As previously mentioned once or twice, I am in the process of writing a book based upon my 45 game tour of the Northern League 2011/12 season. Due to poor organisation and an addition to the family, it is taking a tad longer than planned. Saying that, it is well under way, and I will be publishing the odd chapter here to promote interest and garner feedback. Going back to August 2011, it all began on a warm sunny evening in Chester-le-Street….
Chester le Street Town v Brandon United
16th August 2011 7.30pm
All journeys have a beginning, and my Northern League adventure began at Moor Park, the closest ground to my humble abode at a mere 2.7 miles as the crow flies. After convincing Mrs Williams that visiting 44 Northern League grounds over the forthcoming football season was viable, I headed north on the A167, excited about the prospect of my first game of the football season. In previous years my first game of the season had almost always been a tad further up the A167 at St James Park, but bad planning from a friend meant that I was stranded at a wedding in North Yorkshire as the Magpies got their campaign underway with a 0-0 draw at home to Arsenal four days earlier.
Chester-le-Street Town have been members of the Northern League since achieving promotion from the Wearside League in 1983, three years after moving to their current home at Moor Park. Founded in 1972, the club was previously known at Chester-le-Street Garden Farm, so named after the public house which spawned the club. The club led a nomadic existence in its early years, initially playing in the Tyneside League on a pitch in the Low Fell district of Gateshead as they were unable to locate a plot in the Chester-le-Street area. After only one season Garden Farm were able to move closer to home, securing a pitch at Chester-le-Street Riverside. The club’s steady progress continued and they again moved, this time to Sacriston Colliery Welfare in 1975, where they played for five years before moving to Moor Park. The club prides itself on being a family club, and has a successful youth system that produces the majority of players for the first team. Alumni of the Chester-le-Street Town youth team include Danny Graham and Chris Basham who have both played in the Premier League and have both been transferred for more than one million pounds. More recently Adam Reach left Moor Park for Championship side Middesbrough, scoring on his league debut for the Teessiders.
Moor Park sits back from the old A1 located between the northern suburbs of Durham City and the southern edge of Chester-le-Street, surrounded by a pub, a boxing gym and a terrace of retired miners’ homes. Having previously had my fingers burnt with late cancellations or rescheduling of Northern League fixtures I dug out the number for Chester-le-Street Town FC and rang for confirmation that the game was still on. I was greeted by a cheery chap who did seem a tad confused at someone ringing to see if the game was still on bearing in mind it was a beautiful sunny late summer evening. Despite living so close to Moor Park and driving past it hundreds of times, this was my first visit to the ground. I pulled in to the car park past the Chester Moor pub and some allotments and the quality of the road soon deteriorated as I turned the corner in to the football club car park. After abandoning the car parallel to a grassy bank I headed off to the Portakabin that houses the club house and bar. The view from the outside was fairly grim, a bleak brown pebble dashed exterior with bars on the three windows and a rusting handrail on the rickety steps. Thankfully the interior was far more welcoming, with an array of framed football shirts on the walls, a television showing the build up for Arsenal’s Champions League qualifier against Udinese and a rather tasty pint of cold lager with my name on it. After indulging in a spot on people-watching whilst quaffing my drink, it became apparent that there was a fairly wide demographic in attendance, from the stereotypical ‘Northern League pensioner’ (someone else’s term, not mine) to teenagers who rocked up on BMX’s and a few in-between. At 7.25pm I joined the procession of people leaving the club house and walking across the car park to the entrance at the south-west corner of the ground where I paid the £5 admission fee to the same person who had served me my pint of lager 15 minutes earlier. It felt a world away both financially and emotively from using a micro chipped swipe card to gain access through turnstile 23 at St James Park. As opposed to being met with a bank of flatscreen televisions, an overcrowded bookies and plastic containers filled with flat looking beer, I was met with the handwritten team lists scrawled on a blackboard and a pitch bathed in sunshine with a singular small stand (that I subsequently learned sits 200 people) on the far side of the pitch.
I set off walking toward the stand as it appeared to be where all the action was at. I resisted the temptation of the burger van that was giving off the smell of boiled onions and pitched up next to the dugout. The players lined up parallel to the touchline and all shook hands before lining up in two distinctive 4-4-2 formations. After a few seconds of play it was apparent that Chester-le-Street had the advantage of both the wind and the slope on the pitch. With just three minutes on the clock Callum Patton found himself in space 18 yards out and hit a powerful low shot that whizzed just outside the post with Brandon keeper stranded. The home side continued their early pressure and forced a succession of corners, although they were unable to create a clean cut chance from them. I began a conversation with a chap next to me in a Chester-le-Street Town scarf and hat and he told me that he was expecting plenty of goals as their first game of the season produced 10 goals shared five a piece between Brandon and Northallerton Town. I told him that he had probably just jinxed the game to finish 0-0, a fact that looked more likely as Chester-le-Street keeper Kyle Barlow made a string of fine saves throughout the first half as Brandon grew in to the game. The first half continued to be an even contest with both sides having chances. Brandon were quick on the break often getting in behind Chester-le-Street’s high defensive line, where as Chester-le-Street were often more direct, using the wind and the slope to pen back the away team.
As half time approached a trickle of spectators began to walk back around the pitch toward the clubhouse, so being the sheep I am I filed in to this line and headed back toward the bar. There was a split in the clubhouse between those dining at the sandwich buffet in the back room and those watching the end of the first half of Arsenal v Udinese on the television in the corner. I wasn’t sure of the etiquette/entitlement around the sandwich buffet so I took the safe option and watched the Gunners toil against the Italians for ten minutes before heading back out to take up my position near the dugout, again avoiding the delights of the burger van.
For the second half I found myself standing between Northern League Chairman Mike Amos, who I had met at Northern League Day the previous April, and a member of the Chester-le-Street coaching team. Amos was deep in conversation with a collection of fans discussing the aforementioned weekend goal fest and the coach was talking to the spectator I spoke to in the first half who promised a high scoring game. The more I heard it mentioned the more I was certain this game was destined to be 0-0. This thought was not echoed by the elderly gentleman who had appeared next to me. Out of nowhere told me “We will get hammered now they’ve got the wind and the hill”.
“You never know, it was a fairly even first half” I replied.
“No chance, I’ve been watching this lot for years, they can’t kick a ball uphill”.
Even gravity was against Chester-le-Street Town according to this pessimistic old boy.
His pessimism wasn’t without foundation though, as Brandon had much the better of the early exchanges in the second half, forcing more saves from Barlow. With 70 minutes on the clock and the game looking more and more likely to end goalless Patton chased down the opposition keeper and intercepted the keepers pass intended for his left back. With the keeper out of position and the goal gaping Patton struck the ball first time low in the to open goal to give the home side the lead, defeating both the pessimism of my new-found friend and the scientific theories of Isaac Newton. The home crowd seemed as stunned as the Brandon defence at the turn of events, but did let out a few shouts and cheers as the ball nestled in the back of the net. The Brandon management were furious as they were made to pay for their profligacy in front of goal. The goal for the home side took the wind out of Brandon’s sails and they were unable to muster any real chances to equalise, and in the 88th minute James Baxter nearly extended the home side’s lead, shooting wide from the corner of the six-yard box. Two late corners yielded little for Brandon and after three minutes added time the referee brought the game to an end.
“I told you we’d get something from the game” said the old boy next to me. I was too stunned at his change of tact to respond, and he wandered off telling anyone who would listen that as far as he was concerned the result was never in doubt.
I followed the 104 spectators around the perimeter of the pitch toward the exit and was met with chaos in the car park with vehicles driving in all different directions trying to manoeuvre themselves toward the exit. I hopped in the car and switched the radio on, catching the end of the Arsenal game and listening to the classified football results. Surprisingly they didn’t mention Chester-le-Street Town 1 Brandon United 0, but nonetheless it was an enjoyable start to a mammoth journey. One game down, forty-four to go.
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