Groundhopping, like everything in life, brings its ups and downs. All of those lonely miles on the road, delayed and cancelled trains and standing in the freezing cold knowing (or often denying) that you’re miles from home and in need a new hobby. Shivering with regret and horror, you realise it will be a few hours before you can even contemplate enjoying a well deserved shower and a proper cup of tea; one that doesn’t leave a sickening aftertaste of polystyrene.
What the two opening rounds of this seasons FA Cup have reinforced to me is that while most clubs will treat you brilliantly, regardless of who you support or whether you’ll ever return, a small minority leave you wishing you hadn’t have bothered in the first place. In the previous rounds matches at both Daisy Hill and St Helens, I’d enjoyed myself and was glad I had made the effort to go and support them both.
My blog post for the St Helens match was viewed nearly 2,000 times in the 24 hours after I had posted it and what really struck me, was the sheer number of people who were kind in their feedback and said they would try and get along and watch the club sometime soon. That for me, makes it all worth it. If I can convince somebody – even one person – to head to a match and support non-league clubs, that gives me a bit of a ‘buzz’.
Since the beginning of my writing, back in 2009 when I was at school, the simple aim of this blog has always been to keep a diary for myself, to look back on in years to come and if I can help inform others of what they might find on their day out at a ground, then I’m happy to have shared my knowledge.
With a larger readership building year-upon-year – which I’m really grateful for – I have had to acknowledge that what I write about a club can prove to be positive publicity, or on a small number of cases, a negative but truthful review.
On this occasion, Hebburn Town, are unfortunately a football club that I won’t be in a rush to return to, which is ultimately a shame. The facilities they have are some of the best around in non-league and they plan to go further, based on conversations I overheard in the clubhouse. They’re ambitious and it could well be another exciting project to follow. But all that doesn’t matter. You can have as much money and fancy facilities as you like but you should always treat visitors with respect.
A large part of my entries are the photographs which I stick on at the end. These are included to give people an idea of what a ground and the surrounding area look like; afterall, I decided to visit Hebburn based on what I had seen online. Like my decision, these images can be the clincher when you’re deciding where to get your football fix. But in order to get these photographs I – and every other blogger and groundhopper – of course have to take them, which is where my experience with Hebburn Town soured.
In a completely inappropriate manner I was approached by the bouncer – who the club had employed. At first, I didn’t even know he was speaking to me. After a few exchanges, it was left where I was warned against taking photographs of children. I wanted the ground to swallow me up.
I was left feeling angry and humiliated but remained calm, as I didn’t want to draw any further attention to the situation. His comments and suspicions could have proved to be hugely damaging as I am a Primary School teacher and also the Welfare and Safeguarding Officer at Atherton Collieries.
Imagine if his baseless and ridiculous suspicions were taken further? Instead of trying to be ‘clever’, the bouncer should have approached the situation with more common sense and not done so in front of a full bar area where people were drinking. The experience made me feel incredibly embarrassed and this was all before a ball had even been kicked.
In all honesty, after that, I didn’t want to stay at Hebburn Town FC and wanted to find an alternative match. I looked at my phone and checked other nearby fixtures to see if I could quickly get a taxi to one. But, after a couple of minutes of deliberation, I decided that I should stay. Why should I let one man – who perhaps needs to be educated on how to deal with members of the public – ruin my day out?
Chloe dropped me off at York train station early in the morning, knowing I hadn’t enjoyed a ‘proper’ day out at the football since February. I was wide awake at 05:30. She said I was in an excitable mood, just like a child on Christmas Day. Trying to find an excuse, I conceded that she was probably right; deep down I was very excited at the prospect of being able to catch a train somewhere for a few beers.
There was a plethora of non-league options to choose from by using York as a starting point. Too much choice in fact, with matches in every single direction. Studying my spreadsheet – which I consider to be a work of art as high in standard as a Lowry or a Van Gogh – I was slightly disappointed (and surprised) to see that six years on from my first delve into the Northern League, at Whitley Bay, just nine of the North East’s venues had been ticked off. I needed to make more of an effort. I needed to make a larger dint into the list.
Hebburn Town v Pontefract Collieries, in the FA Cup looked to be the most attractive offering, with the home side eagerly anticipating their appearance at Wembley in the upcoming FA Vase final. Vase finalists are always a joy to watch, with their mix of skill and physicality always making for entertaining contests. Added interest today was the fact they were playing Pontefract, a club who had made a bit of a name for themselves in recent years as a bullish side who can match anybody physically, albeit with a very poor disciplinary record. I was expecting a bruising encounter and a close score and that’s just what those lucky enough to be in attendance were treated to.
There were only six other people in my carriage as we made our way out of York. Masked faces lurched to the left, craning to see what strange offerings were in the sidings at the National Railway Museum. It was a peaceful journey, making progress through Northallerton (another place I need to get to), Darlington and Durham. By 10:15 I was back in Newcastle, an exciting and unpretentious city which with each visit, only increases in it’s appeal to me as a future place to reside in.
Like the train, the city was quiet on this occasion; nothing like life back in Manchester, where most things have continued pretty much as normal throughout lockdown. Naively, I thought Newcastle would be the same but the majority of pubs that I tried to visit were closed, meaning the booze filled crawl around the city that I had envisaged didn’t really go to plan.
Just as moths are attracted to light and Londoners are attracted to Manchester United, I often find myself attracted down the Castle Stairs, down to the Quayside area of the city and along the Tyne. Fresh air, a collection of decent bars and stunning views of the famous bridges always prove too hard to resist. However, on this occasion I opted to be a maverick and head northwards, ending up in the Haymarket area, finding myself being tempted by the buses which were zig-zagging in and out of the terminus. Exotic and evocative footballing locations such as Ashington, Blyth and Bishop Auckland were all just a short and spontaneous decision away.
In my head I was going to Hebburn. I had been going there for the past few hours… but deep down, my heart was telling me to see what else caught my eye during the morning. The most tempting offer appeared when a bloke – probably in his late fifties – hobbled past sporting a bright red Bedlington Terriers jacket. With their striking club crest, complete with a pit-head and a dog, they were playing away at Billingham Synthonia. I zoned out momentarily, imagining myself and this stranger who I had glanced at in the street, sitting next to each other on the bus, sharing pints in Norton and building a long lasting friendship.
It didn’t happen. Off he went, to watch the Terriers lose 2-1, while I went in search of a cash machine… eventually finding one that had ‘Ashley Out’ written all over it. That will show him, I thought, as I made an increasingly rare withdrawal.
The stickers themselves had reminded me that I hadn’t actually seen St James Park in the flesh since Bolton drew there back in 2011. Kevin Nolan, who broke my heart when he left us to join the Magpies, broke my heart further when he then scored against us. Daniel Sturridge, who was on loan from Chelsea, salvaged the Wanderers a point and took us back up to seventh in the Premier League table.
As I turned from Gallowgate to hike up Strawberry Lane, the sheer size of the stadium left me speechless, as it had done whenever I’ve previously seen it. Oh how I would love to see Bolton play at these kind of places again. Instead, we’re embarking on a tour of places such as Harrogate Town, Barrow and Forest Green Rovers – who we would lose to later that afternoon.
I decided to have a pint in The Strawberry, which could also double up as a Newcastle United museum with the sheer amount of memorabilia in there. “Where do you want to sit love?” asked the manager in a really chirpy and hospitable tone. “I’ll take a stool, next to that Alan Shearer photo please,” I said, pointing in the general direction. Good job I pointed, as there are that many photos of Shearer in the pub, I’m surprised he hasn’t taken a restraining order out on the landlord. A pint of Tyneside Blonde was delivered and I sat, on my own, just gazing at St James Park out of the window. I have to get back there one day.
Back down the hill I went, through China Town and towards Bodega, a traditional pub which unfortunately was yet another venue which had decided not to reopen. It was my third failed hit of the morning and some places were still serving breakfast. Continuing to loop around the city, I travelled at a leisurely place further down the gradual hill which the city is built upon and ended up in the Dog & Parrot; a stones throw from the train station.
Oasis were the band of choice in the bar this afternoon, with their songs providing a soundtrack which accompanied my pitiful attempt at drinking a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. Years ago, when I was still at school, I’d take bottles of the stuff to house parties, knowing that nobody would dare steal my booze as they wouldn’t like it. I used to chug it down without any issues. Now though, nearing the ripe old age of 25, I really struggled, finding the brown liquid too heavy to finish.
Arguably, What’s The Story (Morning Glory) has aged far better than me, with the album being released just hours before my arrival on the earth. Next month, we both celebrate our milestone birthdays and I have decided to order a special 25th anniversary edition of the album, which I think would look pretty cool framed.
I was in a quandary in the Dog & Parrot. Being the only customer in at this time of day, I couldn’t just leave my drink and walk out. That would be rude. I didn’t know what to do. Scowling, in a concerned manner, I studied my watch and hurriedly walked out. They didn’t know who I was. I knew I wouldn’t be back. All they would think is that somebody was in a rush for their train and didn’t have time to finish their drink. Or, maybe, they didn’t like Oasis.
12:30 was the time, still two and a half hours until kick-off. Hebburn, my maps told me, was only 15 minutes away on the Metro, meaning there was ample time to continue, what so far, had been a pretty rubbish pub crawl. A safe bet is always Head of Steam but that, again, was shut. A nice surprise though was the relatively recent addition of Pivovar’s latest venture, the Newcastle Tap, which is a sister pub to similarly named pubs in York and Sheffield. The companies first bar was Pivni, close to the Shambles in York, and since then they have gone on to create an impressive selection of venues that serve some of the best beers you can find. Newcastle Tap was no exception, as I spent ages decided what I’d like before settling for a Green Mountain by Thornbridge Brewery.
It was at this point, I had a brain wave and decided that to increase the likelihood of finding other places to get a drink, I could head towards pubs which had been used as settings on Vera, one of my guilty pleasures. The ITV crime drama is set in and around Newcastle and regularly features the cities landmarks, with the odd murder or misdemeanour happening in a pub. A recent one I had watched featured a stabbing down by the side of the Bridge Hotel, so based purely on that, I walked down there… and of course, the doors were bolted shut. It seemed it hadn’t seen any form of life since March.
So, I found myself as usual, carefully walking down the Castle Stairs and on to Sandhill. Redhouse, sitting on the corner – with a great view of the Tyne Bridge – was popular, probably because everybody else was in the same position as I was. I hadn’t been there before, so gave it a go. Hard Rock Cafe had plastered large signs in the building opposite, advertising that their latest bar is coming soon, which instantly upset my wallet as it knew it would have to fork out for yet another ‘classic t-shirt’ to add to the growing collection.
With a pint of Monument by Tyne Bank Brewery downed, it was time to head back up the stairs and catch the Metro across to Hebburn. I timed it perfectly, with the next service to South Shields arriving in five minutes time. We quickly rattled back over the Tyne, through Gateshead and into Hebburn where a handful of others alighted and trudged up the never-ending ramp. The midday sunshine cast a myriad of intricate shadows on the floor, leading gradually towards the main road. For a split second, it felt like you could be walking down an ancient passageway at the Alhambra Palace in Granada.
In contrast, the concrete jungle which formed the heart of Hebburn town centre, made me realise I was definitely in northern, post-industrial Britain. The heart, which was very quiet, was just about still beating but I hoped a defibrillator was on hand.
Hebburn was a proud ship building town and also was home to another large employer named Reyrolle & Company, who created electrical appliances and switchgear for power stations. During the war, Adolf Hitler had created detailed plans on how to capture Newcastle in his first wave of attack in the Battle of Britain. In those plans, he aimed to capture Reyrolle. The factory’s football team, Reyrolles FC, would eventually go on to become Hebburn Town FC.
A prominent feature of the football club’s current crest is the ship, which sits at the top of the design. The town provided 41 naval vessels as part of the war effort and also repaired 120 other ships. It was to be HMS Kelly, commanded by Lord Mountbatten, that would prove to be the most iconic ship built in the town.
Kelly was attacked on numerous times and on one occasion, it was torpedoed off the coast of Norway. Despite heavy damage and the loss of 27 lives, the ship – under the control of Mountbatten – managed to crawl back to the Tyne and underwent repairs. Those who lost their lives were buried in Hebburn cemetery, which sits directly opposite the football ground, with it’s grand and imposing arch protruding behind the net at the far end.
Mountbatten himself was a bit of a hero around Hebburn and would regularly be seen drinking in the pubs with the shipbuilders despite being a member of the Royal Family. He was that well liked, with roads and even the concrete monstrosity that is the shopping precinct eventually being named after him. The majority of shops were shut today; I was unsure whether this was due to business owners opting to carry on using the furlough scheme, or whether it was a sign of the economic conditions of the area. Either way, I knew that I wasn’t in an affluent area. It was all rather depressing, feeling like the love-child of Motherwell and Salford. Looking up, I thought about what the view would be like from the top of the town’s sole residential block; impressive I reckon.
Despite it being a relatively calm day, the wind whipped and screeched around the tower block, which I was now walking past as I approached the ground. It wasn’t worth thinking about what this place would feel like in the depths of winter. Some colour and vibrancy was threatening to break out further up the road, as the football club came into view. They had decorated the outside of the ground with a collection of different coloured ribbons and the large collection of club flags fluttered. It was all tidy and well looked after; I was looking forward to this one.
Admission of £6 was paid and after sanitising my hands, I was in. An impressive stand which contains wooden benches straddles the halfway line on the right hand side of the ground where the entrance is. This had been here for years, as had the clubhouse but it is that area of the ground which has seen a complete renovation. An ageing and unappealing two tiered social club, which used to cater for crowds as low as 30 up until as recently as three years ago, is now the town’s premier hospitality venue, fit for any function or night out.
With those low crowds, the club was in real danger of going out of business. They launched the ‘Save Hebburn’ campaign and the community rallied, with support from Newcastle United and Sunderland who brought sides down for pre-season friendlies. A new chairman eventually arrived at the club and the turnaround in fortunes was immediate, as a promotion from Northern League Division 2 was gained the following season, in 2017/18.
Consistent performances in their first two campaigns in Division saw them finish 2nd and then 3rd last season, before it was eventually null and voided. Thankfully for Hebburn, the FA Vase is continuing and after beating Plymouth Parkway in front of a record-breaking crowd of 1,705 in the Quarter Final, they saw off Corinthian on penalties in the Semi Final, just the weekend before I arrived for this match against Pontefract.
With that impressive crowd recorded in the Quarter Final, I was sceptical I would be allowed into this match with the attendance being capped at 300. The club weren’t even doing tickets in advance, seemingly confident that there wouldn’t be a great deal of interest in the game. Some clubs who take off pretty quickly, or have a decent cup run, attract a large number of fans who are jumping on the bandwagon and have zero interest in what’s actually happening.
South Shields down the road – who will probably reach the Football League one day – were themselves struggling a few years ago but they’ve built up a huge fan base who do genuinely care about the match and the fortunes of the club. The cynic in me would put the majority of those at Hebburn in a different bracket, with most too busy chatting in the bar area and those outside weren’t much better, with many not bothering to even watch the game. Time will tell whether those who have started watching the club will remain long after the glitz and glamour of a trip to Wembley have subsided and they’re back to playing Sunderland Ryhope CW in the freezing cold.
Pontefract had brought a meagre but passionate total of three fans with them from Yorkshire and I found myself standing alongside two of them for the opening stages of the match. A Hebburn fan, just to the right of us, stood proudly in his shorts with a Hebburn Town badge tattooed on the back of his leg. He’s in it for the long haul and I wish him the best.
The sides had walked out on to the pitch to the sounds of ‘Belinda Carlisle – Heaven Is A Place On Earth’ with a banner close to the changing rooms, replacing the word ‘Heaven’ with ‘Hebburn’. The bloke on the address system also proudly, bizarrely and incorrectly boasted that ‘South Tyneside is the Covid capital of the country’. It’s alright though, only 40,000 people have died so far, so lets all have a laugh about it. For the record too, Bolton is the current ‘covid capital’; I would know.
Collieries, who were in their regular blue strip, had made a huge number of changes to their squad over the summer, with only a couple of players remaining from the previous managerial regime. Damian Reeves, most well known for his spell at Altrincham, where he made 300 appearances, started up front for his new club while Sam Tingle who had played in Sweden for IFK Östersund last season was in midfield. They knocked the ball around with no fear throughout and took the lead on 14 minutes from the penalty spot.
It was Reeves who had been fouled. He dusted himself down and slotted the penalty kick past former Blyth Spartans and Gateshead goalkeeper Mark Foden.
Pontefract’s promising start lay in tatters less than two minutes later when Gavin Rother was shown a straight red card for a wild challenge on Lewis Suddick near the corner flag. It was a typical Ponte’ challenge; despite the managerial changes, they still hadn’t broken their habit of ill discipline. Not that I minded. It always makes for an entertaining afternoon.
Cedwyn Scott equalised for Hebburn on 24 minutes when he was slid through by Robbie Spence.
The second half promised to be end-to-end, with both clubs going for it at any opportunity. On 65 minutes, the ten men of Pontefract upset the natives once more when Fabian Bailey crossed for Dan Keane who found the left corner with his header.
As the game reached it’s conclusion, Collieries were hanging on. Hebburn had brought on their talisman, Graeme Armstrong. The striker who is richly experienced, having played for Gateshead, Darlington, Spennymoor and more recently South Shields, made easy work of the opposition defenders, weaving in and out of them in an almost seamless manner.
By this point, I had made my way up on to the second tier of the clubhouse just to see what the view was like. On the stairway I passed a signed shirt of local lad Chris Basham. The former Bolton Wanderers player had joined us at the age of 16 after being released by Newcastle. Around the corner, I once again found myself trying to get my head around just how many people were sat inside not bothering to watch this cracking FA Cup tie taking place right outside the window.
Pressure was being ramped up by Hebburn and things were made even harder for the away side, when with four minutes to go they were reduced to nine men following the dismissal of Dom Claxton. He was shown a straight red for a tired and desperate challenge on the edge of the area. He lurked at the exit of the pitch and watched the resulting free kick slammed straight into the wall… it seemed his gamble had paid off.
That was until a minute before time when Tingle brought down Tom Potter. It was left to Armstrong, who you would bet your house on scoring, to dispatch the penalty and bring the score back to 2-2 as the board went up for stoppage time.
Despite being down to nine men, Pontefract immediately broke and found Hebburn napping at the back. A scrambled effort eventually flew centimetres over the bar; it would have been one of the best endings to a match that I had seen if it had nestled into the back of the net. As it was, the tie was to be decided on penalties, with the nine men of Pontefract prevailing with a 5-3 victory.
Pontefract Collieries earned a trip to FC United of Manchester in the next round of the FA Cup. Hebburn wait patiently for their big day out at Wembley, which could prove to be a springboard to even bigger and better things. I feel it won’t be long before we see them step up into the Northern Premier League.
Hebburn Town apologised on Twitter for the treatment I received, which I was grateful for. The damage had however been done and I don’t accept that the member of staff was simply ‘doing his job.’