Football: FA CUP COUNTDOWN: Test of Steelmen's mettle is talk of the toon

Simon Turnbull visits the North-east club seeking glory in Saturday's FA Cup first round
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The Independent Online
Consett, thankfully, is not quite the town that time forgot. It is, however, the town that Kenneth Clarke forgot.

Interviewed by BBC Radio Newcastle while on a fact-finding mission in the North-east last year, the Chancellor picked out the "thriving steelworks at Consett" as a shining example of the region's industrial success. In fact, the last batch of steel was produced in Consett on 6 September, 1980.

The main thrust of the vain fight to avert closure of the British Steel works, and the loss of some 8,000 jobs, was that Consett, 14 miles south of Newcastle in north-west Durham, would become a ghost town. How fitting it is, then, that evidence that Consett remains alive and assuredly kicking will be found this Saturday in Nottinghamshire, the same county in which the Chancellor's West Bridgford constituency happens to lie.

Consett AFC, members of the Federation Brewery Northern League, have reached the first round proper of the FA Cup for only the second time in their 97-year history (they were hammered 5-0 at Doncaster in 1958). Their unexpected success has created such a stir Consett could indeed be a ghost town for one day this weekend.

That particular irony is not lost on Colin Carr, PE teacher at the town's Blackfyne Comprehensive, and Consett's manager. Carr, who spent his playing days as a centre-half in the Wearside League with Annfield Plain, has become accustomed to home crowds barely touching the 100 mark; by all accounts there could be 10 times that many locals following the Steelmen, as they are still nicknamed, to Mansfield's Field Mill ground on Saturday.

"We used to get more," Carr said, "until Newcastle started doing well. I'm only talking about maybe 20 or 30 people but for a little club like us that makes a big difference.

"The gates go down again on midweek nights when Newcastle are live on television. Even on Saturdays there are places where you can watch the Norwegian television channel that shows Newcastle matches."

As a lifelong Newcastle fan himself, Carr does not begrudge the black and white polarisation of football viewing in and around his home town. He is merely grateful that support has been whipped up for a bulging one- off bandwagon.

Stewart Wilkinson openly confesses he is one of the locals jumping on board. His, however, is no ordinary bandwagon. It is the bus that was booked to carry the secretary and his fellow members of the Sunderland Supporters' Association's Consett branch to White Hart Lane on Saturday.

"We're even taking Newcastle supporters," he said. "They're selling their season tickets for their home match on Saturday to come to Mansfield instead.

"It's a case of the community rallying round to see our local team in the FA Cup. I know how hard the backroom staff at Consett have worked to keep the club afloat with no sponsorship. This is their day. They deserve all the credit and support they get."

That Consett are a club in need of financial support is evident from even a cursory glance at the crumbling red-bricked facade of Belle Vue Park, an inappropriately named home if ever there was one. Unfit to stage any replay (that will be at Durham City, if required), it could be described as one of those non-League outposts that time forgot.

The football club are still suffering from the loss of the town's former industrial giant. As Carr explained: "Each person who worked at the steelworks had an old sixpence deducted from their pay to help the football club. Eight thousand sixpences is a lot of money. Since then, we've struggled from week to week to make ends meet."

One product of the club in those financially solid days made it all the way from Belle Vue to Wembley. Peter Noble was Swindon's No 10 on the afternoon the Robins rocked Arsenal in the 1969 League Cup final.

Win, lose or draw at Mansfield, the present-day Consett party have worked wonders to get this far. Boasting just one player with Football League experience, the Darlington old boy Mark Outterside, they have seen off higher-ranking non-League opponents, in Bishop Auckland and Gateshead, in the last two rounds.

Also - Mansfield might care to note - the steely Consett defence have conceded just one goal in the eight matches they have played since setting out on the Wembley road in the preliminary round at St James' Park in August. St James' Park, Alnwick, that is.