Back when Unibond strugglers Whitley Bay regarded Blyth Spartans as their rivals and not Wearside League neophytes North Shields (who were playing at Wallsend Rising Sun in those days), while Benfield were still the Corner House Sunday morning side and West Allotment used to slug it out at the top of the Alliance with the likes of Newcastle Polytechnic (Or Team Northumbria as they are now), I started watching the Northern League.
Wise sages of the amateur grassroots game on Tyneside always maintained that the Northern Alliance was the proper Geordie competition, while the Northern League, in the words of one veteran of a thousand penalty box brawls was for “Mackems, hillbillies and crackerjacks from ex pit villages.” The demographics of the Northern League have changed beyond all recognition in the past two decades, with the decimation of sides from the East Durham Coastline, the waning influence of Teesside and the almost total domination of the Newcastle and North Tyneside area clubs, in the shape of Benfield and Whitley Bay, held off only by the megabucks of Spennymoor and valiant efforts from Consett and Shildon.
The body politic of the Northern League has an intensely urban heart and only the furthest extremities of the competition have failed to be touched by Northern League Day. However, fear not; having been to every Northern League ground, I’m able to fill in a few details on the clubs who’ve not filed a guide to their ground.
Billingham Town play at Bedford Terrace and were the first club that Gary Pallister played for. As has been listed on the site already, an unseemly row that was not of their making, picked by a seemingly heartless Hartlepool United, almost saw the club that has been the personal bailiwick of octogenarian Chairman Tommy Donnelly since its formation as Billingham Social, go out of business. Thankfully, they’ve hung around and after seasons of perennial penury they continue to remain well above the drop zone in Division 1. Their Bedford Terrace ground has a smart stand and quality standing, as well as an excellent canteen and can be accessed most easily by alighting at Billingham Station and heading right out of the station down Cowpen Lane, before taking a winding right to the ground down Bedford Terrace itself. They host Jarrow Roofing, so would expect to win.
Second Division Gilford Park are another side to have had a tortuous time of it of late. For a variety of reasons that make the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case seem like a bairn’s spelling book, they were forced to play their first dozen league games away from their home ground. Subsequently they were forced to use Copeland Athletics Stadium in Whitehaven as a base until complex details with their lease were unravelled to make for an uneasy truce. Now they are back at the highly impressive Gilford Park ground. Home to the Carlisle rugby league side, it is accessed by turning right out of Carlisle station and walking down London Road for approximately a mile and half, before turning right down Petterill Bank Road, where the ground itself is right next door to the home of serious drinking in those parts, the Railway Club. I’ve been twice for Northern Alliance games and had a superb time on both occasions, but it seems as if their magnificent programme, compiled by Somerset gent in exile Harley Freemantle, is no longer as Harley has moved to Dundee. A shame. You should get a look at Gillford Park as they may not be around much longer. They host Darlington Railway Athletic and would be classed as strong favourites.
Northallerton Town are the furthest south of all Northern League clubs and, arguably, deserve to be in the Northern Counties East, but they’re not. They’ve been in the Northern League since the second division was founded in 1982/1983, bobbing between the two divisions on a regular basis. Their well-appointed Ainderby Road ground, including a superb programme shop, is easiest to get to by train. Come out of the station on your left, taking a left after half a mile at Mill Lane and another left to get on to Ainderby road itself. Or follow your nose, as they’re next door to a sewage farm. Dirty Yorkshire what? They’re playing the underachieving Chester Le Street side that were relegated last year and this one may go the way of the visitors.
Finally, Thornaby, who used to be known as Stockton, but have nothing to do with the original Stockton club, whose assets belong to Norton and Stockton Ancients. Got that? Their ramshackle, dilapidated Teesdale Park ground looked like a bombsite the one time I visited; I’ve no idea if it has improved, but their Celtic daft secretary Tommy is a fabulous bloke to chat on to about the game. If you’re going, take the train to Thornaby, come out of the station on your right on Mandale Road and cross over when it merges with Acklam Road, follow that for about half a mile and the ground is in a park, at the bottom of the hill, on your left. They host unpredictable Hebburn Town, so the result is a hard one to predict. Certainly I’d see it as the most intriguing of the 4 games mentioned here.
So, there you are; if you’re doing Whickham v Washington and then Ryton v Billingham Synthonia, or whether you’re doing any non-league game, enjoy it. I hope to see you in the pub tomorrow night, but more importantly, I hope to see you in a non-league ground many times in the future.
Thanks once again to Ian Cusack, who recently published the excellent Village Voice, an account of Percy Main’s 2009-10 promotion season all proceeds of which go towards the repair of Percy Main’s clubhouse roof. You can follow Percy Main on twitter here.