The Dudley and Cradley Heath League folds
The final whistle has blown on one of the West Midlands' longest running amateur football leagues.
After 106 years, the Dudley and Cradley Heath League has been forced to admit defeat following a decline in playing numbers over the past few years.
After running with just one division last season, the prospect of more drop-outs have left the league with no alternative but to call it a day.
The league was formed in 1910 and its most famous player is Ray Westwood.
Westwood was born in Kingswinford in 1912 and was the uncle of the great Duncan Edwards.
He plied his trade on the local park pitches before going on to play over 300 times for Bolton and earning six England caps.
For secretary Bryan Sutton and his fellow members of the hard-working committee, all that are left now are memories of happier days when football played a key role in the local community.
Sutton, who first played in the league as a left-back for Darby's Bakeries in 1967, before going on to serve 47 years on the committee.
Also involved are John Lawton (fixture secretary), Malcolm Guy (treasurer, Trevor Lester (president), Carl Dakin (chairman), Brian Pedley (press secretary) and Mel Lewis (referees secretary).
Between them and committee members Rob Nicklin and Fred Whitehouse, they have clocked up a staggering 198 years service between them.
Sutton, who turns 80 this year, cast a sad glance over a number of scrapbooks at his Wordsley home in which he has chronicled the league's highs and lows.
He said: "It is really sad that the league has come to an end. There is just a lack of teams and this is the thing now in Sunday adult football. No leagues are growing.
"There will be no organised adult football in Dudley now. The Kidderminster and Warley Leagues may use one or two of the pitches, but there is nothing from Dudley.
"We went down from two divisions to one division last year.
"Last season, we had the top two from the previous season's Premier Division playing the bottom teams from Division One the previous season and it gets very uneven.
"I recently found a handbook from four years ago and we had 28 teams.
"Of those 28, one still plays in the Warley League, one plays in the Wolverhampton League and two played with us last season. The other 24 don't exist."
Sutton believes a lack of progression from youth the adult football is one of the reasons why the league has folded.
He said: "There are several reasons. When a lot of lads become 16, 17 or 18 they just pack up they don't progress into adult football.
"In youth football, the finances are provided by the parents – the pitch fees, referee fees, the strips, etc.
"The money is there because people are interested – granny and grandad, auntie and uncle – they all go along to watch.
"Once they are into adult football, they are on their own and a lot of them have no idea how to raise money.
"So who pays for everything? Who pays for the pitches or the weekly subs?"
Finance is a constant theme with fund-raising and sponsorship harder to come by for adults teams.
Sutton said: "To hire a pitch from Dudley Council was £529 for the season. That has to be paid in two halves.
"Half has to be paid in August and the balance by December. Referees are £28-£30 and then there is insurance.
"Then there is the sponsorships. So many pubs have closed in recent years and they were the main sponsors for many teams."
The Dudley and Cradley officials had looked at ways of making the transition from youth to adult football easier, but their attempts hit the post.
Sutton said: "The Stourbridge Youth League goes to under-18, so we tried to start an 18-20 league a few years ago, so lads could play at their own age.
"We wrote to 26 teams and we had two interested."
The boom time for the league came in the 1980s when membership hit an all-time high.
Sutton recalled: "In 1983-84, we had 118 teams across 10 divisions and had 12 cup finals.
"On May 13, 1984, we had three cup finals on the same day and Blackheath Shell played in two of them – one in the morning and one at night.
"And there was no moaning about playing twice in a day.
"In the 70s, Ashtree Rovers were the dominant side, they played down Old Hill, while in recent years AC Turners have been really strong."
But there is one small consolation for Sutton and his fellow committee members and that is the news that the league's most prestigious cup competition – the Dudley Guest Cup – will continue.
He added: "We are keeping that going. We have formed a new committee and it will be called the Dudley Hospital Charity Cup competition.
"We have had great help from the Kidderminster League and we have 43 teams all from that league entered in it this season.
"We have raised over £20,000 over the years through that competition and its good to see it continue."
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