BRANDON in mid-winter is an unforgiving place. A bitterly cold Arctic wind tends to howl through the exposed parts of this former pit village, scything through anybody brave or foolish enough to venture out.

And the local Northern League club, currently showing their more illustrious rivals the way, are feeling an icy blast of apathy from the local community.

A crowd of just 53 watched last Saturday's game between Brandon United and Billingham Town at their Welfare Ground.

"And a lot of them will have been from Billingham, or ground-hoppers, or people who knew the players," Brandon secretary Brian Richardson said ruefully.

The Brandon burghers are expecting a much bigger attendance at tonight's derby with Durham City.

But such is the lack of interest shown locally in the Northern League leaders that United's bosses are growing increasingly exasperated.

"The crowds have been a major disappointment since I came here and I'm not sure if there's enough interest in the village to support a top Northern League club," manager Kenny Lindoe admitted.

Paradoxically, as a successful Sunday league side the club enjoyed a massive following - 4,000 attended a game in their successful FA Sunday Cup campaign in 1975.

But the hand-to-mouth existence that Brandon are being forced to eke out is beginning to erode the faith of even the most committed followers.

"We're finding it hard to cope," chairman Neil Scott confessed.

"We need more workers on matchdays. We do our best, but we're competing with clubs that have bigger pockets than us and better resources."

If Brandon's problems were not great enough, they have been compounded by the absence from the committee of Ken Carr after he underwent heart surgery last year.

On the pitch, they are also starting to feel the pinch. Midfielder Steve Huggins, their leading scorer, is out until next season with a broken leg.

Lindoe will conduct a head count before naming his side tonight, but he is confident they will give Durham a stern test.

"I don't mind who we play against when I've got all of my key players in the team," he said.

"But Steve Huggins and Mark Patterson are out, and David Johnson is on holiday. Steve, in particular, is irreplaceable.

"We're going to be a bit patched-up against Durham, but we're a good footballing side and we've become more resilient this season."

Brandon United Football Club started life in 1968 as Rostrons, named after the waste paper company where most of the founders worked.

They began in the Third Division of the Durham and District Sunday League, but there followed a rapid progression up the footballing pyramid.

The only Northern Alliance side to reach the first round proper of the FA Cup - against Bradford City in the late 1970s - Brandon's social club is decorated with trophies and mementos from a glorious past.

One cannot help but draw comparisons between the Phoenix Club, venue of Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights on Channel Four, and The Footballers at Brandon.

Patrons are greeted with posters proclaiming the "Fantastic vocalist" or "Great show" that will shortly be entertaining them.

It is the archetypal North-East social club, and it has proved to be a shrewd investment, with up to 170 people packing in on Friday and Saturday nights.

"The Footballers is our main sponsor, if you like," Scott said.

They have sportsmen's dinners, too - Frank Worthington will be speaking at one of their events later this year - and Brandon can be proud of their status.

How many Northern League clubs can boast that they lost a player to Manchester United, for instance?

"Paul Dalton joined United from here a few years ago. Maybe Sir Alex Ferguson could give us a few quid?!" Richardson quipped.

The current squad contains players with impressive CVs. Anth McStea spent last season with Wolves, while Patterson was a near ever-present at Queen of the South.

But the lure of Brandon somehow persuades them to return to this homely part of the North-East, four miles west of Durham City.

Maybe, however, that mystery has a simple explanation. Certainly, social club secretary Norman Green has no doubt that Lindoe is the club's biggest asset.

"The manager has a good relationship with the players. They keep coming back all the time because of their loyalty to the manager," he said.

Scott went even further: "The players we've got now do more for the club than any players I've ever known."

Those players include policemen, a postman, a teacher - and probably a butcher, baker and candlestick maker, too.

They go into tonight's match, where they have the opportunity to avenge September's 1-0 defeat at Durham, sat proudly on top of the table.

Lindoe said: "We had a few good signings at the start of the season, with Rob Bowman, Chris Neil and Anth McStea coming in.

"I know I'm capable of managing a team to success in this league, but I don't know whether Brandon can take it on to that level.

"We're doing well to be where we are, considering the obstacles in front of us."

Indeed they are. It's just a shame they've been given the cold shoulder by the Brandon public.