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. 

Saturday 14 August 2021

Save the Crew

I haven't posted many new articles or features on this blog recently but I am busy writing at the moment so hopefully, my next piece won't be far away. 

In the meantime, I recently watched an excellent three-part documentary from copa90 about the supporters of MLS side Columbus Crew and the struggles they faced trying to stop their team from moving to Austin, Texas. Well worth a watch.