Durham City: in a league of their own

A 28-game losing streak, a points deduction for fielding illegal players – and still the fans stay devoted. Simon Turnbull visits Britain's least successful club
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The Independent Online

It is match day at the Esh Group Stadium, home of Durham City, a team that can claim – though perhaps not with excessive pride – to be the most consistent team in British football. Their record is there for all to see, printed on page 22 of the match programme: played 27, won 0, drawn 0, lost 27. They have yet to get a point on the board in the Unibond League Premier Division (that's the seventh tier of the football pyramid – and spiritually another world entirely from Rooney and Fabregas, corporate boxes and midweek European ties).

But it is the points tally that makes the worst reading of all; it stands at minus-six since, last month, they had six points deducted for fielding an ineligible player.

This promises to be another hard day's work. The visitors are Boston United – and they beat Durham 10-0 in January.

The walls of the foyer are plastered with autographed photographs of football folk past and present and it just so happens that two have connections with the visitors: Jim Smith launched his managerial career with Boston, while Paul Gascoigne's last five matches were as player-manager of the Pilgrims. Not that the Durham City doorman is greatly impressed when the links are pointed out.

"Aye, well," he says, "you know the 1973 Cup final?" Know it? It is etched deep in the hearts of those of us who followed Bob Stokoe's underdog Sunderland side all the way on their giant-killing FA Cup run to the slaying of mighty Leeds in the Wembley final. "Bobby Kerr, the captain; he's coming this afternoon. And Jim Montgomery, the goalkeeper."

The thought begins to formulate that Durham might just be hatching a cunning plan of the Barnstoneworth United variety. Remember the hapless Yorkshire Premier League team portrayed in the Ripping Yarns series, whose No 1 fan, played by Michael Palin, would return home from the ritual weekly hammering and smash up the furniture in his front room? Barnstoneworth faced the scrap heap until the Palin character rounded up the championship-winning side of 1922 and they emerged from their bath chairs and Zimmer frames to beat Denley Moor.

Sadly, the names of Montgomery, now 66, and Kerr, 62, are absent from the home ranks. Theirs remain on the guest list, alongside that of a more recent Sunderland old boy, Gary Bennett. Durham will be relying on the same collection of unpaid kids, most of them from Gilesgate Sixth Form Centre, who have been plugging the gaps since the players who took the club to the Unibond League First Division North title last year jumped ship at the start of the season – when the Football Association ruled that City would not be allowed to progress any farther up the pyramid system because of their synthetic playing surface, and the club's sponsor immediately withdrew its financial support.

"Any other football club in this predicament probably would have folded," Ian Walker, Durham's affable young chairman says. "Two clubs in our league have gone that way and we could have gone down the same route but chose not to. We've a bunch of kids playing for the pride of the shirt and they've been unsung heroes, because without them we wouldn't be sitting here. Durham wouldn't have a team. We've had a few drubbings, but we've won over a lot of supporters from all over the country because of our fighting spirit."

Downstairs in the bar, there is no air of doom among the Durham fans. Danny Williamson and Mark Szczypka, resplendent in bright yellow City shirts, are not so much getting in their sorrow-drowning first as savouring the pre-match moments in the company of Boston fans.

The pair follow Durham home and away. They have witnessed all 27 defeats. But why follow a losing side in the Unibond League when they could be watching Premier League football up the road at Sunderland or a winning Championship side at Newcastle? "It's to do with the people," Williamson says. "Wherever you go you meet some great people. They're not just guys brought up watching Sky Sports and interested in what Man United are doing. They've got the community, and they've got the football club and they support it.

"We went to King's Lynn in November – five or six hours in the car – and their fans were great. They just wanted to talk to us, buy us drinks. They beat us 11-0 but three or four weeks later their club got wound up. I feel so sorry for those fans. You've got clubs like that, who have gone, and clubs like Portsmouth, who are not paying anybody and who owe the taxman. Durham don't owe anybody anything. We're not the worst club in Britain, because we're still here."

Out on the pitch, it is debatable whether Durham are even the worst team playing in today's match. They go 1-0 down after 20 minutes but their youngsters are more than holding their own when Conor Winter, their 16-year-old No 7, rifles a right-foot drive into the top corner of the Boston net with 35 minutes on the clock. "What a cracker!" the man on the public address system cannot help proclaiming.

In first-half injury-time Boston tap in their second goal. They score two more in the first 10 minutes of the second-half but it is no tea party for them. Durham keep the deficit to 4-1 and are applauded from the field by all 230 in attendance – among them Kerr, the man who lifted the FA Cup for Sunderland back in 1973. "It's a shame they couldn't have got to half-time at 1-1," Kerr reflects. "They were looking really good before they gave that goal away in injury time. But the other team were expecting to score 10, so they definitely saved face."

Against more modest opposition, it might just help Durham to a point or three in their final 10 matches. Their record now reads: played 28, lost 28, goals for 16, goals against 137, but their interim manager looks a happy man as he emerges from the dressing room. "We're a much improved team," Dickie Ord says. A former Sunderland and England Under-21 defender, Ord is holding the fort while Lee Collings serves a 15-match suspension for his role in knowingly fielding the ineligible player last year.

In the bar, the banter is up-beat. "The results are getting better," Szczypka reflects. "Two-nil away last week. Four-one this week against a team that beat us 10-0."

"Yeah, nil-nil round the corner," Danny Williamson chips in.

"That would take us up to minus five points," Szczypka, a maths lecturer, calculates. "Ah well," Williamson muses, taking a sip of his pint, "that's the dream."

You lose some... Great strugglers

*Fort William The Scottish Highland League side won 0, drew 1 and lost 27 out of their 28 fixtures last season, finishing the campaign with a disastrous goal difference of -105.

*AFC Darwen The club endured a League record 18 consecutive defeats in the First Division while suffering relegation in 1898-99, after which they where ejected from the Football League.

*Sporting Bengal United The Kent League team lost all 32 games last season, scoring 26, conceding 160.

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