Monday 2 September 2019

Newcastle Benfield; The Club at the Heart of one of Newcastle's East End suburbs.

Situated between a small housing estate and a secondary school in a nondescript suburb it has to be said that Sam Smith's Park is a world away from the Premier League ground that sits just over three miles away. But whilst Newcastle United is a club mostly surrounded by doom and gloom with an owner nobody wants and a fanbase at times divided things look a little more harmonious at near neighbours Newcastle Benfield.

With Newcastle often described as a 'one club city', you could almost be forgiven for thinking there is only one team in town, Benfield fans, however, would most definitely disagree. Having said that, with attendances usually averaging in the low hundreds and in stark contrast to the 50,000+ plus who often turn up down the road, the fact that Newcastle United and Newcastle Benfield both hail from the same city is probably where the similarities end.
Crossing the iconic Tyne Bridge from Gateshead into Newcastle Upon Tyne sees you enter a thriving city famous for it's warm welcome and it's world renowned nightlife. Right in the centre of town, the magnificent Grey's Monument sits at the top of Grey Street a street once voted the Best Street in Britain by Radio 4 listeners due to its stunning architecture which includes the majestic Theatre Royal. The city's splendid Quayside is another destination popular with tourists and it's contemporary Millenium Bridge takes you across to the old Baltic Flour Mill now an art gallery and the modern, built to impress, Sage music venue that both sit on the Gateshead side of the river. Some claim the Sage is Tyneside's answer to the Syndey Opera House, whilst interestingly Sydney's Harbour Bridge was modelled on Newcastle's very own Tyne Bridge. You can't complete a tour of Newcastle City Centre, however, without visiting the Cathedral on the HIll where the Premier League stars strut their stuff. Otherwise known as St Jame's Park, unlike many modern out of town stadiums the home of Newcastle United sits right in the heart of the city centre. Away from the city centre though, there is another local football team making a name for themselves albeit situated in far less glamorous surroundings...

Arriving from the city centre, when you disembark from your train at Walkergate Metro station and walk down the stairs to ground level you find yourself on a small main road amongst the neat bungalows and semi-detached houses of this small rather plain East End suburb. Walk further up Benfield Road and you'll find a small NHS medical centre to your left and a school to your right, turn right past the side of the school, you could almost miss it, past the brick houses and through the car park, you are here, welcome to Newcastle Benfield Football Club.

Newcastle Benfield were formed as recently as 1988, almost 100 years after their Premier League neighbours, and spent their first fifteen years plying their trade in the Northern Alliance until they joined the Nothern League in 2003 where they achieved immediate promotion from Division Two to Division One. Currently residing in Northern League Division One which is the ninth tier of English football they have in recent times became a well known name on the local non-league scene developing a small but loyal following who can often be spotted in their blue and white Benfield shirts on matchdays.

In 2009 the club completed a Northern League league and cup double, but the club had first come to real prominence in non-league circles when they reached the fourth (final) qualifying round of the FA Cup in 2006.

Having already progressed through two rounds Benfield won 2-0 at then Conference North side Hyde United in what was a big big upset. In the next round, Benfield defeated Guiseley 1-0 away from home and although Guiseley were a division below Hyde at the time it was nonetheless still a hugely impressive result. It was also a result that put them one win away from the first round proper. 927 people crammed into Sam Smith's Park when York City then of the Conference came to town for the fourth qualifying round tie but despite putting in a stellar performance Benfield sadly lost 1-0.

Two years later Benfield reached the third qualifying round and again reached that stage in 2017 when 403 turned up for the visit of National League North side Kidderminster Harriers. One visiting fan thinking he was clever said to me "I bet this is the biggest crowd you've ever had," upon which I replied, "no, over 900 were here when we played York City about ten years ago." As someone who is a regular watcher of North East non-league football I happened to be present for the York City tie, and in attendance again, I was to witness similar scenes against Kidderminster who like the Minstermen would also run out 1-0 winners.
At Benfield's home ground the aesthetics of the stadium are fairly pleasing on the eye, and with this compact non-league arena mostly surrounded by somewhat striking trees, it is actually a rather scenic place to watch football. Situated close to the East Coast mainline, on matchday's the rumble of trains is an occasional accompaniment to the shouts and cheers of the Benfield crowd. Two small seated stands sit either side of the pitch both of which have a small section of covered terracing next to them. Behind the goals, one end is rather empty and forlorn looking whilst the other end houses a clubhouse, players changing facilities, and even a newly built gym. 

Benfield are a family club at the heart of the community and more than just the eleven players on the pitch. Outside of matchday's the club house serves Sunday lunches every week, and hosts Bingo on a Thursday evening, whilst the club recently hosted a summer family fun day with a bouncy castle, inflatable slide, penalty shoot-out competition, and in the evening a disco inside the club house.

My latest trip down Benfield Road is for another FA Cup tie. Benfield last year lost to Workington via a replay and again they face the same opposition in the same competition. It is a preliminary round tie and Workington having been relegated last season now sit just one division above their hosts.

Benfield are currently managed by ex-Newcastle United youngster Stuart Elliott, Elliott never made a first team appearance for the Magpies but went on to make 88 Football League appearances for various clubs before dropping into non-league football. Whilst at Northwich Victoria he played alongside another man who would also go on to play a vital role at Newcastle Benfield. Still at the club aged 41, Elliott's ex Vics colleague striker Paul Brayson is another ex Newcastle United youngster but he left the club in 1998 to join Reading for £100,000. Brayson went on to play for various other league and non-league clubs before joining Benfield several years ago where he has regularly been the star of the show.

Elliott's men have a crowd of 248 for company when Workington come to town for a second season running and this includes club mascot Leo the Lion who is walking around the ground greeting spectators (the club are nicknamed the lions). Another point of interest is that the visitors rather amusingly have someone on their substitutes bench named Sam Smith!

The home side more than holds their own in the first half and the game is tied at 0-0 during the interval. It's a sweltering hot August day and at half time I head for some refreshments. In terms of catering facilities the small 'Snack Attack' food bar attached to the club house is far from the worst I've seen on the local non-league scene and given the conditions the ice cold cans of pop and bottles of water are too good to turn down. I also opt for a slice of some homemade looking cake titled 'Back to School Cake'. Delicious stuff.

The stalemate continues into the second half until late on when a Workington defender blocks the ball with his hands in the box and the home side are awarded a penalty. Dennis Knight slots home to give Benfield the lead and most of the crowd are delighted. The hosts then hold on through until full-time to leave the visitors going home disappointed.

Another pleasant afternoon at Sam Smith's Park as Newcastle Benfield again do themselves proud against higher division opposition and this time actually win. An excellent start to the season has seen the club not only progress in the cup but also lose only one of their opening six league games. Pyramid restructuring means three promotion places are up for grabs in Division one of the Northern League this season and this will no doubt be on the club's mind as the season progresses. With their Premier League city rivals seemingly lurching from one crisis to another, it's great to see one club from Newcastle enjoying themselves. These may seem like dark times for football in the city, but amongst haze, the small shining light of community based club Newcastle Benfield is most definitely peering through.

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