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. 

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