Willington AFC have played at Hall Lane since first joining the Northern League in the summer of 1911. The first game at the new ground took place on September 2nd; a few months later 5,000 turned up for a Christmas Day derby against Crook Town. In 1953 double that number squeezed in to see an FA Amateur Cup tie with Bromley, creating a record attendance that is unlikely to ever be beaten. Willington had won the Cup three years previously, defeating Bishop Auckland 4-0 in front of 88,000 fans at Wembley Stadium to avenge a 1939 loss to the same opponents at Sunderland’s Roker Park.
Plenty of famous names have passed through Hall Lane. Jimmy Banks, an inside forward who’d transferred to Tottenham Hotspur in 1913, won an FA Cup winners’ medal against Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1921, scoring the only goal against holders Aston Villa as Spurs made the final. Billy Ashurst, Northern League champion in the Willington side of 1914, made 200 appearances in defence for Notts County in the mid-1920s, winning five England caps and turning out in the colours of Lincoln and West Bromwich Albion. His younger brother, Eli Ashurst, played 66 times for Birmingham City but died before his 26th birthday. Walter Holmes went on to Middlesbrough; Teddy Maguire reached an FA Cup final with Wolves in 1939. George Tweedy made almost 350 appearances in goal for Grimsby Town, helping the Mariners to two FA Cup semi-finals, the Second Division title and their highest-ever placing of fifth in the old Division One. He retired, aged 40, in 1953, seventeen years after earning his only England cap in a 6-2 win over Hungary. In 1973, 4,500 turned out in a gale to see the goalless FA Cup first round game with Blackburn Rovers, who included Derek Fazackerley and Danish international Preben Arentoft – a Fairs Cup winner with Newcastle United – in their side. Rovers triumphed 6-1 in the replay and donated Hall Lane’s first set of floodlights in return. Alan Durban and Malcolm Allison had brief managerial spells at the club in 1984, though neither stayed long enough to arrest the slide which had begun during the previous decade. In 2005 Willington’s 94-year stay in the Northern League ended with relegation to the Wearside League in the wake of the worst ever season in the club’s long history.
The cinder terraces that Harry Pearson wrote about in The Far Corner have long gone but the main stand – built using the proceeds of that Wembley win – remains along one side of the pitch, the club’s name emblazoned across the front. There are several rows of seats to choose from and holes at either end of the roof. A small flatpack stand provides additional standing cover behind one goal. As you enter the ground through turnstiles donated by the Willington Supporters’ Association in 1951 there’s a tea hut on the left and a social club to the right. Although it’s understandably showing its age, Hall Lane is one of the most genuinely atmospheric grounds in north-east non-league football.
After a lengthy spell in the doledrums, Robert Lee moved up from coaching the club’s thriving youth teams and led the blue and whites to an appearance in last season’s Wearside League Cup final. The narrow margin of defeat – 4-2 on penalties to quadruple winners Ryhope Colliery Welfare – bodes well for the League prospects of a club who’ve finished bottom of the table in two of the last three seasons. There’s a gallery of pictures from the final – Willington’s first since the mid-1970s – here, including plenty of views of the ground. Admission to games is currently £2 (programmes an extra 50p).
Arriva bus services connect Durham City, Willington and the neighbouring village of Crook. There are a number of pubs in Willington including The Black Horse Inn and, closer to Hall Lane, The Black Horse Tavern. The postcode is DL15 0QG.