Before Matt left the UK, moving to Slovakia and then subsequently Spain, we spent most weekends together watching football. Each weekday simply served as a countdown to another daft trip somewhere new. Towards the end of his tenure in Manchester, we became a bit more experimental and care free, meeting at Piccadilly station with no plan before then deciding on a game to go to. Spontaneity became key.
While we’ve been to far more exciting places both before and since this trip in 2016, it remains, to this day one of our favourite trips together. When I told him that I was finally considering writing a post about it, he replied:
“Oh what a day that was! The pub by the river. Not knowing where on earth we were going until just before kickoff. The walk through farmland. Bus stops as stands and Julio Arca. A classic of the genre.
That summary just doesn’t do it justice. In truth, I don’t think anything ever will. This adventure was so strange and ridiculous that I’ve never known where to begin when trying to put it into words. So, I’m going to try my best. It builds as it progresses and at times I feel like I’m waffling but do stick with it.
It all began a month beforehand. Our original plan for this day out was to head to Wearside League side Richmond Town. With their pitch lying in front of Richmond Castle, they boast one of the most scenic backdrops in English football. It made the place a must visit. We had wanted to go that badly, we gambled and booked our train tickets weeks in advance. Fully aware it was a gamble and it could backfire simply added to the excitement.
On the evening before our big day, I was sat at my desk in a damp filled, musky smelling student bedroom. The only source of colour was a dark Smiths poster, clinging to the wall. My lava lamp had been smashed. I had a stack of marking to slave through after another laborious week on teaching placement. My phone buzzed to bring a small glimmer of excitement into the room. “It’s already gone tits up. I’m looking forward to the randomness of tomorrow,” was the text I received from Matt.
Unfortunately, our visit had to Richmond had been put on hold. The match had been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch. Now, by the letter of the law, matches can only be postponed by a referee on the day of the game, so we were very grateful to Peter at Richmond who let us know the day beforehand that the match would be off. He appreciated that a bit of prior warning meant we could make other plans.
Having already compiled a list of backup matches in case Richmond was a write off, we knew what our Plan B would involve. We would stay on the train up to Newcastle and from there we would embark upon a pub crawl while we awaited the outcomes of various pitch inspections to trickle in.
It was an early start; trudging through York to catch the 09:00 service up to Newcastle. Matt had set off from Manchester, so was already on the train and had kindly saved me a seat. Once on board I unveiled my work of art; a colour-coded chart of different grounds and pubs we could visit. Every highlighter known to man had been used purely because I had recently purchased a set to look more ‘interested’ in my university sessions. In reality, Ollie and I were still sat on the back row of the lecture theatre placing 20p bets on virtual greyhound racing to pass the time.
Dark, grey clouds loomed over the countryside as we rattled through Darlington, Durham and Chester-le-Street. The weather improved slightly as we pulled into Newcastle, with the sun managing to hide behind the plethora of bridges that straddle the River Tyne.
Now, Newcastle is a city packed full of brilliant pubs and places to have a drink. We knocked a couple of swift ones back in the two Wetherspoons close to the train station and then headed to the Quayside. Carefully we traversed down those really steep and narrow steps that just seem so out of place in a city where drinking is not only a hobby but a way of life. How many injuries must they cause annually?
There was still little news knocking about on Twitter regarding pitch inspections – probably because everybody was still in bed – so we decided to carry on drinking and headed into the Quayside Wetherspoons which we came across. The place was rammed full of Bournemouth fans who were obviously making the most of their trip to Tyneside.
Newcastle Brown Ale’s were our drink of choice. It was going down relatively easily but was still managing to put up more of a fight than most of the pitches in the Northern League. One by one, the potential matches on our list bit the dust.
In amongst all the doom and approaching gloom, there were still three clubs who seemed quite hopeful that they could stage a match on this Saturday afternoon. Step forward Hebburn Town, Team Northumbria and Ryton & Crawcrook Albion. Admittedly, we didn’t know if we could trust any of them. We needed concrete proof that a game would be on before we made a decision. Otherwise we would find ourselves at Newcastle v Bournemouth. We decided we would wait a while longer to decide our fate.
As I’m sure you’ll agree, our pub crawl so far hadn’t been that exciting. In fact it had been rather boring by our standards. We had played it far too safe. Thankfully, we had created just the game for such lapses in entertainment.
Earlier in the week, I had sent Matt an article from the Guardian website which guided us through what they consider to be the Top 10 Bars in Newcastle. We devised a strategy whereby we would both pick our favourite three, based on the descriptions, and if one featured twice we would head there. My Welsh companion would dub it, ‘Hipster Pub Tinder’.
The one place we both agreed on was the Free Trade Inn. Despite it being a 25 minute walk down the Tyne into Byker we decided to make a pilgrimage there. It was worth it though. Any establishment that can write a self-deprecating description on their Facebook page such as: ‘It’s an absolute dump’ is worthy of our custom.
By the time we arrived at the Inn, Matt had performed numerous renditions of the Byker Grove theme tune. More importantly we had now decided on our choice of match for the afternoon. Ryton & Crawcrook Albion had tweeted us personally to say their match was on. We would head there. Inside the pub, we formulated a plan of action. Distracted by the vast selection of beers available, it was important that we didn’t miss the train to the match.
I haven’t managed to make it back to the Free Trade since. Part of me wants to journey there every time I head back to Newcastle; the other part of me wants it to remain an untarnished memory of one of the best pubs in the world. The basic decor and unrivalled views back down the Tyne back towards the city made this place unbelievable – or ‘heavenly’ as I labelled it.
Now, in order to get to the match, we needed to head all the way back to the station and catch the 13:59 train to Wylam. We learnt that it was only three stops from Newcastle to our destination so we naturally assumed that we were just heading out to a suburban area. Back home for example, if you travel three stops out of Manchester you end up in… well.. Manchester.
The guard on this Northern Rail pacer train was having a busy shift. No sooner had all the Newcastle United fans squeezed out of the two carriages in their droves, they were immediately replaced by large groups of teenagers heading to the Metro Centre for an afternoon of shopping.
It was only once we had stopped at the Metro Centre that it began to dawn on us that things were beginning to get a little scenic. As the journey progressed, signs of settlement and everyday life vanished. Arriving in Wylam, the birthplace of George Stephenson, we found ourselves in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
A local overheard Matt and I discussing whether we were in the right place. They kindly confirmed that we were, before instructing us to follow the road around the bends for 20 minutes. It all sounded quite easy. More by luck than judgement, we had grabbed a beer each from M&S back in the city centre, so we were able to sip on those as we wandered past an unquantifiable number of fields.
I even had time for a photo with some horses as we crossed the border between Northumberland and the Borough of Gateshead. Ploughing on around the next in a series of blind corners, it soon became apparent that the walk wasn’t going to be as easy as the woman at the station had suggested. “Gibbo. I think we’ve ran out of path!” came the shout from further ahead. By now, I was lagging behind, trying my best to hitch a ride to the ground while Matt had opted to jog ahead to see if he could spot any floodlights. We behaved like stricken sailors, desperately searching for a lighthouse in the depths of night.
Upon closer inspection, I agreed with him. We had indeed ran out of path. The bends that had been cushioned with hedges had now turned into a long country road that soared uphill. This stretch of road was that long, you could see the end but had no idea how long it would take you to reach the summit. We had no option but to venture into a wooded area found on the right hand side. It simply wasn’t safe to keep on the road any longer. Plus, we thought that sourcing potential short cuts was always quite fun and rewarding.
After a few minutes, I caught up with Matt who was at the top of the wooded hill. Being brought up in the Valleys, he was used to this kind of nonsense. By now he had already carefully calculated a route to the ground which involved overcoming a series of obstacles. Firstly, we would have to cut through a farm – complete with muddy fields. Then we had to pass by what appeared to be an abandoned house before scaling a dry stone wall to get back on to the main road. Once there, we would resume our battle in dodging oncoming traffic. All this effort and we didn’t even know if the game was actually on.
It was a big relief when we eventually made it to the ‘footballing outpost’ of Kingsley Park moments before kick off. The ground blends into the vast number of fields, sitting on the edge of the village of Crawcrook. It’s larger neighbour, Ryton is further to the west. The old coal mining heritage of both places is reflected through the club’s crest with a colliery wheel at the centre.
Known as Ryton FC until 2011, the Albion had spent their existence in the Northern Alliance League until gaining promotion to the Northern League in 2005. The clubhouse at the ground was opened by Prince Andrew in 1998. At the time, the Albion were just 18 years old. If the club was a couple of years younger, the Prince may have taken more of an interest. Instead, he stayed for just one game; a pre-season friendly against Newcastle United.
Seeing the two sides out on the pitch was fulfilling. Despite all the odds, we had found a match and what an occasion it was going to be too. South Shields were in town. They were league leaders, champions elect and a club who had clear ambitions to go on to play in the Football League one day. Commandeering their midfield was former Sunderland and Middlesbrough star Julio Arca. Here he was, literally playing football in a field in the rural North East.
What made this ground one of my all time favourites was the assortment of bus shelters that were fashioned together to create a standing area on the near side of the ground. Their roofs were all positioned at different heights. While Shields fans gathered under the bus shelters, others opted to put their lives at risk by sitting in the rusting stand behind the goal. The whole ground had been thrown together and added to over the years, with nothing quite adding up.
The clubhouse, which possessed the only right angles in the ground, was rammed to bursting point with the large contingent of South Shields fans who had made the short journey. They would go on to win the match rather comfortably, putting four past their hosts.
John Grey put Shields ahead in the opening stages with a header at the back post. It remained 1-0 at half-time, when we attempted to get some food from the ‘Scran Van’ that was plonked in the corner of the ground. Mariners fans had beaten us to it, clambering to be fed before their heroes returned. We decided to try again later, opting to fight for a pint instead.
It wasn’t a great start to the half for the visitors, with goalkeeper Scott Pocklington being stretchered off after getting his studs stuck in the grass.
Despite having most of the possession and numerous chances, it wasn’t until the 84th minute when South Shields would double their lead. Stephen Ramsey with a simple finish.
More was to follow as we headed into stoppage time. David Foley was brought down in the box. It was the moment we had all been waiting for. Up stepped the Argentine magician, Julio Arca, who Sunderland once splashed out £3.5 million on. He coolly took the spot kick, slotting it into the top right hand corner to record only his second goal for the club. It was surely a moment to savour. How did it compare to his goal against Manchester United some 16 years earlier?
The league leaders were now beginning to have a bit of fun. It was made 4-0 a few moments later when Arca dinked a cross in from the right hand side allowing former Hartlepool striker Foley to head in.
A quick escape was made on the final whistle. As much as we would have loved to stick around for a while, we knew that any delay would see us having to venture back down the country roads to Wylam in the dark.
Opposite the train station, we found the Boathouse which advertised itself as ‘Arguably the Best Pub in the World’. In fairness to them, it was very good. We found ourselves once again spoilt by the number of options available. A number of South Shields fans had already beaten us down there, somehow.
We shared a corner table with a couple of older gentlemen. We spoke about the match and they explained, quite passionately, how they had left behind watching Sunderland in order to follow Shields home and away. It promised to be some journey for them and it had only just started.
By 18:30 we had made our way back to Newcastle, ready to catch the 19:10 party train back to Manchester. This service is the one to catch if you want peak football chat, drinking and partying. It’s usually rammed full of various supporters from different clubs and this was no different. Things looked as if they could turn sour when we found ourselves on a table with a Newcastle and a Bournemouth fan. The Cherries had won 3-1 to heap pressure on the Magpies.
We all had a good laugh, with Newcastle fan Mark putting on a brave face. The Bournemouth fans were kind and provided us with the remnants of a crate of Fosters as they didn’t have time to finish them before getting off the train. A nice gesture and one that we duly accepted but they provided us with the six cans in Stalybridge – about 15 minutes before we were due to get off the train ourselves.
The day finished how it started: in Wetherspoons . Matt’s Irish housemate had chosen the Moon Under Water on Deansgate for her birthday drinks. We chose to stay there most of the night until I had to catch the last train back to Atherton. It had been one very long day.
South Shields went on to win the Northern League Division 2, amassing 107 points. The following season they would go on to win a second straight league title, clinching the Northern League Division 1 by racking up 108 points. A third championship in as many years followed in 2017/18 when they secured the NPL Division 1 North title with 103 points. An incredible fourth successive title nearly arrived but they finished three points behind champions, Farsley Celtic.
Ryton & Crawcrook Albion finished the season 16th and have remained in the Division 2 since.