Monday, 18 October 2021

Football by the Seaside as Marske United's Unforgettable FA Cup Journey Continues

Marske United's run to the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup has been nothing short of spectacular. A thumping 7-0 win over league rivals Pickering Town was followed by an almost as impressive 6-0 win over lower tier Seaham Red Star before two astounding wins against higher league opposition.

First up were South Shields of the Northern Premier League Premier Division (level 3 in the non-league pyramid) who sit one tier above Marske from Division One East of the Northern Premier League. South Shields are backed by a wealthy businessman, rich by non-league standards at least, and have recently turned professional. Their meteoric rise was halted by COVID but the club are favourites for the title this season and were top of the league at the time of facing Marske. Despite being heavy favourites, however, the visitors were dispatched of 3-0 to set up a home tie with National League North side Chester in the third qualifying round.

Two divisions above Marske, Chester did well to come away with a 0-0 draw and were totally outclassed during a replay in which Marske hammered them 4-0 on a night when the visitors could have easily had 5 or 6 if not more. Absolutely incredible stuff.

Marske-by-the-Sea is a fairly uneventful place and "Where's that?" is a not uncommon response when this coastal village just a few miles south of Middlesbrough and 25 miles north of Whitby comes up in conversation. Thankfully for them, their football club is just about beginning to put them on the map because, and I don't want to seem disrespectful, probably nothing else will.

I have nothing against Markse it is in parts a quaint little village but in reality, probably not a lot happens there. Indeed, for a seaside town/village it is, quite honestly, a little bit boring. It may be beside the seaside but you can hardly call it a seaside resort. It has a beach but there is no pier and the seafront certainly isn't lined with hotels, amusements, bars and restaurants. I had a little walk down myself when I visited and before I'd even reached the seafront, the hustle and bustle of the village centre had completely disappeared and I found myself completely on my own in a windswept scene of nothingness. But maybe Marske beach is good for dog walking, who knows?

Yes, I know I'm not really selling the place to you but the football should win you over and for anyone visiting the Teesside area I would definitely find time for a visit to Marske United. Also, to be fair, although Marske may not have the charm of Whitby down the coast or razzmatazz of other places by the sea it is, nonetheless, definitely a world away from the smog and grime industrial Teesside stereotype which other parts of the area more than live up to. It does, as well, have a beautiful looking old church and, also, I managed to get some excellent Fish & Chips from a takeaway called Sea Mist in the Village centre. So there you go people of Marske, I have at least said a few very nice things about your humble abode because all in all, it ain't too bad really.

Having defeated Chester, Marske, who sit near the top of their division, would have to face Gateshead FC in the fourth and final qualifying round of the Emirates FA Cup with the Tynesiders making the 50 mile drive south for another all North East affair. The all-ticket match would be a complete sell-out with a well above average 1,320 in attendance and a few pre-match arrivals who had not realised this finding they could not enter. Having myself paid in advance £10 for a ticket online, however, I was all good to go.

Marske United's home ground is called Mount Pleasent and is only a few minutes walk from the village railway station. From said station, you can hop on a train to Middlesbrough a few stops up the line or stay on until Darlington slightly further afield on the east coast mainline that runs from London to Edinburgh.

The ground itself is a fairly basic affair but does have one main seated stand and some covered terracing. Other facilities include hot food catering serving burgers and pies, teas and coffees, and a can bar at one end of the ground as well as the main bar outside. Getting your hand stamped on entry allows you back into the stadium if you decided to head back out again to the main bar which is essentially nothing more than an extra-large Portakabin. But in said bar, you can, at least, sit down and watch the half-time scores come in on the telly. Nonetheless, the ground has a unique charm that only a non-league ground of such standing can have and besides as for alcohol, there are also several pubs in the centre of Marske and another one next to the train station.

The match was a huge occasion for the hosts with a place in the first round proper of the cup at stake and there was a raucous atmosphere well before kick-off as I sat reading my copy of the excellent £2 Seasider matchday programme.

At kick-off, I was standing near most of the large contingent of unsegregated Gateshead fans who were stood behind the goal. From all sides, the crowd were just as vociferous as earlier with drums and horns evident from one small group of home supporters at the opposite end. The Tyne-Tees rivalry was also evident too, particularly from the home followers who chanted 'soft Geordie b***tard' every time a Gateshead player went down. 

Both goalkeepers were in action early on as there was chances at both ends but as the first-half wore on it was Gateshead who began to take control. The match was goalless at half-time, however, and although Marske were probably the better side in the second-half, as the game wore on it looked increasingly like the match would end in a goalless draw. Unsurprisingly, despite the Gateshead 'keeper being forced to make a brilliant save in stoppage time, 0-0 was ultimately how it ended. Back to Gateshead for a replay.

I immediately left at full-time and was able to make it onto the station platform several minutes before my train arrived. As far as matchday experiences go this had been a cracking afternoon, albeit no doubt enhanced by the nature of the occasion. This was all set in a village that ain't so bad after all and maybe one day I'll be back for another 90 minutes of on pitch action.

Finally, of course, as I said earlier, not many people have heard of Marske and indeed the Peterborough United fans who jumped on my train at Middlesbrough after a 2-0 defeat at the nearby Riverside Stadium had themselves no clue. But whilst the people of Marske-by-the-Sea will, I'm sure, sometimes claim to live 'near Middlesbrough' hopefully continued success for their football club will mean the village of Marske-by-the-Sea can get a mention in its own right! After all, as football trips go you could do a lot worse than a game in this village by the sea!

For the record 555 Marske fans travelled up to Gateshead for the replay but their epic cup run finally came to an end as I witnessed a 3-2 win for the hosts.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Faroes Flashback: When Scotland Suffered What Some Called Their Worst Result Since 1872

Tomorrow night Scotland travel to the Faroe Islands for what should seemingly be a routine World Cup qualifying victory, but just over 19 years ago things weren't so simple. In September 2002 Scotland went to the Faroes to face the side considered one of Europe's minnows and left very much with egg on their faces. Here is the story.

‘Faroe misery for Scots’ was the headline on the BBC website when Scotland drew 1-1 away against one of the minnows of European football in 1999. But that was nothing compared to the uproar after the pair met again three years later when Scotland headed back to the Faroe Islands for what was an even more lacklustre performance. Once again it would be a case of two points dropped for the visitors but if it were not for a second-half fightback it would have been so much worse.

Whilst Scotland participated in the very first international football match against England almost 150 years ago, the Faroe Islands are relative newcomers to the international scene. Having not joined FIFA until 1988, when they faced Scotland at home in a Euro 2004 qualifier on 7 September 2002 it was just ten years since they’d played their first ever competitive match.

The Faroes had stunned the footballing world when they defeated Austria 1-0 in that first ever game in 1992. But for those living on this small rocky outcrop of Islands about 450 miles north of the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, it would be 21 defeats and one draw before they next won a meaningful contest. Even then it was only against the tiny enclave of San Marino, at the time ranked second worst in all of Europe just above Liechtenstein. The Faroes would win just five more times in their first ten years of competitive action, once more against San Marino and twice against both of Luxembourg and Malta, two also very lowly ranked sides. This was a team of part-timers who lost to everyone bar the few most woeful of sides and they went into the Scotland game ranked as low as 123rd in the world.

Scotland had narrowly missed out on a play-off place in World Cup 2002 qualifying and, under the guise of German manager Berti Vogts installed at the beginning of the year, the Faroe Islands match was the first game of what they hoped would be a promising Euro 2004 qualifying campaign. All expectations of a solid start in that opening group match were soon quashed, however, when in front of about 4,000 hardy spectators, Scotland found themselves two down after just 12 minutes thanks to a brace from the Faroes' Jon Petersen. The home fans were left in dreamland as they wildly waved their flags for each goal.

Albeit all friendlies, Vogts had lost four of his first five games in charge and such a disastrous start against the Faroes did nothing to ease the pressure already slowly starting to mount on him. Vogts hadn't done himself any favours in the build up to the game by criticising the choice of venue from the hosts in what some might have considered getting his excuses in early. But surely even he can't have expected such a horrendous beginning from his side. 

Now reachable via a seven mile car tunnel, at the time getting to the host venue of Toftir would have involved a ferry ride from the Faroe Islands' main city of Torshavn to what some might have considered barely more than a hamlet. Whilst consolidating his thoughts on that journey, however, one can't imagine Scotland's main man in the dugout thought anything less than a win was possible. 

2-0 would end up being the half-time scoreline in what was turning out to be one of Scotland's most embarrassing shows. The BBC website stated in their match report that the Faroes had 'looked superior for long periods' in that opening 45 minutes and they weren't wrong. The Independent even went as far as to say it was 'the most ignominious first half in Scotland's history.'

No matter what happened in the second-half nothing would be able to hide what had happened in the first but in the end, Scotland were at least able to save face a little. First, a Paul Lambert strike on 62 minutes gave the visitors hope and then with seven to play Barry Ferguson saved Scotland's blushes by grabbing an equaliser. The captains of Scotland's two Old Firm giants Celtic and Rangers had both united for the cause with the goals that turned a catastrophe into a slightly less disastrous bad day at the office. 

It was still a terrible result, bad enough for Rob McLean on commentary duty for BBC Scotland television to describe it as 'Inept, woeful, pitiful', but it had come very close to being even worse. Nonetheless, it was still, according to The Scotsman at least, 'Scotland’s worst result since 1872.' 

Bert Vogts meanwhile was seemingly perplexed as to how his side had been so abjectly poor. "I can't understand what happened," he exclaimed before agreeing that the performance was "Not good enough for international football."

In a post match poll, conducted by the BBC, 64% of fans said Vogts should lose his job and although he ended up hanging around for another two years before his eventual resignation in 2004 they were not very happy ones. By the end of his tenure Scotland had failed to qualify for the European Championships, only picked up two points from their opening three qualifying matches for the 2006 World Cup, all against lesser opposition, and dropped to a record low of 77 in the FIFA world rankings. His final match in charge was a 1-1 draw in qualifying against Moldova who would end up finishing bottom of the World Cup qualifying group with seven defeats from their 10 games.

Scotland defeated the Faroes 3-1 in the return match and a further three matches against the same opposition in the years since have seen Scotland score a total of 11 goals without reply. Neither side will forget that September 2002 clash, however, and especially not Scotland. For the Scots, the match would come to epitomise probably more than any other what ended up being easily the most impoverished period in their footballing history. Part of an almost 22 year period where, after the 1998 World Cup, they missed out on qualification for no fewer than ten major tournaments, that afternoon in Toftir was arguably the lowest moment of it all.

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Newcastle United and Schalke 04: Two Clubs and Their Common Identity

My first real glimpses of the city of Gelsenkirchen came through a tram window. Arriving via train from Düsseldorf, my first destination after exiting the platform was the station's underground tram stop and before I knew it we were travelling through the streets of what clearly was a football mad city much like my hometown is. The colour of blue was evident on walls, shutters, and window frames whilst there were blue flags hanging from buildings. Our eventual destination was the city's VELTINS-Arena which is home of local club FC Schalke 04 and you guessed it they play in blue.

It's pre-season 2014 and my hometown team Newcastle United are playing in a warm-up tournament called the Schalke Cup. Me and three friends are amongst almost a thousand Geordies who have made the trip from the North East of England to watch their side in this two day long summer football extravaganza. Like the home support of Schalke 04, the travelling Toon Army of Newcastle have a strong love for both their football club and their city. Both of these sides hail from one club cities and there are many other similarities between Newcastle and Schalke/Gelsenkirchen both on and off the pitch. More than that, the two cities are actually twinned and arguably in many ways like kindred spirits. So what connects these two cities and their clubs?

The formal relationship between the two cities of Gelsenkirchen and Newcastle Upon Tyne began in 1947, shortly after the war and, according to the website of Newcastle City Council, there are school exchange programmes between Newcastle and Gelsenkirchen as well as joint cultural and community projects. The City of Gelsenkirchen, meanwhile, state on their website: "The close connection to coal brought Newcastle upon Tyne and Gelsenkirchen together in 1948," and coal has certainly played a part in the histories of the two cities, both are in fact synonymous with the stuff.

Gelsenkirchen was historically a huge coal mining city with the industry once employing swathes of local residents - something that is celebrated by Schalke who a few years back transformed the players tunnel at their stadium so that it looked like a mine shaft. The mining of coal in Gelsenkirchen began in 1840. At that time the city had about 6000 inhabitants but, such was the growth of the coal industry that by 1900 its population had increased to 138,000. Gelsenkirchen would become known as the 'city of a thousand fires' due to the flames of mine gases flaring up across the night sky but that phenomenon is long gone and the city's last coal mine closed in 2000.

As for Newcastle, situated on the northern banks of the River Tyne, it was historically more of a shipbuilding city. It was, however, also famous for the building of tanks and before that guns for warships at the renowned Armstrong Vickers factory and was, like Gelsenkirken, very much synonymous with coal mining too. Sadly, as with Gelsenkirchen, Newcastle's coal mining heritage is also a thing of the past. Coal mining though was once a massive industry in North East England and the numerous pit villages that surrounded the city of Newcastle saw whole communities rely on coal mining for employment whilst in earlier years the banks of the Tyne itself were covered in the stuff and ships would send much of this coal down to London to help power the capital. In fact, such an abundance of coal gave the phrase 'selling coals to Newcastle' which was used to suggest something was utterly pointless because why would you sell coal to Newcastle when it is surrounded by the stuff? To emphasise the importance of coal, whilst nowadays there is a huge footballing rivalry between the North East's two largest football clubs Newcastle and Sunderland the rivalry between the two cities from which they hail can be traced back to coal disputes almost as early as the middle ages. 

In the modern day of here and now, however, the similarities between the two cities might not be so striking. Whilst Gelsenkirchen has struggled to shake off its past and is not particularly known as a tourist destination, Newcastle is nowadays considered a vibrant modern city and is famed throughout the UK and beyond for its nightlife in particular. Nonetheless, both can still today be considered very much working class cities that very much have similar pasts. Also, with the old industries now gone both have turned to service industries for much of their local employment so there are still some commonalities there too.

One other thing that connects the cities, as mentioned, is, of course, their love of football and the similarly troubled pasts of their respective sides. Indeed, when Schalke faced Manchester United in the Champions League in 2013, Newcastle's local newspaper The Chronicle declared that they were 'the Newcastle United of Germany'. After discussing some of what I have mentioned above about the two cities, they also referred to the similarities between the two clubs and proclaimed: "The most striking similarity between Schalke and Newcastle United is the shared spirit of supporters in the face of adversity." 

That adversity referred to in the local paper was a reference to the lack of success at both clubs something which is unusual for traditionally big name clubs with such fervent support. Quiet simply neither Newcastle nor Schalke have recorded the achievements club's of such size and stature might hope for.

Although in my lifetime Schalke have, it turns out, had more success than Newcastle thanks to winning the UEFA Cup in 1997 and the DFB-Pokal in 2001, 2002, and 2011, they have never actually won the Bundesliga having last been crowned German champions pre the Bundesliga era in 1958. That lack of Bundesliga success is unprecedented for a team that has spent so much time near the top of Germany's top flight. Runners up in successive seasons in the 1990s, Newcastle, meanwhile, were last crowned English league champions in 1927. Their last major trophy came in 1969 when they won the old Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, and their last major domestic trophy came in 1955 when they won the FA Cup for a sixth time. Like Schalke, Newcastle are a big name club with a large fanbase and like Schlake probably should have had a lot more success than they actually have. With both teams continuing to struggle at this current time too, any sort of further silverware seems a lifetime away. Indeed, Schalke were actually relegated from the top flight last season whilst Newcastle regularly flirt with the drop these days. 

As mentioned, both Newcastle and Schalke can be famed for a lack of league success but in the lifetimes of many of their fans both have had very famous near misses. For Newcastle see 1996, for Schalke read 2001.

In the 1995-96 season, Newcastle United found themselves twelve points clear at the top of the Premier League at Christmas. The pressure seemingly got to Newcastle, however, and Manchester United pipped them to the title on the final day of the season. After beating Leeds United towards the end of the campaign, Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan, upset at comments made by his Man Utd counterpart Alex Ferguson, went on a now infamous post match rant where he exclaimed "I will love it if we beat them, love it." Sadly for Keegan, his side finished runners up as Ferguson got his hands on the Premier League trophy. Having seemed like they had the title in the bag just months earlier they had capitulated in an unprecedented manner and failed to end an almost 70 year drought.

Schalke's 2001 title despair came, however, just after full-time in their final match of the season when they thought the title was in the bag. At the start of play on that final day Schalke had to win their match and hope league leaders FC Bayern München lost at Hamburg. This all seemed a tall order but there were wild scenes inside Schalke's now former Parkstadion home at full-time when supporters charged onto the pitch thinking their 5-3 win over Unterhaching had secured them the title as Bayern were losing. Word quickly spread that the score in Hamburg was a full-time one but this was what nowadays would be described as fake news as Hamburg and Bayern were still playing and there would be one last twist to what had already been a dramatic afternoon. With seconds remaining Bayern grabbed an equaliser to win the title by a point and by now Schalke fans were nervously watching events on their stadium's large video screen. Those mad celebrations just minutes earlier were soon replaced by scenes of despair as the Parksatdion turned into what felt like a morgue. Bayern were crowned champions as Schalke had the title cruelly snatched from their grasp.

Yes, the supporters of both clubs are familiar with pain.

It must be said, however, that despite all of the above there is no formal fan friendship between Newcastle and Schalke supporters that I am aware of. I myself, though, have been following Schalke as my 'German club' ever since that visit some seven years ago. Even though I have yet to go back to watch the club on subsequent visits to Germany it is definitely on my to do list, even if Schalke have just been relegated to the 2. Bundesliga. 

There is definitely much common ground between Schalke 04, Newcastle United, and the cities from which they hail, and their shared heritage will, no doubt, surely remain for many years to come. Who knows, maybe supporters of both clubs can one day turn their kinship into some sort of everlasting friendship too? Whatever happens though, these are two historic clubs that both on and off the pitch have strikingly similar stories and one wonders if their futures will also continue down similar paths? If they do let's hope it's definitely on an upwardly successful trajectory!

A footnote about my 2014 trip to the VELTINS-Arena. Whilst queuing for refreshments inside the stadium we got chatting to a fellow Newcastle fan who, unlike most Geordies who were staying in Düsseldorf, had based himself in nearby Essen for the trip. He told us Essen was a complete dump and that the whole town seemed to have only two bars and one of them was a gay bar (not that I have a problem with such things myself you understand). Not only that but since arriving he'd discovered one harrowing fact: the town of Essen was twinned with Sunderland, the home city of Newcastle United's arch rivals. "Nee wonda the plairce is a shithole' he exclaimed in a thick Geordie accent. "If aarnly ad knaan beefore ad booked up then ah wud hev stairyed elsewherya!"

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Heading to Dunston UTS and Having the Tyne of My Life

Living north of the river, whenever I go to watch Dunston UTS I always walk there from the centre of Newcastle and what a beautiful amble along the banks of the Tyne it is. This evening is no different and before I know it I'm leaving Newcastle by way of the High Level Bridge, the noise of buses hurling passing alongside me and the roar of trains overhead on the top deck of this fine structure. 

The River Tyne is famous for its bridges and having crossed over to the southern side I head down to the riverfront where several more bridges loom above in front of me. I may have bypassed the Swing Bridge, the world renowned Tyne Bridge, the much newer Millenium Bridge, and of course crossed the High Level Bridge, but there are plenty more bridges still to come... As I stroll along the riverfront I find myself walking underneath two more rail bridges, the Queen Elizabeth II and the King Edward VII Bridges, and then the Redheugh Bridge from which you can eventually find yourself on the A1.

I continue my constitutional along the banks of the Tyne looking at the stodgy wet sand and the river itself that flows quietly beyond it. With the sun beginning to poke through the clouds on this warm late afternoon saunter there is the odd, cyclist, dog walker, and jogger about but all in all it's very peaceful. It wasn't always like this, however, the river was once very busy with its banks thriving with heavy industry. Such business and manufacturing included the Vickers tank factory and various shipyards building gigantic vessels that would sail along the Tyne and off into seas around the world. That, of course, is all now long gone and most of said shipyards were further along towards the coast anyway. This is nonetheless still a historic river which will always have a special awe about it, something you could probably write a song about. In fact, Jimmy Nail did just that - and BIg River got to number 18 in the charts.

Eventually, though, I must leave the river behind and head inland, after all, tonight's football match won't watch itself! I soon complete the last leg of my journey and find myself at the UTS Stadium about an hour after I set off.

Dunston play at the same level as Hebburn Town further upstream who I visited a few days earlier and tonight is their first home game of the season in the eighth tier Northern Premier League Division One East. The club who won the FA Vase in 2011-12 after defeating West Auckland Town at Wembley were promoted to this level after winning the top division of the Northern League in 2018-19, the same year in which they reached the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup. After beating Hebburn themselves in the extra-preliminary round they defeated a further four teams including then seventh tier North Ferriby United and sixth tier National League North side Chester FC who were dispatched of 4-3 at home in a pulsating tie.

In the final qualifying round they were handed a dream draw when they were paired with then National League side Gateshead to set up an all Gateshead derby at home, Dunston actually being an area within the town of Gateshead. Some 2520 were in attendance, almost 10 times the club's usual attendance and some 1647 higher than the bumper crowd they'd had in the previous round. BBC television even streamed the match live online (they don't show games live on any of their main TV channels until the first round proper). Sadly for the Dunston, however, fifth tier opposition was a step too far and the club lost 4-0.

Today's game is £7 entry and sadly, for the second time in four days, I find no paper programmes on sale. This scenic ground is surrounded by trees and has two small stands on either side of the pitch, one with benches but some proper seating in the middle section and the other with rail terracing. The former was actually was built with financial help from local footballing star Gazza at the height of his career. Behind one goal there are amenities such as a bar, a club shop, and a serving hatch for food from which previous experience tells me offerings are nothing much to write home about - like at a lot of grounds at this level sadly. 

In terms of further food and drink there is nothing in the immediate vicinity outside the ground though you might find the odd pub if you are prepared to walk for 10 minutes or so. Alternatively, if you get a bus to Gateshead Interchange you can either enjoy one of the many pubs on nearby Gateshead High Street or hop back across the river to Newcastle city centre where you certainly won't be short of options.

Dunston itself is also only a short drive from the massive Metrocentre shopping complex that was once the largest shopping centre in Europe and the brainchild of former Newcastle United owner Sir John Hall. I don't have much else of note to say about this suburb of Gateshead although my brother did buy a house in Dunston about 6-7 years ago but now lives in America so rents it out. I think I only ever visited his humble abode once whilst he briefly lived there.

The match itself is end-to-end stuff but there is little in the way of clear cut chances albeit just enough to see the away side win the game. Tonight's opponents are newly promoted fellow North East side Shildon AFC from County Durham who bring with them a healthy away following amongst an overall attendance of 380. The visitors are 1-0 up at the interval and although much of the second period is in Shildon's own half a rejuvenated Duston are caught on the break on 72 minutes and when the goalkeeper comes too far out Shildon slot the ball home behind him to secure the win.

At full-time with myself ready for home I shoot off to catch a bus back to the interchange as it's getting late and rather dark. Dunston actually has its own train station but it's a 15 minute walk from the ground and services are infrequent.

It may not have been the result the home side wanted but I still had an enjoyable evening of football in a picturesque setting. This came after a calming stroll along the riverfront and you could certainly do a lot worse than all that for £7. A riverside wander to Dunston UTS FC - you should definitely try it!

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Hebburn Is a Place On Earth

They have been very busy this summer at Hebburn Town, well they've installed some new seating at least. There have been changes on the pitch too, however. As well as the usual incomings and outgoings of players the club have also moved up a division. Despite last season being curtailed again due to COVID-19 the FA were keen to introduce already delayed changes to the non-league pyramid structure and this has resulted in Hebburn moving up a level. For the 2021-22 season, the North East club are now playing in the new Northern Premier League Division One East as the Northern Premier League adds a third section to its second tier. This is part of the eighth tier of English football overall.

Hebburn are a club on the up. Almost bankrupt a few years back, significant investment has seen much improvement on the pitch. Recently in the season before last's COVID delayed FA Vase final they defeated fellow North East side Consett AFC in a sadly empty Wembley stadium just before fans started to returning to venues. Their other achievement of note came pre financial woes in 2011 when starting in the extra-preliminary round they got through five ties to reach the fourth and final qualifying round of the FA Cup having dispatched of several higher division sides along the way. Their run sadly for them came to an end at that final qualifying stage when they headed four stops up the local metro rail line to face then National league side Gateshead and lost 3-0.

I have ventured from my home on the other side of the River Tyne to visit Hebburn Town Football Club several times before. With my Uncle Kevin having lived in Hebburn all my life I am very familiar with the town and it is he along with his next door neighbour Malcolm who I am meeting at the game today. The club's Energy Check Sports Ground home is just a 10 minute walk from Hebburn metro station at which you are only a 15 minute train ride from the city centre of the region's thriving metropolis of Newcastle upon Tyne.

It's £7 entry and for some of the hardcore groundhoppers out there they will be dismayed to note that the club has recently gone digital only for their matchday programme. This is a very minor annoyance to me but from what I've heard some hoppers refuse to attend grounds where paper programmes are not available. I often watch a lot of the same local teams so I'm sure if I can class myself as a true groundhopper anyway although I do like the odd football trip abroad.

I arrive unusually late by my standards and the game, Hebburn's opening fixture of the season, is already a minute or so underway. But I soon find my uncle in the main covered stand talking to none other than the league's chairman who happens to be here in attendance today! 

The stand is complete with rail terracing but many people are sat as opposed to standing. Either side of this stand are two new sections of uncovered seating they have just installed. Talking to a friend the other week I was told the new seating came from South Shields FC down the road. Shields are making way for a fantastic new stand so the seats were obviously no longer needed. There is also a small covered section at one end whilst opposite the main stand another area of field lies alongside the football pitch. This ground used to double up as a cricket venue but sadly the local cricket club went out of existence a couple of years back.

Today the visitors are Frickley Athletic from West Yorkshire and the first half is fairly even though perhaps Hebburn just shade it. At the interval, it is time for a visit to the grounds crowning glory known as Hebburn Sports Bar which sits at one end of the ground. Opened a couple of years back, this is truly the best bar I've come across at a non-league football ground and the two story affair complete with a balcony overlooking the pitch apparently gets rather busy on a Friday and Saturday night and is also popular on a Sunday afternoon too. This is certainly more than just a bar at a football ground it is one of the town's popular entertainment venues. Having said that although Malcolm pays a very reasonable £2.10 for a pint of John Smiths, I am rather dismayed at the lack of real ale, craft beer, or even just a lone IPA, and decide to stay alcohol free. It is also worth noting that there is a serving hatch outside selling food and off memory from previous visits it is standard fare.

Before kick-off, Hebburn were boasting on Twitter that they'd won each of their previous three opening day fixtures but today it isn't to be. The match is settled by a second-half penalty for the visitors who twice nearly extend their lead in the dying moments when the home goalkeeper ventures forward and leaves his goal wide open. The visitor's fire wide on both occasions.

Not too disheartened by the defeat, however, Hebburn after the match proudly declare on Twitter that the 452 in attendance gives them the largest crowd of the day in the division. I'm not too dispirited myself either as despite the result I've had an enjoyable afternoon at a terrific non-league venue. For any football fans visiting the area, I would highly recommend, amongst others, a visit to watch Hebburn Town.