By George Simms
If Jean-Paul Sartre had written footballing stories, it’s hard to imagine a better fit than the inexorable decline of Durham City AFC over the last decade or so. Since the start of the 2018-19 season, the Citizens have been rooted to the foot of Northern League Division Two, in the tenth tier of English football. In the three years since, they’ve won 27 from a possible 276 points in the league.
However, by what started off as luck but is seeming more and more like fate by the day, Durham’s biggest men’s football club have managed to avoid relegation to outside the National League System structure. Their own Sword of Damocles has now hung for so long that it’s become more of gaudy feature piece than a genuine threat at their shared stadium, Hall Lane.
Durham have been in perpetual motion downwards for some time now, but appear incapable of actually reaching rock-bottom. Condemned to be torn between a vicious cycle of hope and disappointment, new managers and players come and go, and “everything could change in the next ninety minutes” wails throughout the stand, the moans of the club’s personal poltergeist.
Everything they try, from the well-thought-through appointment of Northern League stalwart Peter Mulcaster as manager in October 2020, to the absurd series of young foreign signings made during the ill-fated premiership of former Celtic wing-back Didier Agathe, seems to push the team one step closer to the abyss.
Yet for the last three seasons, the abyss has transpired to be nothing more than one of those rather realistic, but very much not real, pothole stickers that so-called pranksters find it funny to stick on the road to scare drivers, and film their reactions.
In 2018-19, structural changes elsewhere in the league reprieved a Durham side whose 17 points from 38 games put them bottom of the league, 12 points from safety with a minus 93-goal difference. The following two seasons still provided the Citizens ample time to embarrass themselves, before the league came to an unceremonious halt, and stalemate.
It’s hard to overstate the depth or breadth of the utter disorder at Durham. In charge between June 2016 and June 2018, former club midfielder Olly Hotchkiss was the last City manager to feel either the warm embrace of success or the security of longevity. Despite managing an inexperienced squad, he oversaw respectable tenth and eleventh-placed finishes in Northern League Division Two.
However, in the three years since Hotchkiss’ departure, Durham have gone through six permanent managers. Eight, if you count the two managerial pairings they tried at the start of the 2019-20 season. Wayne Gredziak, Billy Harper and Stephen Durant, Andy Iness and Ross Flintoft, Didier Agathe, Peter Mulcaster and Mark Sherwood have all tried and failed to stop the rot at Durham, and been gone within a year. Sherwood, the most recent casualty, lasted just 45 days.
In the 93 league games that have elapsed since Hotchkiss left, Durham have drawn six, lost 80 and won just seven. They’ve scored 76 goals and conceded 351. That’s an average of just short of four goals a game picked out of the Citizens’ net. Their last league win came on 9th April 2019, a 2-0 victory over Washington.
After a dispute between the stadium and club owners led to them leaving their long-term stadium, New Ferens Park, in October 2015, they now share Hall Lane with fellow Norther League Division Two side Willington, about eight miles outside Durham.
Despite playing in the same stadium, Willington’s home attendance isn’t far from double Durham’s, with 89 spectators to Durham’s 52 on average. To add insult to injury, Durham Corinthians FC, a club founded in 2018 and playing in the Wearside League First Division, now play at New Ferens Park.
I haven’t yet mentioned the club owner behind this stadium dispute, and everything else that has happened at Durham City over the last eight years. Vivacious former Newcastle and France U21 defender Olivier Bernard bought the club in 2013. He was chairman until 2019 and has even had brief stints as caretaker manager. The Frenchman fell in love with the North East whilst playing for the Magpies and saw the takeover as his way of giving back. History will perhaps not judge his benevolent sentiments kindly.
Six weeks ago, disgruntled fans set up a Twitter page called Save Durham City AFC. It focuses on the idea that the club has 103 years of history behind it, having initially been founded in 1918. Understandably, it has called on Bernard to either invest or sell the club. He reportedly paid £25,000 for the club and will not sell it for less, despite having virtually no assets and needing significant investment to get it back on its feet.
The page alleges that numerous offers to take over the club have been tabled with plans to help stabilise, yet Bernard is apparently uninterested in selling. His social media suggests he’s more engaged running a gastropub he bought and renovated in nearby Blyth.
In an interview in November 2018, Bernard reiterated his initial ambition for Durham City to become a feeder club for bigger North East sides, with an academy nurturing talent from 6-18. He regularly writes on Newcastle United for The Chronicle, but has been conspicuously silent on the state of affairs at the club he owns. Whilst there’s apparently now between 15-20 Durham City age-group sides, the team that matters most has been utterly neglected.
Fans have not missed the irony of the anti-Mike Ashley tirades littered throughout Bernard’s articles. Whether the former Newcastle fan’s favourite has spread himself too thin financially or simply refuses to put any more money into the club, it’s widely acknowledged that the club is now functioning with a playing budget not far off £0.
On 9th March 2010, The Independent wrote a piece entitled ‘Durham City: in a league of their own’. At that point, Durham were 27 games into their Northern League Premier Division season. They were propping up the table, with zero wins and an almost impressive minus six points, for fielding an ineligible player. They were considered amongst the worst teams to ever kick a football on this sceptred isle and were unsurprisingly relegated to the Northern League Division One.
Eleven years later, very little has changed. They’ve got more than minus six points, which is something, I guess. Courtesy of their 2-2 draw with Bedlington Terriers two weeks into the season, Durham should finish in the green points-wise. Not much else is looking positive.
In September, they were suspended from the Northern League for three games for being unable to fulfil their fixtures. Thanks to a heady cocktail of injuries, managerial changes, and sheer embarrassment, the club have named 42 different players in their 16 starting line-ups this season. They’ve conceded 92 goals in those 16 games, nearly six a game.
Last week’s 16-1 loss to Carlisle City was perhaps the nadir of this sorry saga. Those are decent bowling stats, or would be a great record for a team in this season’s NFL, but no-one wants to see them on a football pitch. Unsurprisingly, manager Mark Sherwood resigned almost immediately, and questions were raised as to whether the club would even be around to play out their next game, a visit to Bedlington Terriers. They did, and the manager-less XI ground out a 5-0 loss, which some might argue is a success given the circumstances.
There seems to be no logical end to the misery at Durham City AFC. Trapped in a warped purgatory between the hope of progress and looming threat of relegation, they will inevitably look to bring in new blood and set leeches on the old after Sherwood’s resignation.
Change is their only option, yet seems to force them ever closer to the proverbial wall. They appear set to continue brazenly on into their season, having committed to completing all games in their schedule. Relegation to the Wearside League now appears a formality, unless fate intervenes to save them for a fourth time. That would put them alongside upstarts Durham FC, Durham United, and AFC Durham, as well as New Ferens Park’s new tenants Durham Corinthians.
All of these clubs have been founded in the last three years, most likely with the aim of usurping the falling local giant. If they go down, Durham City would become one of the thousands of clubs in the NLS Feeder Leagues, outside the official National League System structure. Only significant investment, or a minor miracle, could save the Citizens now.
Although he’s not the French existentialist best known for his footballing aphorisms or prowess, Sartre quipped that, “In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the opposing team”. Everyone associated with Durham City AFC must wish their problems were still that simple.
Image: Ken Fitzpatrick via Flickr