Northern League Diary – October
Six games this month at six different venues, two of which were entirely new to me, and everything from the first division table toppers to a scrappy tussle in the murky depths of the lower tier. It was also a period which would see Newcastle Benfield’s season further implode, and ultimately leave them managerless, while at Dunston an incident you’d hardly expect to witness again in a lifetime of watching football. Welcome to the Northern League, and more shades than autumn could ever hope to surpass.
Wednesday 14th October
Newcastle Benfield 0 Ashington 3
After a brief hiatus during which Gateshead’s disappointing form came under the microscope (the early positive results always looked a little illusory given the evidence out on the pitch), the rather more concerning nature of Benfield’s decline loomed large on my return to Sam Smith’s Park. I’d previously speculated how damaging the loss of Paul Brayson might be, given the unhealthy reliance on him for goals and inspiration, when the inevitable injury gave me plenty of reason to vigorously downplay any smugness at being proved entirely correct. Once the hugely impressive Andrew Johnson collected and dispatched a defence splitting pass from Michael Dixon, the outcome was depressingly predictable.
Dixon looks a fine acquisition for Ashington. A player I’ve always had a lot of time for, he dominated the midfield, involved again as Matty Grieve bundled in a second, before Michael King left the home side staring at humiliation as the half time whistle approached. Lions’ boss Steve Bowey decided the only course of action was to introduce himself. He appeared on a mission at times as he charged into tackles, but at least it was partly accomplished as he showed his team the meaning of commitment in a second period during which they avoided further damage with a far more purposeful display. As later events would sadly confirm however, the writing was already on the wall.
Saturday 17th October
Ryton and Crawcrook Albion 1 Easington Colliery 7
I always like to make one pilgrimage per season to this picturesque ground overlooking the Tyne Valley. So the pitch might be sloping and slightly rutted, and the stand behind the goal a rather ramshackle affair, but there’s a nice clubhouse and a warm welcome, and in autumn especially, with the trees in their finest hues of russet and gold, the view is a more than welcome distraction if the match doesn’t quite measure up. Not that I had much opportunity to avert my gaze from on-field matters though, as there were goals galore, even if essentially one-way traffic.
I’d seen Easington at Team Northumbria a few weeks earlier and was impressed by their defensive tenacity on that occasion. Now, they displayed another side to their game, tearing into their hosts, whose insipid contribution might have been partially explained by losing two players in the warm-up (what on earth were they doing?). David Paul and Bryan Norton both helped themselves to a brace, and Ryton’s misery was compounded when they even managed to squander a penalty after a rare foray into opposition territory. Only just up from the Wearside League, successive promotions might not be beyond the green and whites. But if they’re not back here again next year, I’m pretty certain that I will be.
Tuesday 20th October
Dunston UTS 2 Bishop Auckland 1
Having replenished my goals quotient, a return to a place where I’d found them notoriously difficult to come by recently. Helpfully though, Dunston have added Dale Pearson to their squad since I last showed my face, and the forward, who had stood out playing for West Allotment previously, fired home from the edge of the box barely two minutes in. Any thoughts that the floodgates might be opened were quickly dashed, but this was an entertaining encounter which was about to take an unusual twist.
When Bott fouled Pearson to concede a penalty, the new recruit had the perfect opportunity to double his tally, but he found Mark Bell in no mood to yield, the goalkeeper diving to his right to push the ball up and away. But not to safety. In his haste to clear Tarling impeded Smith and the referee pointed for another, immediate, spot kick. This time Malky Morien was entrusted with the responsibility but, unbelievably, he too was to be left head in hands as Bell pulled off a repeat save. Then when Dean Zambra, hardly the tallest man out there, got his head to a free kick from the left touchline, Bishops were level and the double disaster looked set to prove pivotal.
Credit to Dunston though, because that wasn’t the case. Pearson forced home a Fisher cross just before the hour mark, and even if that rendered his earlier miss a potential hat-trick spurned, in the wider picture it secured three points. Still the County Durham outfit refused to go quietly and the match remained live right until the final action. Up to this point I’d seen fifteen penalties in games attended since August, so if the novelty of two missed within a minute was ever going to happen, rest assured I was likely to be there.
Wednesday 21st October
North Shields 6 Newcastle Benfield 0
Fortunately I had a couple of pints down the coast before kick off, as it fortified me nicely for what was to come. A first half in which pretty much nothing happened until Kevin Hughes edged the FA Vase winners into a narrow lead just before the break, was counter-balanced by a second period of absolute carnage down the Benfield end, when it looked as though the ball would finish up in the back of the net after every attack. Usually it did, and the Robins took it in turns, with each goal having a different scorer, the roars becoming increasingly louder as the turkey-shoot grew ever more macabre. Shields have steadied and are finding their form again after an uncertain start; Benfield are ushering their followers swiftly back in the direction of the bottle.
Saturday 24th October
Morpeth Town 2 Seaham Red Star 2
If I said it was a long-standing ambition to visit Craik Park, I’d be exaggerating to an unfeasible extent, but it’s a difficult proposition for an avowed pedestrian, reliant on public transport to get me around the circuit, so it did at least represent a tempting challenge. I could have waited for the offer of a lift, but I figured that would be cheating so, aware that the clocks were about to go back, an event likely to preclude walking along unlit country roads in pitch darkness, this game represented the last chance until Spring to add it to my ‘collection’. Getting off the bus at the golf club, and dicing with death along the B6524, as speeding motorists paid little heed to the dangers posed by the lack of any pavement, wouldn’t be everyone’s ideal Saturday afternoon fare. I certainly didn’t risk switching on the iPod.
I managed to make it up to Morpeth Common in one piece, and insanely early as I’d clearly overestimated the time required to get there. That allowed me to reconnoitre an alternative route through the nearby housing estate, one I wish I’d been aware of at the outset, and which surely cuts down the mortality rate of carless supporters. Whatever the attendant travails, I can confirm that, if you’ve never been, it’s well worth the effort. I thought I’d arrived at a country park, expecting to see waymarkers signalling walks of various degrees of difficulty, heritage boards alerting me to the birdlife I could expect to view, and a pleasant log cabin information centre with tea-room and leaflets for local attractions. It’s not quite like that, but it beats Jarrow Roofing hands down.
The locals had received some unexpected good news in the morning. Shildon had been ordered to replay their match against Ashington due to a mix-up over international clearance, the resultant loss of three points ensuring the Highwaymen replaced them at the top of the table. They were unable to fully capitalise on that fortune as Seaham held their own comfortably, looking entirely at home at their new elevated level, and desperately unlucky to trail at the interval courtesy of a wicked deflection which looped over the goalkeeper.
Shaun Newbrook hardly deserved that as he was excellent throughout, even if he could once again do little to prevent Morpeth’s Taylor curling home a superb effort after drifting in from the left. By then Red Star had restored parity thanks to Darryll Donnelly, and would do so a second time as the home team failed to clear from a corner, leaving Robbie Bird to find the target with a fierce shot. It was the match of the month from my perspective, keenly contested in idyllic surroundings, so I was glad I lived to tell the tale.
Saturday 31st October
Birtley Town 1 Billingham Town 1
I had less exalted expectations for this one, but after turning down the offer of a coach trip to Atherton Collieries to see Benfield in Vase action, I felt I needed to strike off another first a bit closer to home. And appropriately for Hallowe’en we were down among the dead men here, with two struggling sides beginning proceedings perilously close to the second division trapdoor. It would be unkind, and wholly crass, to use words like frightful in the circumstances, but there wasn’t much shape to the game, and little in the way of tricks or treats. Damn! Michael Gray’s opening goal wasn’t the worst but you wouldn’t have put money on it still separating the sides long after the floodlights had come on.
There were goalmouth scrambles and penalty appeals, and a robust challenge which poleaxed the Birtley captain and led to a prolonged bout of verbal jousting between the benches, but nothing to alter the result until substitute Lewis Murphy wriggled beyond a tackle and squeezed in a centre for Callum Croker to tap in and level late on. A passing train on the East Coast Main Line drowned out the celebrations. There was no joy for Benfield down in Greater Manchester. After another chance of silverware went up in flames, I got the news that Steve Bowey had tendered his resignation. I wonder what next month might bring.