The sign at Station Road in Norton is unequivocal: The Temporary Home of Billingham Synthonia. The club, which left its much-loved Central Avenue ground at the end of the 2016-17 season, is committed to a return to its home town.
Sadly, though, it seems unlikely that any return will bring football back to Central Avenue. The 18 months since the final whistle blew have not been kind. The site has, apparently, changed ownership. Redevelopment plans are not progressing, leaving the place vulnerable to the local vandals. Predictably, they have wreaked havoc.
Driving past, everything looks more or less normal. There’s even a sign still up, advertising big-screen sports in a refurbished clubhouse. Park up and look around, though, and it’s a grimly different story. From the old office that once doubled as the turnstile, now a mess of broken glass and beaten in panels, to the smoke-stained tea bar, the place reeks of decay and neglect.
Oddly, for a planned departure, there’s a sense that the ground was abandoned in a hurry. Among the detritus, a Synners shirt lies forlorn on the old running track. The floor of the players tunnel is strewn with smashed crockery; there’s little incentive to venture inside to a darkened world smelling strongly of last month’s fires and scattered with yet more debris.
Elsewhere, the goalposts are still in place but the pitch is reverting to the wild. Bushes have sprouted among the grass, in places the surface is uneven underfoot. One of the dug-outs is burnt out, the roof gone and charred remains lying in front. The floodlight pylons still have their lights but the electrics have been smashed, control boxes disembowelled and cables spilled across the floor.
It’s a thoroughly depressing visit. There’s disappointment that the club had to move on, crippled by unsustainable running costs at a 60-year-old venue built in an era when big business was interested in funding recreation for its workers but abandoned to the ruthless logic of the balance sheet in later years. Even after shaking off a reported £1,400 monthly electricity bill, Synners flirted with collapse during a wretched first season at Norton and were only saved by the arrival of local lad and one-time Boro favourite Jamie Pollock as chairman / manager / provider of badly needed impetus.
What’s worse, though, is the evidence of the precarious status of so many non-league grounds. The devastating damage unleashed here in the space of 18 months highlights the on-going battles facing too many teams as they try to keep the vandals at bay. It’s not a new problem – clubs like Murton or Thornaby were plagued with similar issues more than 20 years ago – and it’s not going away. The local football club used to be a focus of a community; in a world where old communities have been steadily eroded, the lack of shared endeavour makes it vulnerable to destructive disaffection.