously, they agreed.

The first league meeting between the sides came on September 21, 1889. At least 4,000 spectators squeezed into Feethams, even though the price of admission had been doubled.

Tom Devey scored the only goal in the tenth minute for Darlington. However, the Saints had the last laugh because, unchristianly packing their side with Scottish professionals, they won the inaugural Northern League title on goal difference from Newcastle West End.

This made the Saints' 1-0 home victory over Newcastle East End particularly important - especially as the thousands of people inside Chesnut Grove saw Newcastle equalise.

However, those were the days before floodlights and nets and, in the gathering gloom, referee Phillips from Northumberland could not be certain where the ball had gone and so gave a goal kick.

"He disallowed a goal because he was too far away to see it," moaned the Echo.

"But if a referee will not exert himself to keep up with the players, it is adamantine parallelograms - indeed, hard lines."

St Augustine's got their come-uppance the following season when they teetered on the verge of bankruptcy and all the professional players left. They dropped out of the Northern League and were never the same force again.

The club folded during the First World War and gradually the stadium was eaten into by Valley Street housing and industry. Enough was left, though, in the early 1930s, for Darlington FC to seriously consider leaving Feethams for it. A part of the stadium lasted as the Darlington Arena boxing ring until 1975.

THERE were other early sides in the area of which we know little. What of Hurworth, for example? They were Darlington's only representative in the 1882-83 Durham Challenge Cup. They also entered the cup in 1884-85 and lost 1-0 in the first round to Darlington FC at Feethams.

Then, in 1892-93, Hurworth reached the third qualifying round of the FA Cup proper.

However, they failed to field a team even though they were drawn at home and their opponents, Darlington FC, went through with a walkover.

There was also a club called Darlington West End about whom we know absolutely nothing except that in 1890-91 they, too, entered the FA Cup.

They reached the second qualifying round and were drawn against Darlington FC - but could not put out a side to play the cup tie.

Finally, there was Darlington Albion, as shown in the picture above, which was found in The Northern Echo archives.

If anyone recognises a name, a face or - perhaps easier - the windows of the church, please let us know.

Finer points of lacrosse lost on local crowds

WHEN Darlington Football Club arrived at Feethams in 1883 it was a sporting late-comer. A wide variety of sports had grown up around the cricket club which had been playing on Feethams field since 1866.

The most unusual must have been lacrosse which was played there on July 17, 1883 - three days before Charles Craven called his meeting to form the football club.

Lacrosse is an excellent sport which involves using a net on the end of a stick to hurl a hard ball at a goalkeeper who you hope will miss it so that the ball ends up in his goal.

A crowd of a thousand or so paid a shilling to watch a touring team of Canadians take on a team of Iroquois Indians.

The Northern Echo said that Feethams was "in excellent condition for running and is perhaps one of the best fields for the game in England".

The Iroquois probably did not agree, because they lost the contest by five goals to two.

The Iroquois team sheet must be the most bizarre ever handed to a referee at Feethams: Strong Arm, Deer Whispering, Scattered Branches, June Stand Up, Tree Fall Down, White Cloud, Flying Wind, Leaves Chasing Quick, Waving Blossom, Hole In The Sky and White Water.

The Darlington and Stockton Times reported: "Some in the crowd thought it a milk and watery business. Others considered it too rough and not scientific enough. Some preferred cricket; many preferred football, and generally lacrosse was voted good, but not equal to what we have in England.

"Certainly the sight was lively enough and no doubt if the games were always accompanied by such adjuncts as real live Red Indians in war paint and feathers, it will always attract a certain number of visitors."

There is no record of lacrosse ever being played at Feethams again.

Baseball was also played at the ground, on July 3, 1918, when a large number of American servicemen were in the district.

Teams came from the US bases at Driffield and Guisborough, and "keen interest was shown throughout by a large crowd of spectators, Americans being well represented".

Guisborough won 7-5 thanks to Dean, their "great Texas pitcher".

"For the most part," said the Echo, "the Driffield men found his great speed and deadly swerve almost unplayable."

There is no record of baseball ever being played at Feethams again.

Published: 07/05/2003

Echo Memories, The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington DL1 1NF, e-mail chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk or telephone (01325) 505062.



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