Mark Carruthers: The inside story behind crisis club Durham City after they suffer humiliating 16-1 thrashing to Carlisle City
“What is a club in any case?” pondered the much-loved and adored Sir Bobby Robson.
The answer - delivered in his 2008 book ‘Newcastle: My Kind of Toon’ has often been revisited throughout the years that have followed.
“Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it,” said a true icon of North East football.
“It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes.
“It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city.
“It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
Unapologetically romantic, overwhelmingly passionate, and a clear and precise reflection of how all supporters feel about their club and the game they love.
But it was Sir Bobby’s initial question that came to mind when I saw Durham City’s permanent decline strike an all-too-predictable new low on Tuesday night.
Ahead of their long trip to Carlisle City, The Citizens had collected just one point from their opening 14 games of the season and scored just seven goals in the process.
It proved to be something of a nightmare as their ruthless hosts raced into an eight-goal lead by the time the half-time whistle had been blown and doubled that tally by the end of the game.
Durham’s young squad - to their credit - received a number of supportive tweets for “playing on and still chasing everything” and managed to get on the score-sheet with a goal from Harley Clarke 11 minutes into the second-half.
However, the cold hard facts remain a sobering read and it leaves an uncomfortable feeling for anyone that has North East non-league football at heart.
The Citizens currently lie nine points adrift at the bottom of the Northern League Division Two table and it would be a surprise if their goals conceded does not pass the century-mark by the end of this month.
There are now managerless once again after Mark Sherwood decided to step down in the aftermath of Tuesday night’s defeat in Cumbria.
So what are Durham City as a club?
Since leaving New Ferens Park in 2015 over a “financial dispute”, they have no permanent home and are playing their ‘home’ games at Willington’s Hall Lane for the fifth consecutive season after a year at Consett’s Belle View.
Any club without a home is always going to struggle for income and the future seems increasingly bleak.
They are being kept on life support by the unwavering and unquestionable persistence and commitment of a small band of volunteers, who deserve immense credit for their efforts in extending the club’s long history.
They have whiled away the unseen hours of toil and hard work to keep alive a club that has been a home for some of North East non-league’s biggest names in business.
However, their current state is not a good look for the Northern League, who offered their support to the club recently by allowing them a three-game grace to get their house in order with their playing squad.
Having a club sat so far behind their opponents with three double-figures defeats behind them this season is extremely poor for a league that prides itself on producing a high level of competition throughout their two divisions.
What comes next? Will things get worse - if possible - before they get better?
There have been brief moments of positivity during the decline with Olly Hotchkiss’ short managerial spell offering some hope that a young, energetic squad could spark a rejuvenation of the club’s fortunes.
But his departure led to a series of managerial changes and the decline down the league just gathered pace with every passing month.
I have heard a number of people suggest that a relegation into the Wearside League would allow the Citizens to rebuild from a lower base without the pressure of competing in the Northern League.
However, this seriously underplays the strength and determination of clubs in an ultra-competitive Wearside League.
Opposition will not just roll over and allow Durham to rebuild.
It will be uncomfortable, it will be a slog, it will provide a whole new set of challenges and it would send them into competition with a number of forward-thinking clubs with genuine ambitions of reaching the Northern League.
Given the size of Durham as a city, and with the population of its surrounding areas, there is potential to have a club competing in the Northern Premier League with ambitions of moving higher in the non-league pyramid.
But all of that feels lightyears away from where the club currently stands at this point in time.
Uncomfortable and potentially unpopular decisions will have to be made over the coming weeks and there are only a small handful of people that can be responsible for them.
I sat alongside then-club owner Olivier Bernard on the day City were relegated from the Northern League’s top tier in 2016.
A heavy defeat suffered at Whitley Bay on a drizzly April day at Hillheads condemned the club to life in Division Two and, in all honesty, it felt like the end of the beginning.
What is happening right now feels like the beginning of the end is quickly becoming a distant memory.
So what are Durham City as a club? Existing…no more, no less.