Northern League Diary – November
Rain, and lots of it, was the defining feature of the month. It’s tough enough planning a schedule when games are being constantly moved to accommodate the various cup competitions at this time of year, without additionally having to negotiate your way around those dreaded words ‘match postponed – waterlogged pitch’. Consequently, November included my first blank footballing Saturday in three seasons, a couple of matches I hadn’t initially intended to take in, and much frantic checking of Twitter for updates of inspections as the deluge continued unabated.
Tuesday 10th November
South Shields 2 Chester Le Street Town 1
After the weekend’s fixture list was decimated, my final viable option disappearing around lunchtime (I could have made a last minute dash up to Bedlington as it turned out, but found it difficult to take a leap of faith on their playing surface), I was keener than I might otherwise have been to venture out on a damp and chilly Tuesday evening. And what a prospect. A cup encounter which pitted together the top two in the second division, and an opportunity to return to what used to be known as Filtrona Park for the first time since before the Mariners were unceremoniously exiled to Peterlee. Fortunes (in the literal as well as the abstract sense) have improved since those dark days when the club’s very existence was hanging in the balance. But I’m still not sure I was prepared for quite how much.
At Bede Metro Station it was clear there was a match on. Claret and blue scarves were everywhere, and if you hadn’t been previously you could assuredly follow the throng without the need to ask for directions. A queue snaking down the street confirmed that something dormant had been awoken, new turnstiles in operation to facilitate the increased demand. Whether the homecoming has galvanised the local populace into an awareness of, and affection for, what they came so close to losing, augmented by disillusionment with the Premier League big two and some smart marketing and eye-catching signings to create the perfect storm, it’s difficult to truly assess, but this was remarkable by any standards. The crowd, and for once it was perfectly acceptable to describe it as such, approached 750.
It wasn’t your old school homogenous gathering either; there were plenty of women and children, and they seemed to engage with the team in a way you don’t always expect, knowing the players’ names for one thing. The programme, a professional affair, no doubt helps in this respect, and on a soulless industrial estate (is there any other kind?) we had a bizarre sense of community. The refurbished clubhouse has a welcoming air, and while the provision of toilet facilities might now require attention, there’s the real sense of a club going places, although it may be wise to keep the expectations in check. This minor miracle has taken effect so quickly that you have to wonder at the strength of its foundations. Nevertheless, it was some transformation from the last time I was here.
On the field too, after a shaky start when so many new faces had to be assimilated, the picture looks rosy. This was a sixteenth successive win, although the dogged visitors ensured it was anything but straightforward. Five minutes after Warren Byrne finally broke the deadlock, Scott Heslop cancelled out the advantage, and extra time was looming until Daryll Hall’s late header sent the vast majority home with a smile on their faces. South Shields are the Northern League’s good news story at the moment, and it would get even better. Four days later, roared on by a scarcely believable 1412, they smashed nine past a hapless Tow Law.
Saturday 14th November
Ashington 3 Jarrow Roofing 1
More changes, as this was the first competitive fixture after the opening of the plush new stand at Woodhorn Lane. Shielding the spectator from the worst of the North Sea blast, it’s much more than a pleasant environment from which to watch the game, encompassing changing rooms, hospitality suite and a bar containing some interesting ephemera regarding the club’s history. Part of an area regeneration scheme, it should help safeguard the Colliers’ long-term sustainability, and the ribbon-cutting ceremony had preceded a specially arranged match against a Newcastle United XI on a filthy night 48 hours earlier. Fortunately, the pitch survived the experience.
It was a sombre atmosphere, the threatening grey clouds capturing the mood as we digested the attacks on Paris, which included an attempt to cause devastation at a football match. Four minutes in a clumsy challenge allowed the home side to take the lead from the penalty spot. Josh Gray’s conversion was maintained precariously until half time, but after the break the affair was swiftly settled. Andrew Johnson finished off a move which started with a good shout for a free kick down the other end, and which may also have contained a handball, but if Jarrow could hold the referee responsible for that, they could only lament their own poor marking which allowed Ben Harmison to head a third soon after.
Paul Chow pulled one back after the goalkeeper parried an Adam Rundle effort into his path, but the task was beyond the Roofers. The heavens opened towards the end; an earlier downpour might have spelt trouble, but the fates were with us. Many of our local non-league sides continue to struggle. Indeed Durham City’s departure from New Ferens Park was a hot topic, and has more serious implications than my not having ticked it off this season before the impasse reached breaking point. The Citizens can take heart though from the examples of both South Shields and Ashington, who, having each faced down their own challenges, are now looking forward to a brighter future.
Saturday 21st November
Whitley Bay 1 Dunston UTS 2
As surely as Christmas, Easter and all the other punctuation marks of the year, you can stick this in your diary with confidence. Whenever the balls are pulled out of the bag for the FA Vase these two seem to be magnetic. This is the third successive season that the former winners have been paired, each time at Hillheads, the only difference is that this occasion occurred a round earlier than usual. Anyone would think it was a conspiracy. They even faced each other during Whitley Bay’s last surge to Wembley, but Dunston have had the upper hand of late, and they weren’t for loosening their stranglehold.
Who’d be a goalkeeper? Andrew Jennison kept his side in it with three excellent saves during a first half which ended scoreless. He could do little to prevent Malky Morien shooting the visitors ahead after the restart, but was then guilty of an almighty blunder, an embarrassing air-shot as he attempted a fairly routine clearance. Morien gleefully doubled his tally as he stroked the loose ball into the empty net. To compound Jennison’s misery, Bay pinched one back through Mark Bertram, so his error proved decisive. In reality though, Paddy Atkinson’s men would have already been buried without him, even if that proved scant consolation. The Seahorses look a long way from visiting the national stadium again anytime soon, but their opponents, fresh from completing the hat-trick on this freezing afternoon, are definite contenders. Bay might have to settle for the League Cup but, oh no, guess what?
Saturday 28th November
West Allotment Celtic 0 Penrith 4
Another wet night, more uncertainty, but confirmation mid-morning that my intended quarry, North Shields v Marske, was in my sights. At the bus station though, watching the droplets pounding off the pavement, I had that sinking feeling. I was halfway down the Coast Road when the Twitter feed I was glued to flashed up the message I had been half-expecting. Pressing the bell and immediately springing out of my seat, I had to quickly get my bearings and think on the hoof. I reckoned I had just enough time to walk, or at least briskly trot, to West Allotment, provided that was still on.
I made it with just minutes to spare, the silver lining being that I hadn’t previously seen Penrith so far this campaign, leaving just four First Division clubs to evade me since August. It’s weird to hear genuinely different accents in the Northern League, and emphasises just how out on a limb the Cumbrians are, geographically speaking. Given my travails due to the weather, their fans deserve great credit for turning up in numbers for away trips when leaving it late isn’t really an option. They were in fine voice, and their team, compact, organised and ruthless in front of goal, gave them plenty to shout about.
Jak Wells in the Allotment nets made a string of stops, some Hollywood, some bread and butter, to keep it respectable, but his defences were still breached four times, with the pick of the quartet probably Jamie Hope’s contribution which got the party started. Coleman, Bell and Waterston further exposed the Hoops, who passed it tidily, yet only in their own half. As I left the ground, yet more rain, November’s curse. Surprisingly, despite little significant let up in the interim, Team Northumbria managed to get their clash with Billingham Synthonia on, so Monday evening, the month’s final day, was graced by a wonderfully entertaining game which saw the University side triumph 2-1. It was cold, but thankfully dry.