South Shields U18 v Stockton Town U18, Friday 1st October 2021, 7.30pm

October 13, 2021

After my visit to North Shields four days earlier for an FA Youth Cup tie, it fell to South Shields to provide my Friday evening entertainment in the same competition. As an added bonus, Stockton Town provided the opposition and as my parents have been shelling out a tenner a month for years to support ‘the young lads football’ in the Stockton Town monthly draw I was keen to see if their money had been well-spent.

Mariners Park, or the 1st Cloud Arena as it is now known, is situated in an industrial estate. If there was any club parking it was full by the time I arrived and so I dumped the car a couple of hundred yards away. It was three quid admission which is a pound cheaper than neighbours North Shields. Immediately as I went in I saw the new stand that is being constructed along the length of one of the sides of the pitch. It’s an impressive show of ambition from a club in the seventh tier of English football and that only six years ago were in the tenth tier Second Division of the Northern League. The ambition was supported by around three-hundred and fifty fans turning out. That’s an impressive attendance at this level in adult football, never mind under eighteens.

The new stand will give South Shields decent facilities on all four sides of the ground. There’s covered standing behind both goals and a combined standing and seating covered stand along the other side of the pitch. I chose to sit and although there were stanchions holding up the roof I got a good view of both goalmouths.

South Shields were wearing a Burnley style kit with Stockton in their regular yellow and blue. The hosts looked the better side early on, keeping possession well and playing mainly in Stockton’s half. They made their dominance count and by half time were two up. I thought the Stockton keeper was a bit jittery but to be fair, he wasn’t at fault for either of the goals and he made a couple of good saves to keep his side in it.

At half-time I got myself pie and chips and a coke in a pint beaker that you paid a pound for and could either return to get your pound back or keep. I’m a sucker for things like this. I’ve a cupboard full of plastic beakers from the last couple of World Cups and a commemorative South Shields version has now joined them.

Stockton got back into the game with a great strike that was just too high for a keeper a fraction off his line. They then levelled before South Shields regained the lead. The big talking point, or whinging point, came when Stockton made it three each. The goal came from a penalty awarded after the striker was fouled but chose not to go to ground and instead tried and failed to round the keeper. The ref called play back and awarded the pen. Brilliant. Or ‘disgusting’ and ‘disgraceful’ according to the home fans nearby. Why should a player have to go down to ‘win’ a pen?

Shields weren’t to be denied though and hit back with a fourth and winning goal.

North Shields U18 v Morpeth Town U18, Monday 27th September 2021, 7pm

October 7, 2021

I’ve no recollection of ever having been to the Tynemouth area, other than to the Wet and Wild swimming centre when my kids were small. When looking for the Daren Persson Stadium online I noticed a beach and a castle nearby so Jen and I set early to have a pre-match wander around.

We parked up near the Aquarium and went down onto the beach. Despite the cold there were a few people around. Most of those who ventured into the water were in wetsuits but a few teenagers were braving it in shorts. We had the dog with us, as did a few other people, and it was only when we were leaving the sand that we noticed a sign prohibiting dogs until the first of October. I doubt the enforcement officers will read this, so we’ve probably got away with it.

At one end of the beach is Tynemouth Priory and Castle. It was shut by the time we arrived so we could only view it from outside. I keep meaning to rejoin English Heritage and when I get around to it we’ll probably pay a return visit, perhaps tied in with a game at nearby Cullercoats.

The game that we were attending was in the FA Youth Cup between North Shields U18 and Morpeth Town U18. We paid four quid to get in which struck me as high for a kids match, but I don’t suppose you get much for that these days. I looked at going to the cinema the other day and tickets were fifteen quid. That was just for regular seats. Add in a similar amount for drinks and snacks and a trip to the pictures makes four quid for football seem like a bargain.

We took seats in the covered seated stand. It was only later that I noticed that we were sat in the area reserved for visiting officials. As with the beach, I’m not one to deliberately flout the rules, but I find I’m getting less and less observant these days.

North Shields were in yellow and green with Morpeth in light and dark blue. There was an early goal from North Shields and a prompt equalizer from the visitors but after that North Shields took control and rattled in goals at a steady rate.

At half-time I went into the club house for a cup of tea. There wasn’t any food although I could see a stack of pre-cut buns through the kitchen doorway. At least at the pictures I could have had an over-priced and under-cooked Westlers.

There was something on the wall telling me that Malcolm MacDonald was the North Shields President. I didn’t see him around, although he may very well have been stood nearby for all I tend to notice.

The second half was more of the same with the Morpeth defence failing to pick people up and being punished for it. Their number four looked a decent player who tried to make things happen but in the absence of support from his team mates he would invariably hang on to the ball for longer than he should have and end up conceding possession.

The game finished six-one and so North Shields progressed to the next round.

Darlington Railway Athletic v Wolviston, Wednesday 22nd September 2021, 7pm

October 6, 2021

I’ve worked in Darlo a couple of time, firstly for Press at their Haughton Road offices thirty-odd years ago. For some reason, I’d got Haughton Road confused with the Brinkburn Road location of Darlington Railway Athletic’s ground and so spent a good twenty minutes driving up and down the road where I used to work wondering why I couldn’t find a ground that I’d never previously seen there anyway.

Fortunately, Jen was with me and she took a more sensible approach of using the sat nav on her phone and we successfully spotted the Brinkburn Road floodlights with time to spare.

You go in through the entrance to the social club so if anyone did fancy watching for free then it shouldn’t have been too difficult to evade paying simply by telling them that you were there for a pint and to watch Man United versus West Ham on the telly. There were no programmes or team sheets but the bloke on the door offered to track me down if he could get hold of a team sheet for me. I’m not really that bothered. I don’t keep them, but I do like to have a quick check to see if any of the players are known to me.

Jen and I started off in the covered stand behind a goal. It was a terrible view though and we quickly moved to a better vantage point leaning on a railing along the side of the pitch. Darlington went one up very early on but I missed all bar it hitting the net as I’d been trying to get a decent photo of a spaniel that was sleeping next to the dug-outs. From what I did see it looked to be a spectacular goal.

Both benches were very shouty with Wolviston in particular appealing for everything. We moved a bit further round to spare my eardrums from the needless racket. Wolviston were clearly on top in the first half and a well-worked headed goal doubled their lead.

At half-time we wandered into the clubhouse for a cup of tea. Despite the Man United game being on the telly everyone’s attention was on a cat that had strayed indoors. It hid under tables and resisted any attempt to shepherd it towards an open door. With the players returning to the field, it was still giving staff the runaround and so we left them to it.

Wolviston just about clinched the points with their third goal early in the second half, although Darlington did pull one back before a fourth Wolviston goal finally settled matters. The standard was decent for an eleventh tier Wearside League game, as was the attendance of one hundred and four people, three dogs and one cat.

Spennymoor Town v AFC Fylde, Tuesday 21st September 2021, 7.45pm

October 5, 2021

Whilst I’d missed the opportunity at the weekend to get to an FA Cup game, the replays allowed me to keep up my streak of seeing a game in every round so far. This was a Second Qualifying Round replay, which is four rounds into the competition and was a consequence of Spennymoor’s one-all draw away at AFC Fylde three days earlier.

It was a tenner to get in and whilst I saw some people with programmes I didn’t see anyone selling them. Jen and I were there early enough to nab seats in the main stand which offered covered seating and a central viewpoint from the side. We could have sat behind the goal to our right or stood opposite or behind the goal to our left.

There was a decent bar that I wandered into whilst looking for something to eat and a couple of food kiosks where at one of which I was able to pick up pie and chips for my tea.

I noticed that former Boro Youth Cup winner Jason Kennedy was on the bench for Spennymoor. I watched him in the warm-up and whilst his hair has now gravitated to being around his chin, it’s good to see one of that team still playing. He didn’t get much of an opportunity at senior level with the Boro, although I’ve a vague memory of him coming close to scoring with a shot from distance against someone, but he carved out a good career for himself between then and now.

The standard was good with both sides playing a fast-passing game. The home side had a first half penalty appeal turned down that looked about fifty-fifty to me. There was a second shout from Spennymoor for a spot-kick moments later that I’d say was sixty-forty. That, perhaps combined with the one that wasn’t given, was enough to persuade the ref and Spennymoor converted it for a one-nil lead.

A lot of the home fans who had been sitting in the stand to our right switched ends at half-time to be closer to the Spennymoor attacks. That’s one of the perks at this level. The Brewery Field attendance was announced as being 1094 with 54 from Fylde.

Fylde applied pressure in the second half and forced a good save from the home keeper but Spennymoor held on for the win and a place in the Third Qualifying round.

Sunderland U23 v Middlesbrough U23, Monday 20th September 2021, 1pm

October 4, 2021

One of the advantages of me working on a freelance basis these days is it gives me a lot more flexibility during the day. This meant that lunchtime kick-off for the Boro U23 game with Sunderland was easily do-able. The match had originally been listed as being at Eppleton Colliery before changing to the Academy of Light. I’ve never been to either place so it was no big deal to me.

Jen and I followed the phone directions but were turned away at the main entrance car park for not being scouts. I knew I should have stuck with going to cubs. Instead we had to park around the corner and take a five minute walk along a track to a pitch that looked like it had been dug out of scrubland.

There weren’t any team sheets available, but I saw a few people with them. No doubt they will have picked them up at the main entrance as part of their scouting privileges. Unusually there wasn’t any info on the Boro line-up on Twitter either so I was pretty much in the dark about who was playing for us until later on. I’d estimate that there were around a hundred people watching with at least twenty of those observing in some sort of official capacity.

Boro were in their green change strip with Sunderland dressed up as, well, Sunderland. One of the players that I did recognize was Sol Bamba. He started at left-back before switching to centre-half mid-way through the first half. He played for about an hour, organizing everything that went on in an impressive performance.

I noticed how much politer the players were to the ref than in regular adult football. The players were more likely to praise the referee for a decision that went their way than slag him off for one that didn’t. “Ref, that’s better, well done” still implies dissatisfaction with earlier decisions but keeps the pressure on without telling him he’s having “a fucking shocker”.

Boro took the lead early on and then doubled it after some good play from the left winger Kololo. We added another scrambled effort straight after half-time before Sunderland nabbed a consolation once Bamba had gone off and left the organizing to others. All in all, it was a decent performance and an enjoyable trip out during the day.

Whitby Fisherman’s Society v Great Ayton Royals United, Saturday 18th September 2021, 1.45pm

October 3, 2021

Jen and I had stayed in Scarborough overnight for a Duran Duran gig. They are Jen’s band not mine but as she attends so much stuff that’s primarily of interest to me I was happy to go along. As it happens, I had a good time. The open-air theatre works well for gigs on dry days, I had a few drinks and they played their only half-decent song, so fair enough, I’d do it again.

It also meant that we could tick off a bit more of the Cleveland way and we spent the Friday afternoon walking from Scarborough to Cayton Bay and back along the clifftops.

Being over in the Scarborough area meant that we could drive back to Teesside along the coast past Whitby and on to Lythe. Mulgave Community Sports Club in Lythe is where the Whitby Fisherman’s Society play their home games in the North Riding League East, which is the twelfth tier in the pyramid. They had a home game on the Saturday and so I picked that as my game for the weekend.

There was a modern looking cricket pavilion with the football pitch adjoining the fenced off cricket square. Nobody was taking anything for admission as Jen and I arrived a couple of minutes after the quarter to two kick-off. We were just in time to see visitors Great Ayton go one up through a free kick that the home goalie stood little chance with.

I had a chat with a Great Ayton fan and he was able to confirm that Whitby were the team in blue with Great Ayton in black and white. He also reckoned that his team were struggling these days and the quality of the players had slipped in the last year or two. I could see what he meant. Some players had a decent touch but others looked like they had only recently taken up the game, perhaps as an alternative to gym membership.

There was a large grassy bank to one side of the pitch and as there was nowhere to sit on any of the other sides we moved to the top of the hill and sat up there. I wasn’t quite West Stand Upper but we had a view of the sea to our left and countryside in every other direction. I counted up the attendance from our lofted vantage point and I‘d say that there were twenty-two people watching who weren’t there in an official capacity.

Great Ayton were reduced to ten men after twenty minutes when a flying tackle sparked a melee that just about everyone joined at one point. The ref was in a difficult position in that neither linesman was neutral and therefore couldn’t be relied upon. Furthermore, his own fitness wasn’t the best and so he rarely strayed from the centre circle. Whatever the merits of the tackle, order was restored with a red and, I think, a couple of yellows.

Great Ayton reorganized and managed to hold on to their one goal advantage at the break. With the cricket pavilion being a hundred yards or so away most players stayed by the side of the pitch at half-time. One nipped up to the bushes behind us for a piss. There seemed no real reason to drag out the re-start and within five or six minutes of the half-time whistle the second half had commenced.

The second half had the same fractious manner as the first with both teams disputing everything. I think if I’d have been the ref I’d have just cleared off. As the game went on Whitby got more desperate, throwing their goalie up for the last couple of minutes. I love to see that, but on this occasion it didn’t work and the visitors took the points.

Redcar Town v Sunderland West End, Tuesday 14th September 2021, 7.30pm

September 28, 2021

Redcar is well represented in local football these days with Redcar Athletic in Division One of the Northern League, Redcar Town in the Division Two and Redcar Newmarket in the top division of the North Riding League. Jen and I had been there a few days earlier when we’d taken a walk along the coast from Redcar to Saltburn and back.

It’s an enjoyable walk that had been billed as four miles each way. I think that distance is based upon starting in central, or even the most southernly edge of town though as we’d walked for almost an hour before reaching a signpost confirming the four miles remaining to Saltburn.

We’d actually started in a car park that I recognized as somewhere that I’d driven a double-decker bus around in a Cleveland Transit open day that must have been getting on for forty years ago. I’d be happy to have another crack if they ever decide to do it again.

On the outward part of the walk we followed the Cleveland way which took us mainly along clifftops and dune paths. After a brief stop in Saltburn for an ice cream we walked back along the beach. The dog much preferred this due to the abundance of dead creatures for him to roll on. His favourite pastime is to writhe as close as he can to a well-decomposed corpse and on this occasion he was well served by three seals, a few birds and a couple of crabs.

A few days later we were all back in town at the Vitality Stadium in Mo Mowlem Park for the Redcar Town game with Sunderland West End. It was a fiver in, with another quid-fifty for a programme from which I learned that former Boro player Cameron Park had turned out for Redcar earlier in the season. He wasn’t in the squad for this one though.

The Vitality Stadium had a decent clubhouse with benches and tables outside. It was raining though and so we headed for the only covered area which was a small stand to the right of one of the goals with two rows of freshly painted benches. We took up residence in the back row which kept us dry but unfortunately meant that once the clubhouse emptied and the stand filled up with most of the eighty-nine people in attendance we had no view of the goal at our end.

I read in the programme that Town are planning to add another two hundred and fifty seats in different parts of the ground over the coming season. That should solve any viewing difficulties.

Visitors Sunderland West End were in fourth place in the table and had brought a few fans with them who encouraged their team to ‘Gan On’. The heavy rain created a slippery surface and led to a few fouls that may not have happened in drier conditions.

Sunderland opened the scoring after half an hour although we didn’t see the finish due to the crowding in the covered area and having to sit with the dog. We didn’t see the three goals in the second half either because we left at half-time. Sometimes there’s no point in dragging it out.

Ilkley Town v Penrith, Saturday 11th September 2021, 3pm

September 27, 2021

Jen and I had to go down to the Yorkshire Dales to collect a fireplace and having arranged to pick it up after lunch on a Saturday I was understandably keen to find a nearby game on the way back to Teesside. As luck would have it, Ilkley Town were at home to Penrith in the First Qualifying Round of the FA Vase. This is Ilkley’s first season in the tenth tier North West Counties Division One and therefore also the first time that they have been eligible for the competition.

Ilkley play at the Ben Rydding Sports Club. It looks like a new facility, although there are hockey pitches alongside the football one. It was six quid in and another two for a programme. There were a couple of food kiosks just inside the entrance, one of which was opening for the first time. I had a chip butty, although there wasn’t any butter on it. The chips were ok though having been freshly cooked to order in a fryer that held a maximum of two portions. If attendances or appetites ever start to rise then they might be in a bit of trouble.

There weren’t any seats, which is unusual at tier ten, although maybe the North West Counties League either doesn’t require them or allows a period of grace after promotion. I’m ok with that. The pitch was 4G, with the addition of some blue markings for smaller scale games across the pitch. I’m ok with that too. The crowd was announced at one hundred and twenty one which is respectable at this level.

Ilkley were in a Wimbledon style dark blue kit with ninth tier Northern League opponents Penrith in a kind of knock-off Arsenal strip. The home side were missing their management team who were all at an unfortunately scheduled September wedding and so their under 21 gaffers were occupying the dugout.

One of the Penrith centre-backs stood out as a consequence of being bigger, slower and swearier than everyone else on the pitch. However, he missed nothing in the air and his positional awareness was good enough that any lack of pace didn’t matter. Penrith missed a few early chances and he got more frustrated with every chance that went begging.

Ilkley went a goal up after twenty-five minutes. It looked offside to me but as the Penrith defence didn’t complain too much I suspect that it might well have been the correct decision to allow it. The lead lasted until a few minutes before the interval when Penrith equalized from a disputed free-kick that was swept into the corner from the edge of the box.

In the second half we moved behind one of the goals which put us at the wrong end for the winner that was curled beyond the Ilkley keeper. There was some pressure at the end from Ilkley and a lot of added time after a Penrith defender picked up what looked like a serious injury but the Northern League side hung on for the victory and a place in the next round.

Sunderland RCA v Stockton Town, Saturday 4th September 2021, 3pm

September 16, 2021

After attending matches in the Extra Preliminary and Preliminary rounds of the FA Cup I thought I’d keep my streak going with a game in the First Qualifying Round. There were a few options but I took the opportunity to see Stockton Town for the first time this season in their tie with Sunderland RCA at the Meadow Lane ground in Ryhope.

The ground wasn’t the easiest to find. We could see it from all sides but it took a while to locate the entrance. Once parked up we headed into town for something to eat. The Guide Post pub looked promising but weren’t doing food and so in the end we had to settle for fish and chips from Ryhope Fisheries next door.

With rain in the air, we returned to the ground a good half an hour before kick off to try and get a seat under cover. It was six quid each admission with another pound for the programme. A decent attendance looked to be on the cards and the bar area was already busy as we made our way towards the main stand. There were flags from Stockton and plenty of Teesside accents.

We spent the first half in the main stand with the beagle tucked between my legs. He’s generally fine sitting quietly at a game but every now and then he perks up when he smells food. Bit like me really. Stockton took an early lead through a Kev Hayes free-kick and with Mikey Roberts adding a second mid-way through the half.

At that stage it looked as if Stockton, who are one division higher than RCA, were on for an easy win, but the hosts pulled one back on the half-hour and then equalized a few minutes later. They could even have taken the lead just before half-time but were denied by a decent save from the keeper. It was quite a turnaround.

With the prospect of rain diminishing we watched the second half from behind the goal. Stockton were getting on top again but struggled to make the extra possession count. Former Boro player Jonathan Franks was having a decent game. He’s someone that I’ve kept an eye on throughout his career, mainly because he went to school with my kids. I saw his Premier League appearance in the relegation game at West Ham and Jen and I saw him at Hampden in the League Cup semi-final victory over Celtic a few years ago. More recently I’ve watched out for his team’s results in Iceland and it’s good to see him back where he started.

With around twenty minutes to go Stockton regained the lead with another goal from Hayes. There were still chances going begging at the other end though and I wasn’t convinced that Stockton would see the game out. For one thing they had a few players carrying a bit of weight. It’s not unusual to see the odd player at this level with a bit of a belly on them but Stockton had at least three. Mind you, a few of the Sunderland lads looked as if they could do with a decent dinner so perhaps these things even out.

With play stopped for some reason we had a chat with the lady lino about dogs and football. She mentioned that in one game she had been reffing it had been a nightmare getting a stray dog off the pitch. There were at least six dogs at this game so it’s not surprising really that you get the odd one that gets up to mischief.

With time running out Stockton clinched the game with a fourth goal to see themselves through to the Second Qualifying Round and only three more wins from a potential tie against a League One or Two club.

Gateshead v Guiseley, Monday 30th August 2021, 3pm

September 15, 2021

I’d been to Gateshead International Stadium a couple of times previously but for athletics and rugby. I’m pretty sure my son Tom and I went to watch Linford Christie run there in the early nineties and I definitely remember us watching England A take on their All-Black equivalents around about the same time. I’ve never seen a football game there though and so thought I might as well tick it off by way of a sixth tier National League North game between Gateshead and Guiseley.

I’d bought the tickets about a week in advance and had splashed out twenty-five quid for hospitality seats. As regular admission was fifteen quid I reckoned that we wouldn’t need much in the way of extras to make it worthwhile.

We got to the stadium about forty minutes before kick-off. Parking was easy enough at that time and we were soon in the lounge allocated for us VIPs. There was a decent buffet, coffee and juice, a programme and seating at a table for six where the other two occupants were young lads getting stuck into a few pre-match cans of Fosters. At the risk of incurring the scorn of Roy Keane I had what I believe to be my first ever prawn sandwich at a game. When we made our way out into the cold our seats were central in the main covered stand and padded. On returning at half-time there was a well-stocked cheeseboard. Very nice.

One of the reasons for picking a Gateshead game had been their recent signing of former Boro player Luke Williams. He stood out as a kid under Strachan but a series of injuries have meant that he hasn’t played a lot since. Unfortunately he didn’t play in this one either as he was serving a suspension for being sent off in the previous game. Maybe I’ll fit in a Gateshead away game at Darlo or York and see how he is getting on then.

An announcement on the tannoy revealed that the attendance was eight hundred and sixty including forty-eight fans from Guiseley who were out of sight to our left. A few of the fans behind us were singing in support of ‘the heed’, mainly about how much they disliked Blyth Spartans or that they were ‘just a stop on the metro’.

Gateshead gave their fans plenty to sing about with a goal inside the first ten minutes from someone that they all just referred to as Macca. He cut inside from the right and finished well, across the keeper. A few minutes later he added a second and an easy victory looked on the cards. Gateshead had plenty of chances to kill the game off but with ten minutes remaining Guiseley pulled one back. That gave us a frantic ending to the match including a header that just went wide from the away keeper who was up for a last-minute corner. There were no more goals though and ‘the heed’ held on for the points.

I wasn’t sure whether we were allowed back into the hospitality after full-time but an announcement that “Dickson’s excellent pies will be available at a reduced rate of one pound on way out” was enough to send me on my way with the masses. I picked up a hot pork pie for a quid and had scoffed it before I’d hit the A19.