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Northern lights

Almost 17,000 people witnessed Spennymoor Town’s 2-1 victory over Tunbridge Wells in the FA Vase final on Saturday May 4, 4500 of them having made the journey from County Durham. The Moors had won three consecutive Northern League titles, and taking the Vase home should prove more than consolation enough for having missed out on a fourth this year to a re-formed and resurgent Darlington. Strangely, Spennymoor fell short after finally applying to take promotion, to the Northern Premier League Division One North.

In footballing terms, there isn’t much separating the two tiers. “I think by common consent there’s no difference at all,” says Northern League chairman Mike Amos. “The Northern League has lost far fewer clubs to promotion in the last 12-15 years than other leagues at the same level. We have retained clubs and players who could play higher up, but who chose not to for reasons of finance, time, travel or simply because they quite enjoy it here.”

The distance between the two divisions is basically geographical. The Northern League is almost exclusively made up of clubs from the relatively sparsely populated north east; the division above is clustered around the denser north west and west Yorkshire. Northern League clubs taking promotion would have a greater travelling distance for their shortest journey in the higher division than for their longest trip in the lower league.

As a result, they have struggled at the higher level – in recent times, Bishop Auckland and Whitley Bay have dropped back down into the Northern League while Durham City even took voluntary relegation in 2012 due to the financial pressure. Spennymoor, in their previous incarnation as United, were playing in what was then the Northern Premier when they folded in 2005. The next year the Spennymoor supporters trust  took over struggling neighbours Evenwood Town and acquired their league place as a new club.

Evidently undeterred by regular long-distance away days, the Spennymoor fans’ forum unanimously supported  the club’s decision to apply for promotion this year. As did the players but many have day jobs and the prospect of returning from a midweek away fixture in the early hours, then having to get up early for work may wear thin. The club’s manager Jason Ainsley, who balances  his duties with a job as a teacher, acknowledges that some don’t fancy the travelling: “But that would give us the opportunity to bring in others who do want to play at the higher level”. A potential aversion to the distances involved applies to opposition fans as well, so smaller crowds than in the Northern League clubs might prove troublesome. With the 2620 gate they got for  the visit of Darlington taken out, Spennymoor averaged gates of 312 last season. That was more than any club in the higher division, only three of whom drew more than 200. Chairman Brad Groves is unfazed, however, claiming that his only concern is a lack of local derbies: “But I think that’s a one-year issue,” he adds, suggesting that, after Darlington’s promotion, four or five north-east clubs might follow over the next few seasons.

Having taken charge in 2009, Groves is behind the extensive planning to get the club into the next division and potentially even higher: “You can’t get investors into your club if you’re just staying where you are.” Indeed, it was Durham City’s grounds noncompliance with regulations for the Conference North that led one sponsor to pull the plug. Whereas Darlington have been able to launch themselves straight back at the higher league, Spennymoor  bided their time.

“The plan was five years,” says Groves. “We need a big investment in the ground, facilities and also in the sponsor base.” A year ahead of schedule on the business side of things, Spennymoor decided to apply early, though ultimately it wasn’t to happen for them this season. Just a few years after fans were buying paint to retouch an outside toilet block, £100,000 worth of improvements have ensured their ground’s compliance for the next two levels, and redevelopment of the clubhouse and attraction of a hundred or so sponsors has put secure revenues in place. Promoted teams from the north east don’t have it easy. But whenever it happens for Spennymoor, they seem sure to be ready.