THE lights went out on Friday at the ground where 10,000 crowds once watched Third Division (North) football, where Ashington Arrows raced Motherwell Monarchs and where many a melancholy miner had seen his pay packet go to the dogs.

There was stock car racing, too, but they pulled the plug when a stray spark burned the stand down Portland Park in Ashington, council owned, is to make way for a supermarket. Another supermarket, it could probably be said, only this one's an Asda supermarket and is reputed to be costing £25m.

The last event to be staged at the historic ground was an Arngrove Northern League match between Ashington, forever the Colliers, and Seaham Red Star - the 1,954 crowd the league's biggest for 40 years.

When last did a Northern League kick-off have to be delayed in order to lever everyone in? When last did the bar run out of beer before half-time, raising the unedifying prospect of grown men crying into their Pepsi Cola? When last were there spectators from Norway, and from Germany?

Ashington may also have claimed a world record for ball boys, so many crowded along the touchline that, had they been chickens, someone would have called the RSPCA.

Northumberland County Council has rung the day previously to suggest the club implement its safety plan, that they might even make it all-ticket.

The Colliers decide to live dangerously; a bit late for that sort of thing.

It's a giant wake, and most seem suitably glum. "It's just another piece of our history condemned to the developers' dustbin," says club chairman Jimmy Lang. Mark Fitton, the vice-chairman, is more outspoken yet.

"It's the latest landmark to be bulldozed in the name of progress, the last piece of heritage that Ashington possesses,"

he says. "The term death by a thousand cuts comes to mind - a ground starved of improvement, renovation or even reasonable maintenance for 20-odd years."

The pitch, he adds, is at best like a turnip field - "but by God the place has something special about it."

The match ball's sponsored by Booze Brothers. It somehow seems appropriate.

ASHINGTON'S in Northumberland, once reckoned England's coal capital, home to the Charlton fraternity, to Jackie Milburn - who was one of them - and to Steve Harmison, who was the Colliers' centre- half until someone decided that his future lay in the general direction of a 22-yard cricket pitch.

Harmy, the most agreeable of men, is at the match, said to be delaying a reunion with the England team in New Zealand until after the arrival of his fourth child. In Ashington they knew differently, of course. It's because he wouldn't miss the last match at Portland Park, not for a hat-trick in the antipodes.

There, too, is former Sunderland full back Cecil Irwin - forever See-sel in those linguistically unique parts - and Eddie Poxon, who'd played for Ashington in the 1950s and as a foot runner was reckoned faster than half the pallid, ragand- bone greyhounds that hirpled, helpless, round Portland Park.

Now 77, he'd once won the legendary Powderhall sprint.

"These days," says Eddie, "aa hev to sit doon afore aa fall doon."

He thinks the end of Portland Park deplorable - "aa get filled up just thinking aboot it"

- a view shared by former team mate Cyril Dowson.

"They can build aal the new groonds they like," says Cyril, "but it'll never hev the special feeling that this one had."

Cyril had worked for the Coal Board. He pronounces it Curl Board, as if it were the regulatory body for hairdressers. It rekindles the most famous Ashington joke of all, about the stranger who goes into a hairdresser's and asks for a perm.

"Certainly madam," says the assistant. "I wandered lonely as a cloud."

THE ground was opened in 1907, named after the grand old Duke of Portland on whose broad acres it stood. By the time the club was elected to the new Third Division (North) in 1921 it could hold 20,000, though never called upon to do so.

Ten thousand saw the Football League debut, a 1-0 win against Grimsby. Just 706 were present eight years later for what proved to be the farewell, a 3-0 defeat to Halifax Town.

Like Durham City the year previously, they failed to gain reelection.

Portland Park's biggest gate, however, was against Rochdale for an FA Cup second round tie in 1950, the North Eastern League side having won at Halifax in the first.

It prompted Bobby Straughan, a lifelong supporter, to write a six-verse eulogy which sold at threepence a time to help an injured player. The fourth verse picked up the game after Halifax's equaliser:

This put new life into th' Toon

They tried to weer wor pore lads doon,

But Charlton - just signed on th' dole -

He played a marvillus game in goal.

Alas, they got a cornor kick

From which Core's heeder did the trick.

The splendid Straughan left them wanting more. "If Ashington wins th' English Cup, aal mek a few mair verses up."

Still semi-professional, the club also had a couple of displaced seasons in the Midland League - they and other wellknown Midland teams like Consett, Horden and Blyth - before finally joining the Northern League in 1970.

Eddie Poxon well remembers the 1950s, still gates of a couple of thousand against Newcastle and Sunderland Reserves, though the Colliers weren't always the canniest team in the coalfield. "Mind," he adds with a 77-year-old twinkle, "we allus beat Blyth Spartans."

BEFORE the match, the band essays It's a Long Way to Tipperary and Gresford, the lugubrious old miners' hymn.

The public address plays Pavarotti, who loses, and Jerusalem, about green and pleasant land, though the turnip field analogy seems more appropriate. The queue's halfway to Bedlington Station.

Still they are clamouring at 7.45pm. "Fancy," says Seaham president Bryan Mayhew, "all those people just because it's Red Star."

The teams are led out by fiveyear- old Kirsty Sawyer, a little girl from Ashington who'd been seriously injured in a New year's Eve 2005 car smash in which her sister died.

She's Seaham secretary John Smith's great niece. "A great kid, a brilliant kid," says John and she no doubt considers him a great uncle.

It's barely above freezing and always below perishing, though there's a chap in the crowd wearing kilt, white ankle socks and loafers. Either he's a particularly hard lad or.the thought vaporises in the February night air. Howay man, this is Ashington.

Paul Hutchinson gives the last-shift Colliers a 23rd minute lead, Warren Byrne's penalty equalising soon afterwards for those intruding upon private grief. The crowd's singing Take Me Home Station Road, apparently a version of a John Denver song which they do even more discordantly at Old Trafford.

Gareth Bainbridge again puts the Colliers' heads above the surface in the second half, Byrne memorably equalising and Stephen Burns grabbing Seaham's late bonus, the final goal at Portland Park.

Few hurry home. They've sent out for more beer -probably not to Asda - planned a couple of presentations, have laid out something for the funeral tea.

The club is being carted off to a new ground near the hospital, a place which may at best be described as functional and, at worst, as critical.

Like all good wakes, it's an emotional but paradoxically happy occasion. Jimmy Lang takes comfort there, and not least because it'll pay the electric bill for a bit. "Do you think," he asks, "that we could have a last game more often?"


A TRULY worldwide response confirmed that the celebrated American born in Eltham, south London - last Friday's column - was Bob Hope. "The best US comedian until George W Bush came on the scene," suggests David Walsh, in Redcar.

Mike Blake, who lives that way - and who wrote the biography of Boldon Colliery lad Sam Bartram, a south London legend - draws attention to any amount more local luminaries, including W G Grace, who played his last ever cricket match for Eltham.

Sadly, however, Greenwich Borough - who play at Eltham - lost in the FA Vase replay, four sent off. Whitley Bay are now at Hungerford in the quarter-final.

Paul Dobson, among many for whom Hope sprang eternal, today invites the identity of the member of Sunderland's 1973 FA Cup winning side who won a League of Ireland first division shield.

Neither here nor Eire, the column returns in three days.