FRIDAY, APRIL 18
Whitley Bay 2
Newcastle Benfield 1
I arrive at Hillheads Park, home of Whitley Bay, courtesy of The Fox who is in the north east for just one day of the four Northern League 125th Anniversary Hop days. After witnessing a classy North Shields side capture the Division Two title in front of an incredible thirteen hundred fans, we race to Whitley Bay ahead of the hordes, so he can take some pictures of the ground sans people. There is plenty of time before the 2.30pm kick off. It is my only revisit of the whole weekend but I don’t really mind: from what I remember, this is my idea of a football ground.
I think it was a visit to Whitley Bay that first sealed my love affair with the Northern League. I watched a match of superb quality one Tuesday night many years ago: a game of wonderful pace, technique and passion really fired my enthusiasm. I scanned the programme to see where the two sides were in the table, understandably starting at the top end and was shocked to find them both at the very bottom. I remember thinking to myself that if these were the worst two teams in the division, what were the others like?!
I already have my entrance ticket and programme as part of the Hop Pack to save messing about at the turnstiles and risking a sell out. The programme (£1) just has to be called Bay Watch, of course, and this glossy issue covers two matches. After a quick visit to the office, I am the proud owner of a teamsheet (10p).
The Fox is busily snapping away with his camera. The main grandstand is the centre of attention, complete with its sloping wooden floor at the rear. There is a covered terrace on the opposite side but most fans are sitting on the open terraces taking in some rays. I can feel the sun already having an effect on my bald spot, so I scuttle into the shade like an undead character from Twilight.
The inter-match coach arrives and causes chaos along the small access road to the stadium. The burger van is soon besieged by hungry Hoppers and once news of a teamsheet gets out the office is stripped bare in no time at all!
The thing about these Hops is that the more you attend, the more friends you tend to make. This means that when you wander around a ground, it takes longer to complete a circuit simply due to the increasing number of acquaintances one stops and chats with. On such a pleasant spring day in such traditional football surroundings as Hillheads then it takes even longer than usual.
The match is one of those archetypal game-of-two-halves affairs: Bay completely dominate the first forty five minutes, Benfield the second. The home side somehow manage to score twice in the second half but then sloppily allow the visitors back in with an own goal.
This will not rank up there with Whitley’s four FA Vase wins, though they will be very pleased with the 588 attendance. For most Hoppers, it is now a quick getaway for a relatively long drive up to Ashington for the third match of the day. I prolong this drive for The Fox by missing the turn off the A1 and having to circumnavigate Morpeth. That will teach me to lend Jane SatNav to my wife.
Ticket value: 4; Programme: 3; Food: 3; Facilities: 3.5; Bar: 3; Welcome: 4; Match: 2.5; Overall: 4.