Situated seven miles south of Durham, Spennymoor is a town of some 19,000 inhabitants. Its football team sits in the bottom half of the National League North, and you would be forgiven for thinking this was an unremarkable north-east club at first glance. But that would be to disregard the incredible story of Spennymoor Town and their manager, Jason Ainsley.
“I was just pleased when Arsene Wenger got the sack,” Ainsley laughs. “Out of the top six divisions in English football, I think I’m the manager who’s been at one club for the longest.”
It is hard to verify Ainsley’s claim, but nobody in the Premier League or Football League can challenge his longevity. The closest to his record in the top four divisions is Jim Bentley, whose eight years and counting at Morecambe is still four years off Ainsley’s time in charge of Spennymoor. In any case, it is a detail in the 12-year journey for club and manager which has seen triumph in the FA Vase final at Wembley, three promotions in the past six years and a total overhaul of the team’s fortunes on and off the pitch.
Ainsley’s success at Spennymoor is even more remarkable considering he juggles the role with a job in education. Previously head of behaviour at St Peter’s Academy in South Bank, Teesside, he is a head of year at Mortimer College in South Shields. Ofsted have just completed their inspection of the school when we speak, and Ainsley says he is “over the moon” with how it has gone.
How he has any time to talk is a mystery. He is watching the club’s Under-18 side in the FA Youth Cup when he answers the phone, and the shouts and whistles from that game form the backdrop to our conversation. He says headteacher Simon Hignett and the rest of the staff at Mortimer College have been hugely understanding in giving him time to prepare for each fixture, while his wife has been the “backbone” to his success.
He says the two jobs complement each other perfectly. “It’s an 11-16 school – my lads are all above that but act like 16-year-olds,” he tells me. “It’s very, very similar. You’re having to deal with various different characters, various different man-management skills, so they go hand-in-hand.”
Ainsley is a passionate figure on the touchline, and he appreciates there is a certain irony to his title as head of key stage four behaviour at Mortimer College. “I keep saying I’m going to settle down on the sideline, but it never happens. I think I’ve been a good lad this year, though. I am getting better.”
Born in Stockton, Ainsley turned out for Hartlepool United in the Football League and captained what was then known as Spennymoor United in his playing days. He played for a host of other non-league clubs in the North East, and enjoyed spells abroad in Australia and Singapore.
Spennymoor United folded in 2005 with looming debts, but Spennymoor Town was born from its ashes after merging with Evenwood Town, another Northern Premier League side in trouble. When Ainsley’s good friend Jamie Pollock stepped aside from managing the club, having guided them to promotion from Division Two of the Northern League in 2007, the former Spennymoor captain and then-assistant manager was his logical replacement.
But Ainsley still had a huge taskon his hands with the club on the verge of bankruptcy and their Brewery Field home ground in ruins.
The turning point was Bradley Groves’ appointment as chairman in 2009. The new owner wanted the club to be ambitious but also self-sufficient, hence why Spennymoor Town repeatedly turned down promotion from the Northern League First Division despite winning the title three years in a row – something which the rules do not allow anymore.
“When the chairman came in, the council weren’t on speaking terms with the club,” says Ainsley. “They owed gas bills, they owed electric bills, the ground was horrendous. The chairman decided to get everything in order first. Do I agree with it? I think if you win the league, you have to go up. But they were the rules, and the chairman wanted to build a solid foundation first.”
Arguably Ainsley’s finest moment as Spennymoor Town manager came in the 2013 FA Vase final at Wembley. Spennymoor were favourites having overcome Guernsey over two legs in the semi-finals – the first of which they had to fly to and which was beamed live back to County Durham. They narrowly beat Tunbridge Wells 2-1 to lift the trophy in front of 7,000 travelling supporters.
“It was a really good atmosphere, but I didn’t enjoy the game because it was a tense affair,” he admits. “I think I was the first one in bed about midnight and I was drained. It was an awful day at times because you had to leave lads out who played a massive part in the season and who could have played at Wembley.”
You sense that Ainsley takes greater pride in how the club has progressed over the past decade. He has already taken Spennymoor higher than they have ever been before, and last season they were a penalty shootout away from reaching the National League in the play-off final against Chorley, which Ainsley describes as “heartbreaking”. For him, the Vase final is just one highlight in a long list of achievements at Spennymoor Town.
“Obviously the Wembley final sticks out in everybody’s memory,” he says. “But we’ve had some massive games in the play-off finals which we’ve overcome. And just being on the same pitches as Stockport County, York City, and clubs like that. You have to pinch yourself sometimes because Spennymoor’s only a small town and you’re competing with full-time clubs with big support bases.”
There have been tangible results off the pitch, too. Ainsley recalls how he used to avoid bringing potential signings to Brewery Field because the stadium had gone “to wrack and ruin,” but it is unrecognisable now thanks to extensive work. Earlier this month, Phil Neville’s England women’s squad trained at the ground prior to their Middlesbrough friendly against Brazil.
The club boasts an impressive academy, and home games regularly attract crowds of more than 1,200. Perhaps this has something to do with the appeal of non-league football and the struggles of north-east clubs in the top four divisions, but Ainsley says it is also down to Spennymoor’s attractive style of football.
“People get surprised when they come and watch Spennymoor. The loyal supporters know, but it’s real good football and they’ll get their value for money. When you go and watch Football League clubs and Premier League clubs, the players don’t get close to the supporters; everybody knows everybody here. There’s a real community spirit, and I think that’s what’s important.”
So what next for Ainsley and Spennymoor Town after missing out on promotion to the National League by the finest of margins last year? Ainsley seems to be realistic about the club’s chances, but firmly believes his side can make it to the fifth tier of English football. That would mean the Football League would be just one promotion away.
“Whatever happens, and management’s never forever, I’ll take great pride in putting Spennymoor back on the map,” he says.
“If you’d told me 10 years ago that there’d be 1,200 supporters here at the ground, that there’d be under-soil sprinkler systems on the pitch, new stands, new ground, I’d have said you were joking.
“This club can go in the conference and I don’t think there’s as big a gap as what people think. On our day, we’ll give any team a game. But we’re a part-time club, and we’ve got to make sure that everybody’s at it from the start, because if they’re not then we just become another ordinary team.”
Images by David Nelson