World Cup winners prepare to tackle new kids on block

In the FA Vase this weekend emerging non-league side Team Northumbria will host a club that once humbled Juventus, writes Simon Rushworth
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The Independent Football

The juxtaposition between the old and the new, the historic and the unfledged, could hardly be greater this weekend when one of the most famous names in non-league football contests an FA Vase first-round tie at the home of the amateur game's brazen new kids on the block.

Whereas West Auckland Town can lay claim to winning the inaugural Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, the forerunner to the World Cup, their hosts on Saturday cite promotion to the Northern League last season as their greatest achievement.

In 1911 West Auckland beat Juventus 6-1 in Turin to reinforce their reputation as the best club side on the planet. By contrast, Team Northumbria's most impressive victory to date was assured as recently as last month when a late goal by the former English Universities forward Paul Dixon, against Bottesford Town, guaranteed progression from the FA Vase's second qualification round.

For both clubs the competition represents an opportunity to bolster their coffers and enhance their profile at a time when non-league football requires all the financial help and publicity it can muster. West Auckland, of course, will always be in a position to trade on former glories and their home village, in Co Durham, still proudly displays a replica of the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy to remind onlookers of a past steeped in rich tradition.

Team Northumbria boast no such pedigree but Paul Johnson, the head of the club's groundbreaking football programme, explained: "What we have here is a clean slate, a brand new concept and a situation where nothing is set in stone and anything can happen. I realise West Auckland Town are a team rich in history and it is an honour for us to play them in the FA Vase. But we are making our own history here and now."

Based in a leafy suburb of Newcastle, at a brand new, purpose-built home, Team Northumbria's football club was formed in 2003 as an extension of the University of Northumbria's performance sports body.

Football is one of six focus sports embraced by the university and played at a semi-professional level on the national stage. In 2006 the Team Northumbria stable includes rugby, basketball, fencing, golf and netball, while former students include the England rugby forward Martin Corry, the world champion cyclist Victoria Pendleton and the Commonwealth gold medal-winning swimmer Chris Cook.

Gareth McKenna, head of Team Northumbria, said: "We have taken the American model of offering talented athletes the opportunity to realise their dreams in return for assistance with their sporting and educational development. Football is central to what we do and hosting a club of West Auckland's calibre can only boost our credibility." McKenna, of course, is right. In 1909, after accepting an invitation to take part in the world's first international football competition, West Auckland Town beat the Swiss side FC Winterthur 2-0 in the Turin final.

Mystery surrounds the reason why the Co Durham club was considered suitable for such a high-profile tournament. There is a theory that West Auckland were mistaken for Woolwich Arsenal after Sir Thomas left a note with his secretary to contact "W.A.". However, it is doubtful the Londoners could have performed with any greater distinction than their little-known northern rivals. Two years later West Auckland were invited back to Italy and, after a semi-final win against FC Zurich, trounced the home favourites Juve by a five-goal margin to retain the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy.

By the rules of the competition, the jubilant squad of miners and tradesmen were allowed to keep the club's greatest prize. However, financial problems meant the trophy was pawned to the landlady of a local pub and it was not until 1960 that a village appeal raised the funds necessary to return the cup to the football club. In 1994 it was stolen and, despite the offer of a £2,000 reward, the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy has not been rediscovered.

"That was a major disappointment for West Auckland Town and the local community," the secretary Allen Bayles said. "But we have a true replica which is on display at the local working men's club."

Tradition aside, West Auckland head into the tie as favourites by virtue of the fact that the club plays its football one level above Team Northumbria, in the Arngrove Northern League first division. The hosts, however, are confident of causing an upset.

As the Football Association's Northern Region Charter Club of the Year, there is ample evidence that Team Northumbria are making rapid progress on and off the field. "The Students", as they are rather dismissively termed, count the renowned scout Jack Hixon among their newest fans and the man who discovered the former Newcastle and England forward Alan Shearer is a regular visitor to the club's Coach Lane Campus ground.

"It's a beautiful set-up and the opposition teams are very fortunate to get the opportunity to play on the surface they have there," he said. "I have been very impressed with the organisation and the players."

Team Northumbria had never been in a position to enter the FA Vase until this season and history will be made when Saturday's first-round tie gets under way. West Auckland will feel right at home.