Non-league in the North East

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When I arrived in Durham two months ago, one of the things highest on my agenda was to get a sample of some of the North East’s football offering. The priority was to explore football at its purest – the wonderful world of floodlight failures, dodgy dugouts and treacherous toilets that is, of course, England’s non-league pyramid. The first destination chosen was one of the closer non-league clubs to Durham – National League North high-flyers, Spennymoor Town, who were up against mid-table Rushall Olympic. And my goodness, it was proper non-league. All the stereotypes were there: a man watching from his bedroom window; the chairman handing out the players’ water bottles at half-time; numerous balls ballooning high and wide out of the ground. There was even an elderly man who collapsed at half-time – only to be stretchered out waving and saluting to the crowd.

The variety of players’ abilities in the sixth tier also struck me – Rushall’s 18-year-old winger on loan from fourth tier Walsall, attacking a 37-year-old, balding, out-of-shape journeyman was only ever going to go one way! The league’s mix of shapes, sizes, and hairlines certainly made for an intriguing spectacle – with a special mention to Spennymoor’s 41 year old centre back and captain, James Curtis – what he lacked in fitness, he made up for in leadership.

The league’s mix of shapes, sizes and hairlines certainly made for an intriguing spectacle

The match ended with a comfortable 3-0 Spennymoor win, with manager Lewis Dickman praising the players’ ‘relentless effort to go and score goals and the desire and character to actually keep a clean sheet’. The downside to Spennymoor? Seemingly Durham students rarely venture down to Spennymoor – and as such they did not include student prices in their concessions. We had to therefore pay the full adult rate – a bank blasting £15 – to gain entry.

No matter, whilst I left Spennymoor with my wallet lighter, my appetite for non-league was certainly heavier. It was agreed to sample another one of the local clubs the following Saturday – this time a bit further afield, and a lot further down the division – lowly Darlington – marooned at the foot of the league table. In a hotly contested game marred by some more than questionable refereeing decisions (are these the same referees as the ones who do college football matches?), it was fellow strugglers, Kings Lynn Town, who took home an invaluable three points. Mind, not before some of the local ten-year-olds let off a cacophony of profanities towards their players – start ‘em young and all that.

The fixture computer wasn’t particularly forgiving to Kings Lynn this season – already a southerly team playing in the northern half of the sixth tier – the Saturday after their Darlington victory, they were back in the Northeast, this time at South Shields. Major kudos to any fans of the Norfolk side who made both trips; they would have covered a staggering 782 miles across the two weekends!

It was decided that a trip to South Shields for the Norfolk outlet’s visit was warranted. Whilst their stadium – the 1st Cloud Arena – would be winning no beauty contests being situated between a Burger King and a railway line, their fans did bring a far better atmosphere than their two northeast National League North counterparts. Perhaps this was helped by their (at the time of writing) second placed position, but there was a noticeable difference in the amounts of noise the locals made here than they did at either Spennymoor or Darlington. It would be a cliche to suggest that the amount of noise made by the fans correlates to the performance of the team, so I won’t say that; all I will say is it made for a far more enjoyable spectacle as a neutral having chanting in the background.

I’d urge any football enthusiasts to follow this trend

In terms of the game itself, Kings Lynn paid the price for squandering an early penalty as South Shields scored in the 64th and 89th minutes in a fairly comfortable 2-0 victory. But, of course, the true highlight of the game was the chips and gravy at half-time – the top tier ‘scran’ served at the 1st Cloud Arena is not to be missed. So, what’s next? Well, with trips to Gateshead, Hartlepool and York City on the horizon the non- league ‘stadium crawl’ isn’t stopping anytime soon.

 I’d urge any football enthusiasts to follow this trend – pop down to Spennymoor, South Shields, Darlington or any other local ground for a Saturday afternoon of non-league action. Not only does it help sustain these clubs financially (at a time where more and more teams are going under due to financial mismanagement), but it is also truly refreshing to get out of Durham city centre for a day to explore more parts of the Northeast. Chances are you’ll get talking with some of the local people as well. So, with that being said, South Shields versus Chester on Saturday anyone?

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