Wednesday 14 August 2019

English Football and the Spanish City - The Beautiful Game in Whitley Bay

Probably not too many people outside of the North East are aware of Whitley Bay Football Club but Preston North End fans of a certain age certainly will be! In 1989, Preston then of the old Third Division visited the North East coast to face the non league side in an FA Cup second round tie and a packed crowd of over 3,000 witnessed one of those classic cup shocks. In front of John Motson and the Match of the Day cameras, Whitley Bay then of the Northern Premier League triumphed by two goals to nil to reach the FA Cup Third Round for the first and only time in their history and send Preston home with their tales firmly between their legs. 

Although I wasn't present on that famous day I have over the years seen several cracking FA Cup ties at Whitley Bay's Hillheads Park home and the most recent came last Saturday. I was there on a warm but damp summers day as Whitley Bay began another cup campaign, however, this being the extra preliminary round stage it was light years away from the third round, or to be precise eight victories. The visitors were Hebburn Town a club on the up. Suffering financial problems several years ago new investment had seen them finish second in the EBAC Northern League last season. The Northern League sits at step five in the non league pyramid and with extra promotion places this time around due to pyramid restructuring Hebburn are no doubt aiming for one of those spots. Playing in the same division, after a somewhat successful past Whitley Bay have been struggling in recent years finishing as low as thirteenth the previous season during which they lost 9-0 at home to none other than Hebburn Town.

Whitley Bay never did make it to Wembley in the 1989-90 season losing 1-0 away at Rochdale in round three, but they are a club who later made a name for themselves, at least in these parts, by reaching three Wembley finals in a row and winning them all. The Bay's Wembley successes came in not the FA Cup but the lesser known FA Vase, a competition for clubs in the lower reaches of non league football. Whitley Bay first won the competition in 2002 when the final was played at Villa Park whilst Wembley was being rebuilt and then won it at the home of football three seasons running in 2009, 10, and 11. Other than Billericay Town who have a trio of Vase Triumphs no other team has won the competition more than twice.

Situated next to an ice rink, Hillheads Park is one of the more impressive grounds in the Northern League with an excellent main stand on one side and covered terracing on the other, the latter being the only real upgrade since 1989 and that Preston game. There is in fact terracing most of the way around the pitch and proper concrete terracing to boot I must add! The ground has a definitely more than acceptable club shop for the level they play at which sells various club related trinkets and also has a couple of shelves of second hand football books. There is also a storeroom jam packed full of old programmes for sale from numerous matches involving clubs at all levels. Quite a collection. The Seahorse Pub clubhouse also does a roaring trade on match days as does the resident burger van, and Tommy's tea hut, named after club stalwart Tommy Moody who recently passed away.
If you want to visit Hillheads it's a twenty minute walk from Whitley Bay town centre. Ten miles from Newcastle Upon Tyne Whitley Bay is situated right on the coast just north of the mouth of the River Tyne and has over the years been a popular seaside tourist destination, albeit not quite as famous a name as other English seaside towns. It's once bustling nightlife has quietened down a little in recent years with the pubs and bars of nearby Tynemouth currently proving more popular, but until recently bank holiday drinking sessions in Whitley Bay used to be very much a top attraction in the area. One pub is formerly a fire station. 

The town is perhaps most famous for the Spanish City indoor funfair with its iconic dome. Although the building fell into disrepair in the 1980s, it recently reopened fully refurbished with a couple of upmarket bars and restaurants as well as a function room for weddings. One wonders if this might help reinvigorate the town's nightlife? The local coastline has some excellent beaches in particular Longsands beach in Tynemouth. Tynemouth also has an impressive aquarium, whilst nearby North Shields has a very popular fish quay which like the Spanish City is an excellent choice for food and drink.
You could spend all day sampling the delights of Whitley Bay and the surrounding areas but if you are like me you would no doubt before long end up at the town's football ground, and my FA Cup visit saw the hosts 2-1 down at half-time. Brad Hird ran onto a through ball and rolled it past the keeper to give the home side the lead but Whitley then conceded two penalties. Former Newcastle United youngster Louis Storey was brought down and Graeme Armstrong slotted home from the spot on 38 minutes to draw the sides level whilst three minutes later he fired home again from spot to put the visitors ahead having been himself fouled in the box.

A header after latching onto a free-kick saw Storey put Hebburn 3-1 up early in the second-half and 3-1 soon became four thanks to an own goal from Callum Anderson. Armstrong then completed his hat-trick with a third penalty after he'd been pushed in the back whilst two late goals for Hebburn completed the rout. In the 84th minute, Thomas Bott was sent off for a second bookable offence and shortly afterwards a cross from Carl Taylor saw a bullet header from Jack Donaghy make it six whilst in acres of space on the right hand side Taylor was able to find the far corner to make it seven just before the end.

7-1 to Hebburn was the full-time score, not quite as impressive as last season's result here but I'm sure they won't complain too much! As the match drew to a close the visiting support in the 448 strong crowd were belting out Belinda Carlisle's 'Heaven Is a Place on Earth' with an obvious amendment to the lyrics. Excellent stuff from the Hebburn fans and I can confirm Hebburn definitely is an actual place on this planet, my uncle lives there! 

The home support might not have enjoyed the game but for the neutral, it was an excellent day out at a first rate non league venue. Hillheads Park is one of my favourite non league grounds in the region, it's just a shame they don't have a better team to play there.

1 comment:

  1. It's a shame you weren't at Hillheads last night! You might have got a much better impression of the Whitley Bay team!