The beautiful North

I’ll start by apologising for the cliched title. It’s something I was thinking about as we made our way up the A1 on Saturday morning. For thirty-odd years of my life, the North East held no real relevance to my life, apart from the odd trip up to watch Hull City invariably get beaten by Middlesbrough or Sunderland, or watching wonderfully named non-league sides at my hometown of Bridlington, such as Newcastle Blue Star or Peterlee Newtown. In my mid-thirties I married my wife, and trips up to Newcastle became a regular thing, with her having a Sister living in Ryton ( technically in the Borough of Gateshead ). This Saturday was no different, as another trip up for my nieces Birthday was on the cards. Never one to miss an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, I’d  sent my Brother-in-Law a list of Northern League fixtures on that day. Like me, he’s no stranger in doubling up family commitments with the chance of escaping to a game for a few hours. Messages were exchanged, and we agreed that Morpeth vs South Shields was the Game of the Day in the Ebac Northern League Division 1.

So off we set at 9am on Saturday morning. After a pit-stop for breakfast at a well known fast-food place, we were soon heading up the A1. It’s not a bad drive, bar a patch of 50mph zones. The sun was trying it’s best to come out from behind the slate grey skies, but it had a truly Autumnal feel to the surrounding landscape. Trees had turned from green to brown, several different shades of which stood out against the fields and countryside which make the North East so picturesque. It truly is the beautiful North, contrary to what many would have you believe. As we got closer to our destination, sign posts highlighted the footballing hotbed that this region has been, for as long as the game has been played. Famous names like Bishop Auckland, Consett and Dunston are entwined with names from the past, Stanley and Peterlee. Around 80 non-league sides inhabit the region, from the National League ( Step 1 ) down to the Northern Alliance and Wearside League ( Step 7 ). Our fixture was without doubt the pick of the Step 5 games, as fourth hosted second.

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20161015_143656At 2pm, my Brother-in-law, nephew and me jumped in the car for the 20 minute drive up to Craik Park, home of Morpeth. Another scenic drive ensued, to the outskirts of the town, where a left turn took us past the golf course. 400 yards up the road, and we were at the entrance to the ground, seemingly in the middle of a forest ! A tree lined car park and walk led us to the entrance, where we handed over our entrance money ( £6 for adults, and just £1 for my 10 year old nephew. Football League clubs take note ! ). We were greeted by a sight that made the title of this piece even easier to fathom. One of the most picturesque grounds I have ever seen, a vast oval enclosed by trees around the perimeter. A quick tweet would confirm this to my followers, as we did a lap of the pitch taking in every vantage point, pausing only to take pictures on my phone. And then I noticed the icing on the proverbial cake, proper floodlights. Not these modern beanpoles with 3 lights on. These were proper, old fashioned pylons, with 6 huge lights on each one, towering above the surrounding greenery. If the game hadn’t taken place, I would have still left a happy man. I’ve probably visited 100 grounds at various levels, but this one, in the early Winter sunshine, is certainly up there. To my surprise, a quick look through the programme ( a quality 48 page full colour production ) revealed that Craik Park wasn’t as old as I had thought. The club moved to the purpose built stadium in 1994, which coincided with a League and Cup double, and with it promotion to the Northern League. Craik Park was named after the father and son W and R Craik who had served as secretary between 1920 and 1995. Current President Ken Beattie was the man behind the stadium, and since 1992 has revived the clubs fortunes, culminating in last years FA Vase success at Wembley, beating favourites Hereford FC 4-1.

20161015_143321As regular readers will know ( all 2 of you ), I’m not one for match reports. There are 2 reasons for that. The first is that by the time I get to typing up my trips, the game is invariably old news. Thanks to social media, various websites, and the written press, the majority of football fans can have a match report and analysis by the time they take their cocoa up to bed on a Saturday night. And secondly, I have zero attention span, highlighted by the fact I missed the second goal checking for North Ferriby United scores on my phone. Not to be outdone, my Brother-in-Law missed the 3rd goal, selflessly queuing for our Half Time pie and chips ! Truth be told, it could easily have been 5 goals by then, the home-sides keeper pulling off 2 world class saves. Shields were worthy of their lead, admittedly against an under strength Morpeth, with the front two of Cogdon and Briggs giving the home defence a torrid time. The 2nd half was a little more even, with Shields taking their foot off the gas slightly, but they finished the scoring in the 70th minute, with the pick of the goals from Phillips, curling the ball past the keeper. It was the type of goal, that if it were scored by a Messi or Ronaldo, would be shown on Sky Sports News from dawn til dusk. A crowd of 656 witnessed the encounter – The highest Step 5 attendance of the day – with a good 2/3rds of those being visiting fans. They have big plans at South Shields, with an ambitious owner targeting the National League. Their fan base is certainly in place, boosted by disillusioned Newcastle and Sunderland fans, looking to find what the professional game no longer provides. For 2 hours on Saturday afternoon, both sides served up some quality football, on a decent pitch, in a far corner of the North East. The beautiful game, in grass roots form, is alive and well in the beautiful North.

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