It’s a far cry from Appleby Park, arguably the finest non-league ground in north-east England and once the regular venue for crowds of 3,000 and more, but Ralph Gardner Park – or more accurately the Daren Persson Stadium following last season’s two-year sponsorship deal with a local firm of funeral directors – is slowly taking shape as one of the better grounds in Northern League Division Two. A fifteen to twenty minute walk from the Tyne Ferry landing, between the Metro stations at North Shields and the Meadowell, the ground is now completely fenced in with covered seating and standing on either end of the halfway line, a collection of portakabins behind one goal and a few steps of concrete terracing behind which the Red Ultras tie up their flags.
After blowing their hopes of promotion last season, the Robins have made a surprisingly poor start with an opening day draw at league new boys Alnwick Town followed by a 4-2 home loss to Washington, though a 1-1 FA Cup draw at Penrith kept up their record of scoring in every game this season and earned a home replay with the struggling top-flight side. Keith Douglas, scorer of both goals in the Washington defeat, netted 40 goals in all competitions last season and Anthony Woodhouse’s team scored four or more goals in a game on no fewer than twelve occasions.
Morpeth had a disastrous season last time out, only escaping relegation as the League was two teams under capacity. When Trevor Benjamin and ex-Newcastle and Rangers full-back Oliver Bernard left Craik Park in the summer, Nick Grey arrived from Seaton Delaval along with half of his former team. In a testing start to the season a pair of single goal defeats in their opening two league games left Morpeth bottom before last weekend’s 2-2 draw at Easington Colliery. Grey’s team have experience at the back in the form of Marc Walmsley, who won the FA Vase with Whitley Bay in 2002, and David Hifle, club captain and North Shields old boy. Eddie Dines played four seasons in midfield for the Loyola Greyhounds in Baltimore while David Dormand was top scorer in the Northern Football Alliance with more than 40 goals for Shankhouse before joining Morpeth in the summer.
Kick off on Friday night is 7.30pm. Admission is £4 for adults and £2 for OAPs, or £1 on production of a Newcastle United or Sunderland season ticket. Under 16s are free. The tea hut sells hot and cold drinks along with pies that cost a third of the price you’ll pay in the Premier League. While here’s no alcohol on sale at the ground there are plenty of pubs in the town itself including The Magnesia Bank and Oddfellows. You can get directions to the ground on the club’s website. If you’re coming by car, parking is available outside the turnstile or on the surrounding streets.
The game is one of three Northern League fixtures taking place on Friday night, with Tow Law Town at home to Shildon and Bishop Auckland travelling to Norton and Stockton Ancients in Division One. Admission to both games is £5 for adults, half price concessions. If you can’t wait that long, there are games tonight, tomorrow and Thursday, including four FA extra preliminary round replays and home matches for early season pacesetters Newcastle Benfield and Billingham Synthonia. There’s a full list of this week’s fixtures here.