Wednesday 13 September 2017

Telling an alternative story on Tyneside.

They flock to watch Newcastle United in their thousands, but as James M. Gowland writes, there is also another story to be told on Tyneside, one of two historic clubs with a very much intertwined history.

There's something happening along the River Tyne at South Shields, back playing at their Mariners Park home, promotion two seasons running, a cup final win at Wembley, regular four figure crowds, and it all started with a rich businessman and plans of getting to the National League and who know's where beyond that!

Three seasons ago in Northern League Division Two, South Shields, their current guise formed in 1974 and nicknamed the Mariners, were stuck in the lowest echelons of non league football and playing home games 20 miles outside their home town in South Tyneside, at the home of now defunct Peterlee. A two season groundshare that came about after the lease on their then named Filtrona Park home expired, came to an end when £1m investment from local businessman Geoff Thompson saw the club changed completely overnight! Shields promptly moved back to their previous ground, now renamed Mariners Park, and a bumper crowd of 417 for their first home league game was more than double anyone in the whole league had managed the previous season. Ex Sunderland and Middlesbrough footballer Julio Arca joined the club and promotion swiftly followed. By the end of the season they were getting four figure crowds, and the following season saw them complete a league and cup quadruple, which included finishing their league campaign on 108 points, in the process gaining promotion out of the Northern League for the first time in their 40 odd year history, and in another first, reaching the FA Vase final at Wembley Stadium, which they won beating Cleathorpes Town 4-0. 8,000 Shields supporters reportedly  made the trip down Wembley Way to support a team who are fast becoming one of the hottest tickets in non league football.

Mariners Park sits in the middle of an industrial estate right on the local metro rail line with direct links to Newcastle city centre from Bede station around the corner. The ground has a small main stand with terracing below, this sits with the club house to it's left and a newly installed marquee tent to it's right. The other side of ground has covered terracing, and the stadium sits alongside an adjacent 3G pitch.

I arrive at Shields home ground some thirty minutes before kick-off and find my spot, this is my fourth visit to Mariners Park and with a 12.30 kick-off there is a double header on the cards today. A quick hop on the metro at full-time will see me end up at Gateshead International Stadium to watch Gateshead v Macclesfield Town in the Vanarama National League, the fifth tier of English football, the highest level of non league football in the country, and some three divisions above Shields. But first up it's South Shields v Bridlington Town in the preliminary round of the Emirates FA Cup, a game which is live on the BBC. Yes, you heard me correctly. Today's game is being streamed live on the BBC website as this season for first time the BBC has decided to cover every single round of the FA Cup right from the extra preliminary round through to the final. I guess it would be difficult for them to justify putting games like today's on BBC One or Two, but they are happy to stream such games online, in what has to excellent exposure for the non league game. This hence the lunchtime kick-off, and me happy be able to take in two games in one day.

As I stand on the terracing waiting for Shields to kick-off game number one of my double header, I reflect on their relationship with Gateshead, the hosts of game number two. Theirs is a shared history that goes back many years involving many highs and lows, joy and despai,r and twice football in South Shields moving along the river to Gateshead. The current Gateshead side was formed in 1977 after the previous side in the town, Gateshead United had folded. Gateshead United came about in 1974 when the owner of an earlier incarnation of South Shields moved his club along the river Tyne to play in the town. Gateshead United were to replace the previous Gateshead side who is a prior to folding in 1973 had still been struggling to come to terms with having been voted out of the Football League in 1960 after failure in re applying (as was customary for the bottom four sides in the days before forced relegation from the bottom tier). The town of Gateshead had been hosting league football in the old Division 3 North, and Division 4 which it later became, since 1930 when in an echo of what was to happen 44 years later, South Shields moved their Football League side to Gateshead. 

Yes that's right, South Shields and Gateshead have both in years gone by graced the Football League. 1919 was the year when Shields enetered  the Football League, joining the league had long been an ambition of theirs and as there were only two divisions of the league at that time, South Shields effectively played in what is now the Championship. I wonder how many of the town's residence actually know this? It was financial problems and the threat of bankruptcy that saw Shields move their team to the town of Gateshead, they'd already had to sell most of their star players, in 1927 had been relegated to Division 3 North, and home attendances were getting lower and lower. Despite their struggles both on and off the field, Shields did have their moments, particularly in the FA Cup. A fifth round defeat away to Bolton Wanderers in 1926 was followed by a home loss at the same stage the following season when a record crowd of 24,348 turned up at their former Horsley Hill ground for the visit of Swansea Town. Other than a third round defeat at Queens Park Rangers in 1970, the seaside town has never since seen heady cup exploits.

As for Gateshead the football league years started well with only Lincoln City's superior goal average denying them promotion in what was only their second season of league football. Further success in the league did not follow, and indeed ended with them being voted out of the league after 30 years of participation thanks to finishing third bottom of the Fourth Division. But as earlier with Shields, their greatest moments came in the FA Cup. The 1951/52 season saw them defeat the likes of Stockport County and Ipswich Town, before 40,000 spectators turned up at Newcastle United's St. James' Park to see them lose 2-0 to West Bromwich Albion. Further cup success returned the following season, when having beaten both Crew Alexandra and Bradford Park Avenue. they were drawn at home to Liverpool in the third round. Played this time at their then Redheugh Park home, a crowd of 15,000 saw an 84th minute goal defeat the reds and set up a fourth round tie at away at Hull City. Victory over Hull was followed by a win at Plymouth Argyle which set up a mouthwatering home quarter final tie with Bolton Wanderers. 17,000 fans squeezed into Redheugh Park, only to see Gateshead lose 1-0 thanks a Nat Lofthouse goal. 

Back to the current day and the links between the two clubs are still strong, with several members of the South Shields squad having previously played for Gateshead. Current Shields players, Craig Baxter, Jon Shaw, Matty Pattison, and Carl Finnegan, have all previously played for Gateshead, whilst Ben Clark who left the club at the end of last season was a former Gateshead captain.

A crowd of 1,420 are in attendance here today, some 300 plus short of the 1,776 who attended the 5-0 midweek home win over Brighouse Town in Evo-Stick Division One North. The Mariners dominate the opening passages, in fact they dominate most of the first half and as the game heads towards halftime you are left wondering how they are not several goals up. It is a fiery encounter and the home support regularly find themselves venting their anger at the physical nature of Bridlington's play. A dangerous challenge from Brett Agnew on Jon Shaw results in a yellow card for the Bridlington player, and the home faithful - who felt it deserved more - baying for blood. A goal for Shields does finally come when, Luke Sullivan slots the ball home for his first competitive goal in Mariners colours having been fed the ball by Anthony Callaghan.

1-0 at half-time, but Bridlington find themselves celebrating an equalizer early in the second half when a Ben Lewis shot deflects off Shaw and finds the corner of the net. Shields are forced to regroup and on 70 minutes eventually re take the lead with a 25 yard screamer from former South African international Matty Pattison, he shifts the ball onto his favoured left foot before finding the top corner to rapturous applause from the home support. 2-1 becomes 3-1 in stoppage time. Bridington goalkeeper James Hitchcock runs forward for a last gasp free-kick but is left stranded when Shields gain possession and break forward ending with Jamie Holmes finding Alex Nicholson inside the area, who squares the ball to Gavin Ogden, and Ogden has no trouble in slotting the ball home. Full time and straight round the corner for the metro, and after a short wait I am on a train and end up at Gateshead Stadium station.

Gateshead International Stadium to use its full title, is a council owned 12,000 capacity all seater stadium that comes compete with an athletics track. In the past it has hosted many top athletics events featuring some of the worlds the biggest names, but less so in recent years. Home supporters are housed in the Tyne and Wear Stand, away fans are often placed on the other side of the pitch but today the 37 traveling Macclesfield fans are seated in the far right of the main stand alongside the home support.

This is Gateshead's tenth straight season playing National League football, having spent most of their current incarnation playing in the top two levels of the non league pyramid. Three seasons ago Gateshead finished third and reached the league play-off final after beating Grismby Town over two legs in the senis, with over 8,000 spectators turning up for the second leg at the International Stadium. Sadly promotion did not follow, with the Heed as they are nicknamed (a Geordie pronunciation of the word 'head') losing 2-1 to Cambridge United in the final at Wembley. The Heed reached the third round of the FA Cup the following season, but three Mid table finishes in the league have followed the play-off loss and expectations were not overly high heading into the current season. 

Rare occasions such as play-off games aside, attendances at Gateshead are generally low for the level they play at, with disappointingly only 633 in attendance here today. Despite the low turnout the main stand is a noisy affair, there is a singing section at the far end of the stand, and their repertoire includes among other songs and chants, my personal favourite eighties pop classic Give A Little Respect by Erasure.

I find my seat, programme in hand, with one minute having already been played, and it doesn't take long for the Heed to score. Five minutes in and Jordan Preston finds Richard Peniket who's cross into the box is turned home by Fraser Kerr. Initially the linesman has his flag raised for offside, but to the delight of the home support the referee overrules and it's 1-0. Gateshead control most of the first half and find themselves 2-0 up at break thanks to an injury time goal from forward Jordan Burrow. Scorer of the first Kerr becomes provider as his cross is headed home by Burrow.

Gateshead come close to getting a third early in the second half and eventually do get it when on 72 minutes Preston slots the ball past Billy O'Brien in the Macclesfield goal. 3-0. Towards the end of the match the Gateshead supporters at the far end find themselves trying to outdo the Macclesfield fans in a game of who can be the most vocal. It's an all round tremendous effort from the die hard away fans who unfortunately go home disappointed as the game finishes 3-0 and the three points go to the home side. For the away support it's a long journey home to Cheshire, whilst it's back up to the metro station for me and back to my current home north of the river. An enjoyable day out, and important home wins for both of the two Tyenside sides.

As published in the November issue of Football Weekends

Venturing Out In Valencia

A football match abroad hadn’t really been on my radar, especially with the season almost over, but a phone call from my uncle changed all that. His mate had had to drop out of their holiday to Benidorm and he wanted to know if I fancied taking his pals place? He was departing for a week’s holiday in just under three weeks’ time, and despite the fact I had just got back from Las Vegas that very same day, I was definitely up for another break. A quick phone call to work the following morning to obtain more time off, and it was Benidorm here I come! Well once I’d paid £50 to change the name on the ticket that was. After everything was sorted, my first thought was is there any football on near Benidorm that week? 

Valencia did not spring to mind straight away when I was looking at the local fixtures taking place during my weeks stay, this being mostly due to the fact that I initially thought it would probably be too far a journey. With nothing else close by in the top two divisions I had to look to the lower leagues for my football fix. This proved fruitless. Benidorm no longer seems to have a team, and other than as yet undetermined play-off games, all the lower league final rounds of fixtures seemed to finish the weekend before I arrived. 

Getting desperate I rechecked the top two divisions and decided that I’d give Valencia versus Villarreal a go in, what is known as the the Derbi de la Comunitat. This despite the fact that it involved a €30 three hour round trip on the bus (no trains link the two metropolises).

My uncle, probably because he’s had to suffer all season watching Sunderland, had seen enough football for him this term, so left his Newcastle supporting nephew (he must have loved spending a whole week with me!!) to visit the beautiful city of Valencia on his own.

Anyone who has travelled from Benidorm to Valencia will have noticed the stunning scenery along the way, with beautiful mountains and hills along the route. It’s a similar scenario if you travel to Alicante in the other direction, leaving a really picturesque region of Spain (well if you ignore the drunk overweight British tourists that converge on the streets of Benidorm that is!). I arrived at the Estación de Autobuses in the coastal city of Valenica at 13.00. With kick-off not till 16:45 and my return bus not departing till 21:45, I still had a good few hours to explore the city and have a few pre and post-match pints.

I knew very little about the city and what limited research I had done told me that the city was noted for its cathedral so I thought that would a good place to visit before I headed towards the ground. The cathedral. It looked to be closed, but I was happy enough to take a few photos and have an have an ice cream from a nearby stall. This delicious strawberry cone followed up a disappointingly bland tuna steak I’d tucked into from a café on the way. Having admired the cathedral, and had a walk around the nearby streets and lanes which filled with restaurants, bars, and shops, I decided it was time to head towards the ground and find a few bars.

With Google maps and GPS being awkward on my phone, I opted for a taxi at a cost of 4.80€ and arrived outside the ground over two hours before kick-off with plenty of people milling around.

The Mestalla Stadium was opened in 1923 with an initial capacity of 13,000. The stadium suffered heavy damage when used as a concentration camp and junk yard after the outbreak of civil war in 1936, but restoration began after the war and in 1956 the capacity was increased to 30,000. The ground however was devastated by floods the follwing year, but was reopened again in 1959 with the addition of floodlights. There was a new expansion phase in preparation for of 1982 World Cup held in Spain, and after further expansion in 1997 the capacity was increased to almost 54,000, at which it still remains today. But with average attendances around the 33,000 mark this season, and a ticket for myself easy to obtain, I wasn't expecting a full house.

Attendances well below full capacity may be due to the fact that Valencia have fallen on hard times in recent years, this coming after a very successful period in the early to mid noughties in which they won two league titles, and were twice losing finalists in the Champions League. The club were deep into the bottom half of the table ahead of today's game, whilst their opponents and local rivals Villarreal needed a win to secure fifth place and a Europa League spot.

Until 1998 Villarreal had always been in the lower divisions and  had never came anywhere near the top flight, therefore Valencia never really considered them a rival. However in recent years Valencia have been struggling, meaning it's Villarreal who have been the more successful of the two sides, with Valencia apparently not liking the fact that these new upstarts have come along and taken their crown as number one club in the region.

A stroll around the outside of the stadium with a scarf purchased from one of the merchandise stalls for a cost of €15, the same price as my print at home match ticket, saw me end up sat outside a bar called Corona de Aragón across the road from the south west corner of the stadium. Some of the baguettes arriving on people’s tables looked extremely delicious, but I opted for a bottle of Amstel at a cost of €2. Looking around the nearby tables, the bright yellow of Villarreal seemed to outnumber those in Valencia attire, but there was a relaxed atmosphere with not a hint of trouble. If this was a derby, then Newcastle v Sunderland it certainly was not! 

Beer drunk, a further walk around the ground saw me come across another bar that I had missed earlier, this one offered take away cans of lager for 1€ and that seemed too good an offer to refuse. A further walk around saw me eventually enter the ground rather early, with the ID I’d been told to bring not needed.

My seat was in the ‘Gol Grand Alto’, at the southern end of the ground high up in gods in what I can only describe as the equivalent of level 7 at St. James’ Park. You can get a lift to the top but I opted for the many many steps that spiraled round to eventually arrive at the top of this stand. The concourse at the top tier of the stand is rather open plan, and you can look down at the masses on the streets below. This top tier is very steep, and due to the overhang of the of this tier and the one below, you feel right on top of the pitch, giving an excellent view despite being so high up. To the left there is the main stand, complete with a very old looking roof, whilst the three other stands, including mine are all uncovered. 

Valencia found themselves a goal down within 47 seconds when Roberto Soldado, formerly of Tottenham Hotspur, saw his right footed shot hit the top left hand corner after quick break away from the visitors. Possession wise, Valencia controlled most of the first half, but despite having what seemed like an awful lot of corners, could not come close to scoring and found themselves a goal down at the break.

The players were out sharpish for the second half, and although it was Villarreal who started the brighter, Valencia actually equalised on 54 minutes when Nani, of Manchester United fame, headed into the top left corner after a cross from Rodrigo Moreno, formerly a loanee at Bolton Wanderers. Relief all round. Parity lasted all of four minutes however, when an assist from Jonathan dos Santos saw a Manu Trigueros left footed shot find the bottom left hand corner. The final nail in the coffin came on 88 minutes when Italian Nicola Sansone found the top left corner. This meant wild celebrations from the Villarreal supporters at full-time, whilst the home support whistled loudly and waived white hankies, their way of saying ‘what a load of rubbish’. The stadium quickly emptied as the 33,587 spectators who had turned up went off into the evening.

Post match started off with a beer and some sort of Spanish ham and mushroom casserole dish, complete with cheese on top, eaten outside another bar, this time heading away from ground, past Corona de Aragón where I’d sat had my pre match tipple. Food in my belly and my thirst quenched, I opted for a slow meander in the general direction of the bus station.

I’d only been walking for a few minutes when I was accosted by a cyclist who started talking to me rather quickly, and as my Spanish can’t really get past ‘Una cerveza, por favor’ it took me a while to work out what he wanted.  It dawned on me that he’d obviously seen my scarf and probably wanted to know the score. When I said ‘Valencia una, Villarreal tres’ he looked like he didn’t believe me, so I repeated those words and suddenly he had a look of absolute disgust on his face. He then went on an undecipherable rant before cycling off at speed. One of the stranger moments of my day.

The final highlight of my trip was a delightfully beautiful park sandwiched down below in between two sides of a busy main road. This tree lined affair included several football pitches a rugby pitch, and a wonderful floodlit athletics track.

To round off my trip I found a bar to catch on the telly some of Real Madrid’s final day win at Malaga which secured their 33rd La Liga title. This before a swift exit to the bus station and back to Bendiorm for a few pints with my uncle and a tale to tell of a fantastic day out that I will always remember with fondness.

As published in issue 26 of Football Weekends magazine