Nelson FC’s FA Cup dreams were shattered by a 4-1 defeat to Bishop Auckland on Saturday as I made my first ever visit to their Victoria Park home.
As my team Chesterfield travelled to Shrewsbury Town’s New Meadow, which I had already visited back in 2009, this weekend provided my Dad and I with an opportunity to attend a game at a new ground along with our friend Bill, who is easily one of the most passionate football fans and groundhoppers around having watched nearly 6,500 games at more than 1,200 grounds.
The added bonus of it being FA Cup preliminary round day meant we had plenty of intriguing fixtures to choose from and we eventually settled on the meeting of Lancashire’s Nelson and County Durham’s Bishop Auckland – two non-league outfits each with a rich history.
Formed in 1881, Nelson – know as the Admirals, spent ten years in the football league between 1921 and ’31 and even reached the heights of the second tier after lifting the 1922/23 Third Division North title. Their stay in the second division (equivalent to today’s Championship) was short, lasting only a season, but it did include a home victory over Leeds United and a win at Old Trafford against Manchester United!
Even more remarkably, in the summer of 1923 Nelson defeated Real Madrid 4-2 in Spain to go down in history as the first ever English club to beat the footballing giants on their home soil.
Today’s ground is not the one where the club spent their football league years, having moved to the picturesque Victoria Park in 1971 – some four decades after their final ever league game had ended in a 4-0 defeat to Hull City.
However, for the lovers of lost grounds out there, the site of their former ‘Seedhill’ home is only a very short walk away from the current venue although a section of perimeter wall is all that remains of a stadium that once held over 14,000 supporters for a game with Bradford Park Avenue.
Unfortunately, the club have fallen some distance since these glory days and now ply their trade in the North West Counties Premier Division, the fifth tier of non-league football and ninth overall, finishing 16th out of 22 clubs last season.
Their opponents this afternoon play at the same level of the pyramid, ending the last campaign 8th in the top tier of the Northern League (not to be confused with the higher Northern Premier League) which claims the honour of being the oldest surviving football league in world besides what is currently known as the ‘EFL’.
Bishop Auckland boast an impressive FA Cup record for a non-league outfit, having reached the first round proper an impressive 23 times and being victorious on 10 of those occasions – Sheffield United and Wolves among the notable scalps in years gone by.
The two sides had made vastly contrasting starts to their league campaigns. For the hosts, Nelson, it already looked like it would be another difficult season with three defeats in their opening three league games. Meanwhile, Bishop Auckland had done the exact opposite and retained a 100% record heading into today’s contest.
However, the Admirals were to be no pushovers and had already defeated another Northern League side in Ashington 2-1 to reach this stage. And less than two minutes in, it was Nelson who took a surprise early lead courtesy of a towering header from Richard Cowan.
The visitors looked shell-shocked for a while after the goal and despite forcing a couple of saves from the Nelson goalkeeper, they struggled to create many true threats for the majority of the half.
In fact, it wasn’t until a goal line clearance denied the hosts a two-goal advantage that Bishop Auckland finally awoke and Andrew Johnson levelled the game in the 42nd minute with a driven strike into the bottom corner.
The game remained level until the interval, but just four minutes after the restart the well-supported North East club went ahead. Michael Hoganson struck a free kick on the edge of the box superbly and it left the Nelson stopper with no chance.
Jeff Smith’s 56th minute goal appeared to put the outcome beyond much reasonable doubt and the away side could’ve had plenty more had it not been for some poor finishing in the final third.
However, Bishop Auckland did manage to add a fourth to their tally with just under 15 minutes remaining when some shoddy defending from Nelson allowed new signing Andre Bennett to scramble the ball home despite two previous shots being charged down but not cleared from danger.
In the end, the favourites had made up for a difficult first period with a dominant second half performance and definitely deserved their win to move into the first qualifying round, where they will host Ossett Albion.
On a personal level, it had been a thoroughly enjoyable FA Cup fixture at a lovely setting to bring my number of grounds for games to 71 – a total I look forward to adding to over the course of this season and beyond!
Nelson 1–4 Bishop Auckland
Richard Cowan ‘2, Andrew Johnson ’42, Michael Hoganson ’49, Jeff Smith ’56, Andre Bennett ’76