Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Enjoying The Craik

Getting to Morpeth's Craik Park without a car is, to be honest, a little awkward, albeit rather scenic. Disembarking at the town's train station or slightly closer at the nearest bus stop both involve walking down a long tree-lined path that runs through the local golf club and then through some woods and finally walking across muddy playing fields, just  to get to a back entrance you could almost miss amongst a mass of tall trees. The alternative is heading for the main entrance and car park which involves walking down a winding country road that has no footpath alongside it, making unsuitable for those arriving on foot. Slightly easier to get to however is St. Jame's Park. The home of Newcastle United is right in the heart of Newcastle city centre, and as we enter the business end of the season, what is a massive week for Morpeth Town AFC starts at this illustrious Premier League stadium.

It's mid April and four days before Morpeth entertain Pontefract Colliers in a game that could see the Northumberland based club crowned Evo Stick League Division One East champions and secure a second successive promotion, they face Northern League Division One side North Shields in the final of the Northumberland Senior Cup.

Nicknamed the Highwaymen, in 2011 Morpeth Town finished bottom of Division Two of the Northern League playing in front of fewer than 30 fans for some games, that is the 10th tier of English football and two divisions below the level at which they currently play. Since then they have been through an impressive turnaround, are on the verge of a third promotion in the years since, and during that period have also won the FA Vase at Wembley. This is a club on the up, and with a league and cup double in their sights, they could soon be flying higher than ever before.

St James' Park takes pride of place amongst the Newcastle skyline and is easy to spot when driving into the city. In a football mad town, this is their cathedral and fans from all over the Tyneside area and beyond flock to this 52,000 all seater fortress to watch their beloved Newcastle United. The ground has hosted many other major events over the years and one regular feature at the venue is the Northerland Senior Cup final every year. Last season Morpeth Town lost to Newcastle United's u23 side in the final and this year they return hoping not to go away empty handed again. Their opponents North Shields meanwhile were here two seasons earlier when they beat Blyth Spartans 4-3 in what was a cracking final.

So to St James' Park. I walk past the famous Strawberry pub opposite the ground then turn right towards the East Stand where plenty of fans mingling about outside when I arrive on cup final night. Only the East Stand is open tonight since as you'd expect they aren't expecting anywhere near a full house for two local non league sides, but the loyal fans from both sides that do turn up are in full voice at the turnstiles, particularly the North Shields lot who are rather boisterous. Calling themselves the North Shields Ultras, for the clubs home games at the Darren Persson Stadium they usually stand on a grassy bank for which they have christened the Curva Nord. There is also a large group of Morpeth fans in attendance amongst the 2247 strong crowd, and not wanting to be outdone soon come to life chanting themselves.

Inside the ground, I find a decent vantage point and stare at the emptiness of large parts of this imposing stadium, particularly the giant Milburn and Leazes stands which are usually jam pack full of black and whites. As the game gets underway Morpeth start the brighter, but North Shields, however, do improve as the half goes on and a draw at half-time would have been a fair result. A 25yd effort from Sam Hodgson sees the North Shields 'keeper forced to make a save on 19 minutes, whilst not long after at the other end, Gary Day has a shot deflected over the bar. But just before half-time arrives Liam Henderson heads Morpeth in front, Joe Walton then has a tame effort saved but Morpeth lead 1-0 at the break.
In the second half, a Walton header is superbly tipped onto the bar and the rebound is headed over by Chris Reid. Liam Henderson also heads wide and not grabbing a second costs Morpeth dearly when a Sean McRoberts cross headed home by Craig Spooner late on to force extra time, a goal that brings the North Shields Ultras back to life with wild scenes.

In extra time, Jordan Fry has a shot deflected wide for Morpeth whilst Carson sees a shot of his blocked by the 'keeper. Morpeth then retake the lead when a Stephen Forster cross is nodded into the path of Jack Foalle by Walton and Foalle volleys home at the Leazes End, cue rapturous celebrations from the Morpeth followers with North Shields supporters heading for the exits. 2-1 Morpeth is the final score and Morpeth have won the cup, but can they add words such as 'league' and 'double'? It's off to Craik Park on the following Saturday for me to find out.

Craik Park is a hive of activity when I arrive about an hour before kick-off, at least the clubhouse is anyway. With the sound of probably the loudest loudspeakers I've ever come across in non league football blasting out various tunes, I walk around the ground in peace taking photographs before entering the clubhouse for a pint and finding it absolutely rammed.
Eventually, the supporters filter towards the pitch in time for kick off, all 950 of them, a bumper crowd for a big day. The original main stand on one side of the pitch sits on the same side as a newer temporary looking covered stand, whilst the other side of the pitch hosts a second temporary stand, and there is covered terracing at one end.  Surrounded by trees on three sides the setting is rather picturesque, although the ground itself feels a little disjointed with the mismatch of stands.

Morpeth know a victory over their second placed rivals would secure the title but defeat will close the gap to just four points, and disaster strikes after just three minutes when Michael Dunn fires the visitors into the lead.

After the shock of going behind Morpeth begin to dominate, Foalle has an effort cleared off the line whilst Michael Turner heads over before the equaliser comes on 38 minutes courtesy of Sean Taylor who volleys home from a Walton cross. Both sides have further chances but it's 1-1 at the break.

Morpeth aren't going to settle for a draw however and Walton volleys through a crowd of bodies and into the net on the hour mark to give the home side the lead. Two minutes later Taylor heads over and then 2-1 becomes 3-1 on 75 minutes. Carson splits the defence in two with a brilliant ball before Foalle runs clear of Spencer Clarke and rounds the keeper to slot home.

Morpeth hold on for the win and there are wild celebrations at the final whistle. The fans are partying, the players are celebrating, Morpeth Town are champions, the Northumberland side and their pleasant stadium set amongst a backdrop of beautiful towering trees are heading for the Evo-Stick Premier Division.
The bar is doing a roaring trade after the game as the locals celebrate the clubs fantastic achievement. I don't hang around myself however, it's a retreat back across the playing fields for me as I head towards the bus stop. Who knows maybe the next bus will be an open top one, after all Morpeth have achieved it would certainly be deserved!

This piece was featured in issue 48 of Football Weekends magazine, September 2019

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