One of the enduring frustrations of following non-league football is the vagary of the fixture list. Same as The Premiership, the summer sees a comprehensive list of games published. However, at this level, the clubs are required to follow several masters who are in a strictly defined pecking order. First of all, the FA Cup, secondly the FA Vase, thirdly the County FA, fourthly the League cup and finally the League programme. Consequently, the best laid plans set out in July heat can be ruined before the leaves have left the trees. Even worse than the decisions of the Blue Blazers, are the effects of the climate on games.
This game, which is the only true derby that is taking place on Northern League Day, should have been played on Wednesday November 10th. However, the notoriously porous Blue Flames turf, was declared unplayable after a couple of hours moderate drizzle, which necessitated me attending the horrific car crash game that was Newcastle United 1 Blackburn Rovers 2. As a Benfield fan, this is another reason to dislike West Allotment, even though I don’t really.
In fact, even as a Benfield fan, it is almost certain I won’t be at a Northern League game on Northern League Day as my Saturday responsibilities extend to following my first love, Percy Main Amateurs of the Northern Alliance Premier Division. Of course, the Alliance top brass keep their cards close to their chest, so as a result, we probably won’t find out whom we’re playing until a fortnight beforehand. However, I’ve been to Blue Flames often enough to know the ground intimately.
Looking at the games listed on April 9th, I would say that every other Division One fixture is being played at grounds with more charm and more atmosphere, though not necessarily better facilities than Blue Flames. Whitley Park, to give it its proper name (Blue Flames is a nickname that dates back to when it was the British Gas sports complex, in the same way that Newcastle United’s adjoining training facility Darsley Park used to be the Civil Service Sport Ground), is owned by the Northumberland FA and while WAC are the principal tenants, it is used for all NFA representative games and cup finals, bar the Senior Cup which still takes place at SJP. Newcastle United have often used Blue Flames for reserve games and a particularly dire 0-0 with Everton on a Monday night in February 2004 destroyed the previously immaculate turf, as the club insisted the game went ahead so Craig Bellamy could get some match practice, though a game a week or so later when WAC lost 1-0 at home to Cray Wanderers in the last 8 of the FA Vase, watched by almost 1,500 punters, was equally culpable. As a result Whitley Park is often one of the first call-offs when the sky empties itself.
West Allotment Celtic, formed in 1928, initially played at Holystone, then moved to the Farm Ground in 1938, before arriving at Backworth Welfare in 1968, which was to be home until they became tenants of the Northumberland FA at Whitley Park in 2001. Having spent their formative years in the Tyneside Amateur League, Allotment’s glory period started in 1984 when they joined the Northern Alliance, where they won 8 titles before joining the Northern League in 2004, claiming the Second Division Championship in their debut season. They’ve stayed in the top flight ever since, but 11 straight league losses from November to the end of February saw the club tumble in to the bottom 3. Having seen them lose witlessly 2-0 at home to Tow Law on February 19th and unluckily 2-1 at Benfield a few days later, they look doomed.
The easiest way to get to Blue Flames, which is on the A191 Whitley Road in Benton (post code NE12 9SF) by public transport, is by Metro. Don’t bother try to get a bus; there isn’t one. Get off at Benton. If you’ve travelled from the coast you’re on the correct side, but if you’ve come from town, walk underneath the tracks, and head up Station Road to the traffic lights about 100 yards ahead. At the lights cross the main A191 and turn left; Blue Flames is almost directly in front of you. Alternatively, for thirsty fans, get off at the previous / next stop Four Lane Ends. Come left out the Metro and take the first left on to the A191, which is Benton Front Street at that point. The first pub is the Benton Ale House, a charming, quiet spot with always a choice of 4 good quality Real Ales on offer. After that is the Black Bull, a TJ Bernard one room identikit noisy youngsters bar selling Magners and Carling, then thirdly is the excellent Ship, which always has a good selection of cask beers as well. There isn’t any fast food outlet, but all the pubs do food and there is a curry house and pizza place if you feel the need for a sit down job. I don’t mean a poo either.
Entrance at Blue Flames is £4 (£2 concessions), programmes (which used to be a superb effort by club Press Officer Stephen Allott) are £1 and there’s a golden goal raffle for 50p. There is a pricey bar selling keg beers (the Guinness isn’t bad) and a snack bar doing hot drinks and pies, which closes just after half time.
As far as the two clubs are concerned, this is a local rivalry, but not an ancient one as Benfield were only formed in 1989. West Allotment are a club with around 70 hard core fans, who are in their twilight years in the main. I do worry what will happen when the current committee get too decrepit to carry on. Relegation may not be kind for the club, though striker Martin Roper, newly arrived from D2 Birtley where he bagged 20 goals, is a good signing and may have something to say about this sad state of affairs.
Benfield don’t have appreciably more fans, but they are younger, more enthusiastic, generally on the committee or at least involved. To a man they are proper East End Geordie lads. When Benfield won the League and Cup double in 2009, I went to the end of season do; it was at The Turbinia on the Fossway, in Walker, or Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalkaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa as people from Walker call it. They don’t stand on ceremony, but Paul Baker’s side are one of the best around. Players to look out for include keeper Andrew Grainger, a former public schoolboy who has been an England beach football international, centre half pairing the teak tough Kev Leighton and the cultured ex West Ham apprentice Phil Lumsden, the Walkergate Socrates Paul Anthony in midfield, chunky winger Adam Scope and superb natural finisher Michael Chilton, who started his career with WAC.
If I had to make a prediction, I’d go for West allotment Celtic 1 Newcastle Benfield 3. However, most importantly, I hope it’s a quality game with a good crowd, who show their faces at a non league game again.
Many thanks to Ian Cusack, who besides having written for every single Newcastle United fanzine going was also a regular contributor to When Saturday Comes. His highly recommended first book, Village Voice, is on sale now, with all proceeds going to Percy Main Amateurs Football Club.