The pavilion at Chester-le-Street was named in Don Robson’s honour © PA Photos
Don Robson, the driving force behind Durham’s emergence as a first-class county, has died at the age of 82.
Durham became the 18th first-class county in 1992, the first since Glamorgan in 1921, defying the general assumption that county cricket was certain to decline rather than expand bravely into what became its most northerly outpost.
After difficult beginnings, they went on to dominate the professional game, winning six trophies between 2007 and 2014, including three Championships, and also staging international cricket at their purpose-built Chester-le-Street ground.
The death of the man who was chiefly responsible for delivering that dream comes at a challenging time when Durham are under considerable financial strain, inviting questions whether regular England cricket in the north-east is sustainable.
Robson, immensely proud of the north-east, would have had no truck with such pessimism. As leader of Durham county council (the youngest ever when he was appointed in 1973) and an influential member of the regional assembly, he had political clout in the region and he put it to good use in a straightforward, immensely committed style.
His ambition was to provide a home for the succession of cricketers developed in the north-east but who had previously had to leave the county to fulfil their ambitions to play professional cricket.
Gordon Hollins, the ECB’s chief operating officer, knew Robson well from his time as commercial director at Durham.
He said: “Don played a leading role in gaining first-class status for Durham prior to their inaugural season at the top table in 1992. The north-east was going through a really tough time economically and Don’s efforts therefore didn’t just help cricket, they also helped the region regain some pride.
“The success of Durham on the field, the development of several England players and the staging of international cricket at the Emirates Riverside are all achievements that would not have been possible without Don’s contribution
“Don was equally committed to the recreational game – I would often see him watching Greenside CC play in the Tyneside & Northumberland league on a Saturday afternoon.”
Robson became Durham’s first chairman as a first-class county, but this was no political sop. He led the fundraising drive, lobbying extensively and continuing his involvement in cricket in the north-east.
He was involved when Durham were England’s dominant minor county through the 1970s and ’80s – going 65 games unbeaten between 1976 and 1982 – managed the Under-19 team for a while and represented the county at several committees on the Test and County Cricket Board – the forerunner of the ECB.
In April 1992 they played their first match as a first-class county – a Sunday League fixture against Lancashire at the Racecourse Ground in Durham. Ian Botham and Wayne Larkins, two high-profile signings, opened the batting and Durham won. It was a decade and more before winning became a habit.
Most importantly, Durham secured land for a permanent headquarters on the outskirts of Chester-le-Street, adjoining the River Wear and with Lumley Castle providing a striking backdrop. A Chester-le-Street farmer had been willing to end his lease because the land was too wet. In May 1995, Durham played their inaugural game on the ground against Warwickshire and the pavilion was named in Robson’s honour and opened by the Queen in 1996.
Geoff Cook, Durham’s director of cricket – the longest-serving county coach in the game – said on the their website: “You had to be involved at the time of Durham’s emergence from minor counties cricket to appreciate the enormity of Don’s involvement in the whole scheme.
“To be the first new county for 70 or 80 years was a big thing in its own right, but the practicalities of getting the finance and the ground in place were vital to us having a realistic chance of succeeding.
“A tremendous amount of balls were up in the air at the same time, but Don remained completely focused throughout the process and at the same time he progressed his business as well as his political career.
“It was amazing to be on hand to witness his mental and physical energy and the way he was able to pull things together. He really was a remarkable man. He had a ferocious energy and a determination to satisfy his vision.
“No matter the size of the hurdles that got in his way, he always felt he could surmount them. He was formidable, but he had a lot of warmth and he was a caring person.”
Before awarding first-class status, Durham had to have at least £1m in the bank and guarantee to secure a permanent ground within five years.
Robson used his political contacts to win major support from such companies as Scottish and Newcastle Breweries, but he was a politician who also had a strong connection with the public and they trusted him with a rush of small donations and offers of help in the belief that he would achieve his goal.
He was awarded a CBE for services to local government in 1997 and received an honorary doctorate from Sunderland University in 2002 in recognition both of this and his role in securing Durham’s first-class status. He also played professional football as a centre-forward with Doncaster Rovers and Gateshead.
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo