When former Northern Ireland and Middlesbrough winger Terry Cochrane signed for South Bank in 1992 the Teesside non-League club had problems. Thieves got in the ground at night, lifted tools from the shed, forced entry to the club house, fled with booze. The Bankers took measures. They bought a powerful Rottweiler. When training ended for the day, they let him loose and locked the gates. That night thieves broke in again, stole the dog. 

“Thats South Bank,” Terry Cochrane said, “fella has two ears they think hes a cissy.”

South Bank lies three miles east of Middlesbrough. Locally they call it Slaggy Island in honour of the ring of spoil heaps that once cut it off from the outside world. Its not as glamorous as that nickname makes it sound. South Bank was the home of the Smiths Dock shipyard, of Bolckow Vaughan and Dorman Long steelworks, clusters of iron foundries, warrens of brickyards. Blast furnaces, smelters, rolling mills and fabrication sheds converted ore to pig iron, iron to steel. They shaped it, cut it and shipped it out. Through most of the 20th century Slaggy Islanders lived their lives under a cloud of bitter smog. You had to catch a bus to see the sun. 

Yet there was a power and a magic to it. The sparks off arc welders and angle-grinders danced in the darkness and at night the sky was dyed a dirty orange and pulsed like a heart. When South Banks most celebrated son, Wilf Mannion – Tom Finney said the forward played the game like an angel – called his hometown “the enchanted city” he wasnt being ironic.

South Bank FC was founded in 1868, the first football club in the north east of England. The Ellis Cup was launched – as the South Bank Amateur Challenge Cup – in 1889, which makes it either the fourth or fifth oldest football competition on the planet (the Northern League – of which South Bank was a founder member – began the same year). 

Originally for under-18 teams, the Ellis Cup soon expanded to include senior sides too, not just from South Bank but from across Teesside and down into the mining villages of the North York Moors and Cleveland Hills. Over the following century more than 100 players who would turn pro played in it, among them some of the most influential figures in the English game.

George Elliott, my grandfathers boyhood hero, played in the Ellis Cup for Redcar Crusaders, signed for South Bank shortly afterwards, then for Middlesbrough. Aided by two other Ellis Cup Slaggy Islanders, the Carr brothers, Jackie and Willie, Elliott hit 31 goals in 32 league matches in 1913-14, helping Boro to third place in the English top flight, their highest ever finish.

George Hardwicks father worked in the ironstone mines of East Cleveland. Hillbilly country. My aunties lived up there, in a village of half a dozen terraced streets surrounded by the purple moor tops. Shooed outside to play, Id take my Ayresome Angel football out into the back alley, come scuttling back two minutes later. Even in the 1960s the local kids threw stones at strangers.

Hardwick seniors mine shut down. Money was so short it could crawl under a duck. The Hardwicks went out at dawn, collected mushrooms to make a meal. Hardwicks mother picked up old jumpers, unravelled them and knitted George a red jersey and matching socks to play his football in. He turned out in the Ellis Cup for Saltburn, moved on to South Bank, signed for Middlesbrough in 1937. A cultured full-back, Hardwick had a matinee idol moustache and the face and physique to match. When he smiled, womens legs turned to jelly. My granddad called him ‘Gorgeous George’ and blew sarky kisses to him from the Ayresome Park chicken run. Hardwick laughed off the abuse. He captained club and country, people whispered happily of an affair with a Hollywood ‘It Girl: Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, accounts varied.

The Golden Boy, Wilf Mannion, was born in Napier Street, South Bank. The blast furnaces spewed and roared a hundred yards from his front door. He grew up too poor to afford a football. “We used to get a pigs bladder from the butchers, blow it up,” he told me once. “Played on a pitch of cinders. I tell you what, anyone can control a pigs bladder is a ruddy genius.”

Mannion won the Ellis Cup with South Bank St Peters when he was 16. His side played South Bank East End in the final. East Ends stopper got no closer to the blond inside-forward than kicking the ball into his groin. The stoppers name was Harold Shepherdson. Three decades later, as Alf Ramseys assistant, hed be leaping off the bench at Wembley when Geoff Hurst scored Englands fourth, the manager barking, ‘Sit down, Harold, I cant see,’ at his back.

Wilf joined Hardwick in a Boro team that included other Ellis Cup alumni. Micky Fenton from South Bank East End was the centre-forward, quick as mercury, powerful in the air, with a shot that thumped off his boot with a thud like Joe Louis hooking the heavy bag. Bobby Stuart, the right-back, another South Banker, won two caps with England in 1936 and was chosen by Wills Tobacco as the Boro player for that years cigarette card set, alongside Raich Carter, Ted Drake and a youthful, grinning Stanley Matthews.

With George, Wilf, Micky and Bobby, Boro finished seventh in 1937, fifth in 1938 and fourth in 1939. If it hadnt been for the war wed have won the title, George Hardwick said. Bloody Hitler.

The influence of Slaggy Islands football trophy spread far beyond Teesside. The future Leeds United capo, Don Revie, played in the Ellis Cup for Middlesbrough Swifts. The Manchester United boss, Matt Busby, a serviceman at Catterick Garrison, helped Portrack Shamrocks defeat Cargo Fleet Home Guard in the 1946 final. Ken Furphy turned out for Stockton West End, went pro with Everton, achieved great things coaching Watford and ended up in the USA in the 1970s managing New York Cosmos, pairing Pelé with Giorgio Chinaglia up front.

Bobby Smith worked down the ironstone mine in Hardwicks home village of Lingdale, hewing rock in drift seams 200 feet below the heather. At 15 he hit a hat-trick for Redcar Albion in the Ellis Cup, at 16 he was signed by Chelsea. When he left Stamford Bridge for Spurs in 1955 he asked if he could keep his number nine shirt as a souvenir. Chelsea told him he couldnt. Shirts were expensive and they didnt have enough.

Smith had the big, rugged face of the northern working man, pickaxe-wielders’ arms, a tugboat torso. He was the man in the pub whose drinking arm youd least want to jog. Spurs captain Danny Blanchflower spoke of glory, of playing the game “the right way”. Up front his centre-forward banged in goals and terrorised opponents, literally. Preparing for corners, defenders would look up to see Smith pointing at them, bellowing, “Youre going to fucking get it.” In the 1963 Cup-Winners’ Cup final against Atlético Madrid, the ex-miner took care of his marker early, decking him with an elbow to the slats. Spurs won 5-1. Bobby Smith was 59”, but he seemed far bigger. 

My friends dad was the goalkeeper for the village team. Years later hed recall an Ellis Cup match against Great Broughton – managed in those days by the village postmistress Nancy Goldsborough – when a shiny-eyed teenage centre-forward banged in a hat-trick and at the final whistle wandered over, patted my friends dad on the arm, told him. “One day, when Im playing for England, youll brag to your mates about this,” he smiled and introduced himself: “Im Brian Clough.”

“If he hadnt been so little, Id have planted him,” my friends dad said, telling the story for the thousandth time.

From the late seventies onwards hardship battered Teesside. The steelworks and the shipyards shut. The population of South Bank dwindled. Shutters went up over doors and windows, shops closed, derelict streets were bulldozed. Football clung on. Barely.

After Terry Cochrane quit, South Banks ground was attacked routinely and severely. Vandals smashed the windows. Arsonists burned down the clubhouse, torched the main stand. Somebody took a sledgehammer to the dugouts, carted off the bricks. By the late 1990s the pitch was three feet deep in grass, a stadium that had once held 8,000 for cup ties looked like a bomb site. Unable to fulfil fixtures, the Bankers had long since been suspended from the Northern League theyd co-founded.

Now theres a community centre, named Golden Boy Green in honour of Wilf Mannion, where the ground once stood. Theres a skateboard park and a basketball court, no football, no memorial. These days South Bank FC play at Harcourt Road, sharing the pitch with Eston Villa and Middlesbrough Homeless. Theyre in the Stockton Sunday League. In 2015 they got to the final of the Ellis Cup, won it in a penalty shoot-out against North Ormesby Cons.  

The Ellis Cup is 126 years old. The elaborate silver trophy still resides on Slaggy island, in Normanby Road just up from Golden Boy Green. Its on display in the Erimus Social Club. Visitors are welcome. A full set of ears is still not mandatory, though a romantic attachment to the past will come in handy.

This article appeared on Episode Seventy One of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.