The foundation of the Northern League predates all but the English Football League around the world, and with the perpetual movement of players and managers between clubs, it’s highly likely at some point in time the frontiers of the Northern League would have blurred into the boundaries of your club. Chelsea might not be able to boast of a genius like Brian Clough (Billingham Synthonia), the all-conquering Bob Paisley (Bishop Auckland) or a world-beating maverick such as Chris Waddle (Tow Law Town), but the Fulham Road institution has some surprising connections with the Northern League.
Seamus O’Connell, a cattle-farmer from Carlisle, was one of the three amateur footballers who were part of Chelsea’s first championship winning team in 1955. He later left Stamford Bridge to return to the most successful amateur club of that time, Bishop Auckland, winning two FA Amateur Cups with them before landing a third with Crook Town. David Speedie, one half of the potent Dixon-Speedie double act, also spent time at Crook Town in the twilight of his footballing career. In recent years, Carl Magnay’s picture was beamed across TV screens when he won the second instalment of the Football Icon reality TV show, earning a contract at the Bridge. He was an ex-Birtley Town junior and, after his release from Leeds United, a first-team player with Washington.
However, to look at Chelsea’s connections with the Northern League, we don’t have to travel that far back, for we have a more contemporary league export currently plying his trade at the club. Ross Turnbull, who is generally seen as a Middlesbrough youth product, actually started off at one of the many Northern League outposts which stretch across the North-East of England. Born in Bishop Auckland but brought up in nearby Newton Aycliffe, Turnbull used to turn out in the junior sides of his adopted town’s football club, Newton Aycliffe FC. He was thirteen when he signed up for the Boro Academy not far from the town where he learnt to kick a football. He spent seven years at Boro, after signing professional terms in 2002, interspersed with loan spells at Darlington, Barnsley, Bradford, Crewe and Cardiff.
In the summer of 2009, Turnbull signed for Chelsea after a tumultous campaign culminated in the relegation of the Teessiders. It wasn’t the most storied move of the summer and generated little excitement in a corner of West London which had grown more accustomed to seeing top European footballers arriving in recent seasons. No one expected Turnbull to challenge Petr Cech; fans would have been content with if he had been able to give Hilario a run for his money. With little expectation, therefore, I went to Griffin Park on a Tuesday evening in August to watch Turnbull in Chelsea colours, albeit for the reserves, for the first time. Aston Villa Reserves, the reigning champions, were the visitors. Unfortunately for Turnbull, he chose his debut to produce one of the most inept goalkeeping displays I’ve ever seen. Losing by four goals was less of a concern than the apparent lack of communication, shot stopping ability or command of the box from the man brought in to provide cover for Petr Cech. The only bright side of the evening was that this sham was only witnessed by a handful of people. Fast forward two years and, though Turnbull has yet to make a discernable impact at Stamford Bridge, he’s still here, somehow.
Football, therefore, shouldn’t be first on the list when Chelsea fans talk about our young keeper. Instead I would like to draw attention towards Turnbull the man. The mark of a man, in my humble opinion, is if he remembers where he came from. Turnbull passes this test with ease. At a time when professional footballers are all tarred with the same brush of being overpaid and arrogant, we should recognise those who still bring credit to their profession. Moving away from his home-town didn’t alter Turnbull’s love for the place. In his Middlesborough days he used to regularly turn out to watch his former youth team and vist his old school – Woodham Community and Technology College. And though moving to Chelsea made his visits less frequent, he still keeps up with the events at his former club. Last summer, when Newton Aycliffe were in need of money, Turnbull organized an auction to raise money for the club. Memorabilia came from his team-mates at Chelsea, raising funds towards a new strip as well as a new referee’s room.
While these small ground improvements may sound trivial to the average person they were vitally important for Aycliffe. After getting promoted to Northern League for the first time in 2009, they had to make a number of improvements to their ground in order to maintain their position, the addition of an officials’ room among them. They finished ninth in their first Northern League season last year and have done even better in their second, clinching promotion in style with a 6-1 victory over Seaham Red Star at the weekend. It might have registered little notice elsewhere but in a quiet corner of Cobham, where Turnbull now lives with his family, there would have been a well-earned celebration.
From Uttar Pradesh to Stamford Bridge, when Yasser Aftab isn’t cheering on Chelsea’s first team you’ll probably find him watching their reserves. Or at a non-league game. Or on twitter, where you can join more than 500 others in following him here.