Heaton Stannington FC – Grounsell Park

A myriad of clothes were still drying out on the radiator, begging not to be called into action for a second consecutive weekend. Questionable claims of being waterproof had been proven to be fraudulent the previous Saturday. We had endured (and survived) a tempestuous afternoon at Vauxhall Motors. We did not know it at the time – as we huddled together to keep warm – but the day would later be recorded as the wettest since records began in 1891.

Over the days that followed, the rain continued to pour relentlessly, showing no appetite or interest in abating. Under the lights, a well contested league match between Daisy Hill and Nelson was abandoned on the Monday night. Players resembled ice-skaters as their boots allowed them to aquaplane across the turf while I conceded that I was now perilously close to contracting trench foot.

Stood next to me as I wriggled my toes to keep them in use were Padiham coaches Michael Morrison and Cameron Foster. Their conversation and attentions were rigidly fixed on their upcoming FA Vase tie in the North East against Heaton Stannington. By the end of the night, with no set plans, I decided it would be fun to head up to Newcastle and watch them.

I was back up in York for the weekend and on yet another overcast Saturday morning I set about my usual routine; arrive 15 minutes before the train, grab a cup of tea, admire the station’s impressive curving roof and then find the correct platform, which with northbound trains tends to be over the bridge which cuts through the centre of the building.

As is the case during these strange times, the carriages of the LNER Azuma were silent as I boarded the 09:55 service with only a couple of other passengers squeezing the most out of what remained of their relative freedom. It took just over an hour to reach the city of Newcastle and for once, I found myself sitting on the right-hand side of the train which offered brilliant views towards the east. Early morning sunshine was illuminating the Penshaw Monument, the memorial built in the style of an Ancient Greek monument which sits overlooking Sunderland. Further up the line, there was a lot of activity at Northern League side Birtley Town as their junior sides spent the morning running around in the cold.

Outside Newcastle station, there was a lot of commotion as Northern Gas Network carried out maintenance work on Grainger Street. A multitude of signs were dotted around the area they were working on, telling people not to stand within two metres of the workers. This was for safety and to protect their workers against Covid-19. A couple of questions sprang to mind as I made my way up the road and into the Mile Castle; which sane people stand that close to gas maintenance work and surely the main danger here would be death by explosion and not transmission of a virus.

While I patiently waited for the other pubs to open, I found myself traipsing through the Wetherspoons, weaving in and out of the maze of plastic screens that had invaded the pub in recent months. The business owner who won the contract for these screens that have been erected in over 1,000 pubs up and down the country would more than likely now be sat on a Caribbean island enjoying a cocktail. Meanwhile, with no such riches involved in teaching, I nestled down near the bar and enjoyed a pint of Dodge City Delta for just £1.69. I always try and drink local when I’m out and about, so was slightly disappointed that I had fallen at the first hurdle, discovering that this pint had travelled the same route I had, being made by Kansas Avenue Brewing in Salford, close to my place of work.

As per usual, I had done very little research ahead of this latest trip to Tyneside. I knew that Heaton Stannington played “somewhere in and around Newcastle,” and gambled that I would be fine plotting out a route on the morning of the match. The club play at Grounsell Park in the High Heaton area of the city, around three miles north east from the train station.

A quick glance at my watch and I made the decision to embark upon the walk up to the game, hopefully taking in some pubs, tap rooms and whatever other nonsense caught my eye on the way. Further restrictions were coming in on the Monday; this would be my last hurrah for a while. Streets to the east of the city centre were scattered with breweries and decent pubs, if you looked hard enough and took recommendations from the helpful locals. Admittedly, there were too many places and in the end, I caught a taxi for the last mile of my hike as I was in danger of missing kick-off.

My thick winter coat was tightly fastened up and a woolly hat secured to my head. It covered up a full compliment of hair which was still stubbornly covering my scalp, defying both genetics and the opinions of many family members who always told me I would be bald by 20.

Up the hill and past the Monument area, I strolled past Stack which was just opening for business for the day. It’s another of those modern developments made out of porta cabins and sheds. They’re designed to look like it’s all been thrown together, in an edgy and cool kind of way but that obviously isn’t the case. Stack was nowhere near as good as it’s predecessors in Manchester and York – which are full of independent food outlets and craft breweries. It was commercialised, with continental beer brands plastered everywhere and a large screen displaying adverts for JD Sports and other brands which appeal to a certain crowd.

“What can I get you pet?” were the words from the girl who was running around serving the handful of us who were out and about at this time of the morning during a pandemic. The use of the word ‘pet’ confirmed that I was in the north east. “Do you have anything independent or locally brewed?” I enquired, realising I sounded inadvertently precocious as the words spilled out of my mouth. “We don’t have anything that is ‘out there’ but we’ve got Lagunitas IPA” was the response, so I had to settle for a pint of their Daytime IPA for £4.80.

My walk continued eastwards through the concrete abyss. An abandoned pool hall served as a man made boundary to the A167 which popped out from an underpass and led traffic towards the Tyne Bridge, peeping up behind buildings to the south. A spiral staircase brought some character to an area, which will no doubt be bulldozed and redeveloped in years to come. Everything around here was derelict and grimy. Swathes of foreign students passed me with bags full of their weekly shopping as I crossed the bridge towards Manors metro stop. It seemed ironic that the Design faculty of Northumbria University was found here.

My rough plan was to head into the Tanners Arms, which sits on the main road but with time already tight I changed my mind having found a better alternative on my map. Arch 2, owned by Newcastle Brewing, was further down Stepney Bank and built into the arches which held up the main road; cars rattled on above us. Colourful collections of street art guided me further down the road and I arrived to find a quiet tap room. A couple (who looked a bit confused by the drinks available) were sitting in the forecourt next to a Thai food restaurant, while I opted to sit inside, with the whole place to myself.

A helpful bloke, sporting a woollier hat than mine, came over to recommend what I would like to drink. He knew his stuff, which immediately put me at ease as he navigated me through everything that they served. This was Newcastle Brewing Company’s tap room and he really was passionate about the craft beer that was brewed metres away from where we were stood. In truth, I could have sat in there all day chatting to him but after downing a 3 Cascades and a Dr Rudi, it was time to press on to the next pub. He suggested I headed to a small pop-up bar called the Tipsy Toad, which I still say in his accent now as I write it.

It looked to be around a 20 minute walk to the Toad, passing upcycled furniture shops and other strange ventures amongst the underpasses of Newcastle. Winding through a wooded area where horses were being trained and then back out along the railway line, I emerged into a residential area which turned out to be the South Heaton area of the city. Two large housing blocks towered over the suburban sprawl, while the waft of marijuana lingered around backstreets as daytime joggers revealed themselves to be the only signs of life.

Unfortunately, after all that walking I arrived at the Tipsy Toad to find it’s shutters firmly lowered. I can only imagine the place is too small to safely open at the moment, which left me scratching my head for a moment until I noticed The Chillingham was a block further through the estate, sitting on the corner of Third Avenue and Chillingham Road. The pub, I had noticed on Twitter, were giving Heaton Stannington a hamper full of craft beers as a raffle prize for this afternoon’s game, so knew it would be an ideal place to stop for a decent pint.

Sitting in the back room, I was surrounded by an innumerable number of TV screens and colourful prints which all represented iconic bands. Naturally, I opted to sit next to the one celebrating The Smiths. Morrissey probably would not have liked The Chillingham. Not for any reason in particular, just based on the fact he’s unfortunately turned into a cantankerous old man. The complete opposite can be said for guitar supremo Johnny Marr, who was uber-cool when we bumped into him before an England U21 game in Cesena last summer. That is a story for another time though.

The Chillingham were keen purveyors of their local brewery, Anarchy, who now sit less than a couple of miles down the road having moved to new premises. I’ve always been a fan of their beers, picking them up in M&S, but often find myself being put off by their extortionate price tags and today was no different. Cans of theirs were being sold at prices between £6 and £8, which I think you’ll agree is just ridiculous regardless of how strong the stuff is. In the end, I opted for a pint of Hollow Heroes at £4 before deciding to cram in a further one, safe in the knowledge that I would now have to catch a taxi up to the ground.

Irving was the name of my driver and he rocked up in his Toyota Auris. He had a very high ‘chat’ rating on Uber. This was great news. “Heaton Stannington football club please,” I said to break the ice and to more importantly confirm he would be taking me to the correct venue for football. “I’ve no f*cking idea mate. I’m just following the map,” he snapped back. With me put firmly in my place, we continued northwards into the High Heaton area, with Irving nearly mowing over a mother and her small child on a pelican crossing.

He swore at them too. I sank lower into my seat. Our only other words were uttered a few moments later when he tried to drop me off at a high school having seen the floodlights for their all-weather pitches. “No mate, it’s further up this road,” I advised Irving before he tutted and eventually found his way to our destination. In hindsight, it would have been easier and more pleasant to walk.

Grounsell Park was quite hard to spot for the first time visitor. Blink and you’ll miss it. Tucked away behind a row of shops and bustling traffic, a couple of people and two posters hanging up on the exterior red brick wall hinted that there was a football ground somewhere near here. On closer inspection, the posters read, ‘Don’t let your kids grow up thinking football is a television programme,’ and were followed by the words ‘SOLD OUT’ written in bold, red lettering. Security was tight for this one, with only 150 tickets being made available for an FA Vase clash against Padiham, who had travelled up from the Burnley area. Clipboards, guest lists, pepper spray* and water cannons* were all being used to ensure nobody without a ticket entered.

Having only ordered my ticket online on the Wednesday night, the club had been incredibly helpful and had organised to keep it to one side ready for me to collect on the day. Gary was the man, camped out in the green wooden the turnstile booth and he recognised me as I approached. He used to follow Runcorn Town but had relocated to the North East four years ago and decided that the best way to get to know the area was to watch non-league football.

He explained that he occasionally watched South Shields away from home when they were still in the Northern League, as they were his local club. One weekend he ended up at Grounsell Park and before he knew it he was back again and he then realised that he had caught the bug. His affinity to Heaton Stannington grew from there.

Unfortunately, the clubhouse had to be shut on this occasion, so we made do with cans flogged from a round, stainless steel table underneath a green marquee. I’d never sampled the delights of McEwan’s Export before, wrongly assuming such things were only ever consumed in the bus stop shelters of Glasgow. Service however was quick, no doubt because they were ably assisted in selling all the alcohol by a chocolate cocker spaniel named Harry, who hid under the table wearing a club neckerchief. He’s quite a celebrity around these parts.

One thing that can be said about Heaton Stannington as a club is that they love dogs. Everywhere you turned there was one misbehaving, or at least making a nuisance of itself. At the far end of the ground, one pooch was taking great enjoyment in wrapping their owner around a tree while others were running off to go and play in one of the allotments which back on to the pitch. Despite not being a love of dogs, it was quite heart-warming to discover that a couple of years ago, the club launched season tickets for our four legged friends, with each canine presented with their own photocard.

Although officially founded in 1910, Heaton Stannington have been playing football in the area since 1903, with the latter part of their name deriving from links with the Stannington Avenue area of Heaton, which you can take a look at if you are fortunate enough to get a swift pint in at the aforementioned Tipsy Toad. The club have been playing on this site since 1935 when they developed a pitch on top of a recently filled-in quarry, which they called Newton Park.

In 2007, the club decided to rename their home Grounsell Park in honour of Bob Grounsell who had played for the club before going on to become a long-serving volunteer. Since then, it has undergone more development as the club stepped back up into the Northern League for the start of the 2013/14 campaign. Hard standing, new dugouts, a new stand and the addition of floodlights is a testament to the hard work that has taken place here in the past decade.

Infamously, this ground was also the scene of a strange fixture in 2012 when the Gabon national side played Heaton Stannington in a warm-up match as they prepared for the Olympic Games. The African nation won 4-0, with future Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang playing in the fixture. There’s a photograph of him somewhere, warming up in front of one of the allotments.

Padiham, in their traditional blue strip, strolled out on to the pitch a couple of minutes before their hosts. Mark Ayres, a defender who has represented a number of Greater Manchester clubs, including FC United and my beloved Atherton Collieries, was one of the first to emerge. He’d been a pivotal member of our successes as a club and will always be fondly remembered for his penalty taking abilities – as well as his habit of smoking a cigarette as quickly as he could once he was off the field.

I’d once been Ayresy’s room-mate on a team night out in Chester after we had won at Cammell Laird; club hero Mark Battersby also squeezed into what was an already tight bed. Also in action for the Storks on this afternoon was Jack Egan, a midfielder who had briefly played for Carlisle United before going on to spend a couple of years with us.

The match kicked off and soon, my first helping of McEwan’s Export, rather quickly, was reduced to an empty vessel. A cagey start meant I didn’t miss much action as I headed back over to the green gazebo where I treated myself to another can. Strong, indulgent smells were emanating from the kitchen which sits next door to the away changing room. Unable to resist, I buckled and also treated myself to a cheeseburger and chips, a rare snack in our northern heartlands of non-league football, where a pie and bovril are often easier to prepare and more universally welcomed.

Scott, the club secretary at Heaton Stannington, was reluctantly doing the rounds, politely asking people if they could wear a face covering. The rules in Newcastle were even more draconian than those we were having to follow back in Manchester. I felt sorry for those club volunteers who were having to do everything by the book, knowing that their every move was being spied upon by the authorities.

Like Gary, who had now been freed from the admission booth and was watching the game, Scott isn’t a native of the North East either. Arriving in this part of the world 13 years ago, when he moved from Somerset to attend university, he has remained here ever since. The story is similar though, here was another case of somebody who was drawn to Heaton Stannington FC and they couldn’t quite explain why. Sometimes, you just have a feeling that a club is the one for you.

On the pitch, the game was end-to-end, with the home side close to opening the scoring after just a few minutes when there was confusion amongst the Padiham backline. Danny Morton headed back to goalkeeper Matthew Hamnett, who was already advancing out of his area to deal with the danger. The ball zipped past him, only to be kept out through a mixture of the right hand post and a goal line scramble.

Up the other end of the pitch, Padiham striker Dominic Craig was looking as lively as ever. Known away from the game for being a barista and coffee roaster, he certainly looked like he was full of caffeine this afternoon as he caused problem upon problem for the Heaton Stannington defenders. Craig, a fan favourite amongst the few who had travelled, was back at Padiham following a successful spell down at Northwich Victoria the previous season.

Despite numerous chances wasted by both sides, it wouldn’t be until the final 15 minutes of the match that this FA Vase clash would burst into life. Mark Ayres, who I had tweeted in the morning, asking what odds he was with the bookmakers to score a penalty, duly scored from the spot to put Padiham ahead.

Eight minutes later, Kevin Carr neatly threaded the ball through the Padiham defence where he picked out the run of Jon Wright. Delicately chipping the ball over Hamnett, he pulled off one of the best finishes I had seen in a long time. A sell-out crowd celebrated as The Stan drew level with seven minutes remaining. Could they go on and nick it?

The answer would be a cruel one. Just two minutes after the score being made level, Padiham regained the lead and in doing so, a place in the next round. Willem Tomlinson, who was arguably the most experienced player on show, having featured in the FA Cup against Manchester United for Blackburn Rovers just three years earlier, crossed the ball into substitute Harvey Close who was composed enough to finish.

The travelling supporters, led by chairman Shaun Astin, celebrated a hard fought victory away at a Northern League side. With the clubhouse not open, the Heaton Stannington fans headed back over the gazebo to purchase more cans to enjoy with their friends in the elements. I decided to head straight off, with the Brandling Villa my next and final port of call.

Found in the suburb of South Gosforth, the Brandling Villa was around a 25 minute walk down the hill from Grounsell Park. This quirky pub possessed it’s own micro-brewery, named Overkill ran from the cellar. With space at a premium, I headed into the car park which had been fashioned into a socially distanced beer garden, ordering a pint of something home brewed on the app. You could also add silly things on to your order, such as, ‘An awkward smile that you can’t see because of our masks’, ‘A story from Jamie about how he used to work “in town”‘ or, the one I went for, ‘A wave directed at someone just past your shoulder.’ Popular food items included, ‘Daft shit on chips’.

With a pint of Crackerjack downed, it was time to head back into the bright lights of the city centre. I’d done more than enough walking for one afternoon, so I headed across to South Gosforth metro station, where a train was pulling in as I arrived. Sprinting down the ramp, my body was successfully thrown in through the diminishing gap between the doors as they were closing.

Before I knew it, I was back in York, enjoying one final drink at The York Tap before heading home. It had been a great day out at Heaton Stannington, a club which until a few days beforehand I knew very little about. With a warm and welcoming vibe, it was easy to see why so many ‘outsiders’ loved the place. It was also funny to think, if I hadn’t have gone to watch Daisy Hill v Nelson on the Monday night, I wouldn’t have ended up enjoying myself so much at Heaton Stannington. This was yet another proven victory for spontaneous decisions.

Padiham were dumped out of the FA Vase in the next round, losing 4-0 to one of the favourites for the competition, Warrington Rylands. Heaton Stannington won a further two league matches, before non-league football at this level was suspended again when the nation went into another lockdown in November.

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