Blyth Spartans v Gateshead, Wednesday 1st January 2020, 3pm

Another New Year and another new ground, number sixteen of the season and my three hundred and fortieth in total. It was Croft Park that provided the venue for my footballing ‘first footing’ with Blyth Spartans taking on Gateshead in the sixth tier National League North.

Spartans were beginning 2020 in the relegation area whilst visitors Gateshead, who had been demoted last season for financial issues, were in mid-table.

It was twelve quid to get in, which is twice what I’d pay in the Northern League. However, the National League North is three divisions higher in the pyramid, making it a two quid per division increase. If the pricing continued up the leagues like that then it would make Boro tickets twenty quid a pop. Dream on.

I got a chip butty before kick-off but it wasn’t the best. It would have benefitted from a better quality bun and fewer chips, so that it could be eaten with the chips inside the bun rather than having to eat them first and throw away most of the stale and crumbling bread.

Croft Park has a main seated and covered stand down one side, with three covered terraces along the other three. I started off in the terrace along the side, but soon moved around to behind a goal. The Gateshead fans were in the other end, but I don’t think they had the whole stand. Spartans were in green and white stripes with Gateshead in some sort of Burnley knock-off kit.

One of my reasons for picking this game is that both sides were fielding an on-loan Boro keeper. Gateshead has a bit of a history for doing this as the current Boro keeper Aynsley Pears spent last season in goal for them. This year we had lent them twenty year old Brad James.

Blyth had recently been given Zach Hemming from the age group below. He’d had a spell at Hartlepool but hadn’t played. I think sending out the young keepers is a great idea, as long as they play. They’ll still train part of the week at the Boro, but they will get a physical battle each Saturday with players who depend upon win bonuses and they will play in front of crowds that care passionately about performance and results.

Gateshead took the lead in the first half with a penalty that incensed the Spartans fans near me. The ref had already been getting plenty of stick but pointing to the spot escalated the abuse a few levels. Shouts of ‘wanker’, ‘prick’ and ‘bellend’ were directed at him from just a few yards away, before the same spectators then appealed to him to give a subsequent decision their way. I’d have given them nothing all afternoon if someone had yelled at me in that way. There’s a difference between caring passionately and abusing someone in a manner that if you did it anywhere else in public you would be arrested.

The Blyth fans soon turned on their own players too. I can’t see how people think that’s a good idea either. I rarely perform at my best at work if I’m told that I’m shit at my job and I’m sure it’s the same for footballers too.

A further goal for Gateshead in the second half was enough to provoke chants of ‘sack the board’ from the home fans. Fortunes changed though when two penalties for Spartans in quick succession brought the scores level at two each. The ref was a little more popular with those decisions. Oddly, each of those goals was also followed by chants of ‘sack the board’ from the home fans, so maybe it is some sort of local custom.

Gateshead was then awarded the fourth penalty of the match, which Blyth and Boro keeper Zach Hemming saved. The home joy was short-lived though when the visitors took a three-two lead at the death. The Gateshead players were taunting their opponents and I wondered if it had its history in the reverse fixture played  just six days earlier, on Boxing Day, when  Blyth had scored a late goal to earn a three-two away win of their own.

The game still wasn’t over though and with keeper Hemming up for a corner, Spartans equalised in the third minute of added time. Best match I’ve seen all year.

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