Northern League v The FA Cup

Barring an aberration when the powers that be decided the FA Cup 3rd round should be played before Christmas, the fans of the bigger clubs get their first taste of the world’s oldest knock out competition in the first week of a new year.  The clubs in the bottom two tiers of league football traditionally join the competition in November with the 1st round proper being the start the main stream media coverage.

The FA Cup adventure for the clubs in the Northern League however began back in August of this year, in only the second week of the Premier League season.  Unfortunately for the clubs in the Northern League, this year saw the FA adopt a new groupings format that meant in the first three qualifying rounds, the Northern League clubs were drawn against each other.  Thirty-five out of thirty-six Northern League clubs surveyed protested at the new arrangements, arguing that the adventure and magic of playing different teams was lost as they were drawn against their regular league opponents.  Thankfully this has been changed for next season and the draw, whilst remaining geographically sensible for clubs at this level, will include a wider range of potential opponents.

This weekend sees the fourth and final qualifying round of the FA Cup and two Northern League clubs have battled through numerous ties to be within 90 minutes of the first round.  Hebburn Town of the Northern League Division Two are up against near neighbours and Blue Square Premier outfit Gateshead.  For a far more detailed preview of this game take a look at Andy Hudson’s piece for In Bed With Maradona and also numerous features on The Real FA Cup.

Also facing a daunting task are Ashington AFC who travel to Cleethorpes to face former Football League club Grimsby Town.  So far in the competition Ashington have disposed of fellow Northern League clubs Ryton & Crawcrook Albion, Northallerton Town and Shildon before knocking out higher level opposition in the shape of Vauxhall Motors and Guiseley.  Ashington manager Gary Middleton has assembled a squad of good young talent combined with some astute signings of youngster released from the local professional clubs.  Johnny Godsmark, Matthew Grieve and Darren Lough were all on the books at Newcastle United and featured at junior and reserve level for the Magpies.  Godsmark is a flying winger who has the potential to cause problems for the Grimsby defence with his blistering pace.  Grieve, an Ashington lad, joined in the summer after a trial at Leyton Orient, and his performances have alerted scouts higher up the football food chain.  Lough is an attacking left-back who unfortunately won’t feature against Grimsby after suffering a fractured skull against Vauxhall Motors in the second qualifying round.  Lough is one of three players to have suffered serious injuries along with Steven Young and Gareth Bainbridge.  The Ashington players have said in the build up to the game that they want to win the game for these players.

Ashington have sold out their supporters buses for the trip to Lincolnshire and many more fans are expected to make their own way to Blundell Park.  Here is hoping that Hebburn Town and Ashington can make it two Northern League clubs in the hat for the first round proper.

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The Football Revolution – The Bloggers are Coming

In the same week that the BBC announced 2,000 job losses as part of a drive to save the best part of £670m, Jeff Livingstone from the cult football blog In Bed With Maradona made his debut appearance on Five Live’s Monday Night Club in a new slot called Booted, a new section of the show aimed at ‘offering listeners fresh thought on the world of football that can’t be heard anywhere else.’ So far the show has featured the likes of Luke Moore from the blog and website The Football Ramble, Andy Brassell, a freelance European football journalist and Michael Cox from the tactically astute Zonal Marking website.

In Bed With Maradona, along with the likes of The Swiss Ramble, Zonal Marking, The Football Ramble and The Ball is Round are at the top end of the football blogging world, both in quality of content and popularity. In recent times the technology and access to information has allowed fans of football to share their niche interests with like minded folk away from the constraints of the mainstream media. The topics covered by these blogs along are as wide ranging as you could imagine, from Lego football stadiums to the buy to sell policy adopted by Udinese with a bit of 1970s Armenian football thrown in. If Henry Winter went to his editor saying he had just finished 2,000 words on Ararat Yerevan’s 1973 double season it is more than likely it wouldn’t make it to print, but these topics have a home in the blogosphere, with a growing number of football fans eager to step away from the main stream coverage of football increasingly focussed on England, the two Manchester clubs, North London, Chelsea and Liverpool.

The internet is awash with football writers covering every subject imaginable. There are sites devoted to ground hoppers, football travel, life outside the Premier League, Premier League youth teams, non-league divisions, European leagues, specific club tactical analysisfootball betting and much more. In addition to those websites, these writers are more often than not found on micro-blogging website Twitter, proving it is useful for more than finding out what Lady Gaga is up to and how Michael Owen feels the price of Champions League final tickets are unfair for the players.

Speaking of Twitter, the editor of Match of the Day recently closed his account as a result of the amount of negativity he received. Whilst some of the comments sent his way were abusive and unjustified, a fair chunk of the criticism was about the poor quality analysis and punditry on the show. Alan Shearer infamously said on MOTD that “we really don’t know much about Hatem Ben Arfa” after the Frenchman had scored his first goal for Newcastle. As an ex-footballer and someone who often reminds people he wants to be a top level manager, it is worrying that he wasn’t aware of a French international player with numerous Champions League appearances to his name who had been transferred for £10m and had previously been linked to Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Real Madrid. Shearer, along with Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson are often the targets of much derision due to the clichéd analysis the churn out week after week. Lawrenson will tell us how it’s not always easy to play against ten men, Shearer will tell us that Aguero has now arrived in world football after netting against Swansea and Hansen will tell us about poor defending without explaining why or how.

In these austere times surely it is these highly paid ex-professionals who should be kicked off their gravy train to save the Beeb a few bob. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but it is rumoured that Shearer and Hansen are both on in excess of £1m per year for their ‘expertise’.

The simple option would be to make MOTD a goals show, along the lines of Football First on Sky Sports. Another option would be to allow some of the obvious alternative talent a shot at the top table. Even if it is not someone from the blogosphere, there are a number of intellectually sound football journalists such as Gabriele Marcotti and Ian McGarry who have demonstrated on the radio and in print their knowledge and ability to convey information without the patronising manor used by those in the ex-pro’s closed shop. Too often those in the game trot out the “you don’t know what you are talking about as you’ve never played the game” line, to protect their place at the top table. Football writers and bloggers make no claims otherwise, but the idea that they have nothing to offer because they have never played professionally is as stupid as it is insulting. A recent sign of the establishment becoming rattled was Bolton Wanderers manager Owen Coyle pouring scorn on analysis of their playing style in a piece by Michael Cox of Zonal Marking.

Football writers and bloggers will never replace the football journalist, and whilst it is the dream of most of the amateur writers to carve some kind of living from their passion, most accept it is not going to happen. However, it may not be too long before some of those at the top of the game are appearing more frequently in the mainstream media as well as in the online world.

Imagine MOTD presented by Iain Macintosh with Gabriele Marcotti, Jeff Livingstone and Michael Cox as the pundits! It would be damn sight better than Lineker, Shearer, Lawrenson and Hansen that’s for sure.

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Gateshead FC: Athletics Stadiums and The Prince Consort

Four weeks in to the new season and a club from the North East is sitting proudly above all the other clubs in their division.  It is not one of the big three clubs of Newcastle, Sunderland or Middlesbrough, nor is it Hartlepool or Darlington.  The club in question is Gateshead FC who are joint top of the Blue Square Premier after 7 games.

The club are reaping the rewards of a second full season of full time status after turning professional for the start of the 2010/11 season.  This move has allowed manager Ian Bogie to assemble a squad of professionals rather than being limited by the part-time status the club had formerly.  It is estimated that the switch from part-time to full-time lead to a 40% increase in the playing budget available to Bogie.

Gateshead has had a football club in various different guises since 1889 when Gateshead NER FC was formed.  However, when South Shields moved to Gateshead to form Gateshead AFC in 1930,Gatesheadhad its own Football League club.  In their second season of league football in the Third Division North Gateshead were only pipped to promotion to the second tier of English football by the superior goal difference of rivals Lincoln City.  Gateshead AFC were a league club for 30 years but perhaps their finest achievement came in 1953 when they reached the quarter final of the F.A Cup, beating Liverpool en route. Gateshead were denied further glory as they succumbed to a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Bolton Wanderers.  However in 1960 Gatesheadwere denied re-election to the new Division Four and were replaced by Peterborough United, a decision some felt to be based more on geographical factors than footballing reasons.  For thirteen years Gateshead AFC played in various regional divisions and even unsuccessfully applied to join the Scottish league.  Gateshead AFC ceased to exist in 1973 after leaving Redheugh Park and being placed in to liquidation.

Gateshead Town and Gateshead United both tried and failed to fill the void left by the collapse of Gateshead AFC, but both were ultimately doomed to failure.

In 1977 Gateshead FC were formed, and an agreement was reached with the local authority for the new club to play at the recently developed Gateshead International Stadium.  The club rapidly rose through the Northern Premier League and Alliance Premier League and spent several seasons in the Football Conference.  However, long time sponsors Cameron Hall withdrew their support in 1998 and the club began to decline again. Gatesheadwere relegated from the Northern Premier League, but were reprieved when this league introduced a geographical split.

Local businessman Graham Wood then took over the club and appointed coach Ian Bogie as the new manager following the sacking of Tony Lee.  Bogie lead the team to 9th place in the Northern Premier League before finishing 3rd in his first full season, securing promotion to the Conference North after beating Buxton 2-0 in a play-off.  The following season Gateshead continued where they had left off and again won a promotion play-off, this time against AFC Telford United.  With two successive promotions Gateshead once again found themselves in the top division of non-league football.

Gateshead’s first season was a struggle and they only stayed up on the final day of the season.  Their second season, the first as a full-time outfit, was more tranquil, safely finishing in 14th place, avoiding any relegation worries.  During this season they were involved in a record high-scoring game when they beat Wrexham 7-2 away from home.

With their Blue Square Premier status secured, Bogie began reshaping the squad for a tilt at promotion with the Tynesiders.  With eight players leaving the club, Bogie was left with space in his squad to bring in the players he envisaged will improve the squad.  Bogie brought in eight new players, five of whom have league experience.  With the new signings gelling even quicker than the most ardent ‘Heed’ fan could have hoped for, and Paul Shaw in a rich vein of goalscoring, Gateshead have won six and drawn one of their opening seven games.

Ambitious Chairman Graham Wood has made moving the club in to its own ground away from the International Stadium a top priority under his stewardship.  As fans of Brighton are all too aware, and fans of West Ham will soon discover, playing football in an athletics stadium is not conducive for creating a good atmosphere, with the fans separated from the pitch by an eight lane running track.  In addition to this, the majority of match day revenue at the International Stadium is made by Gateshead Council rather than the football club.   Gateshead have secured a site at Prince Consort Roadin the town centre, close to the transport interchange and the Civic Centre, where they plan to build their own 7,000 capacity stadium.  When the plans were formulated Gateshead planned to share the main stand space with the Gateshead Primary Care Trust, but this has since broken down due to funding issues following the government spending cuts.  On September 2nd Chairman Graham Wood told BBC Radio Newcastle that he has new tenants lined up for the space allocated to the PCT, but that this change in plans will likely delay the new stadium for two years.  ‘Heed’ fans are less then enamoured at the prospect of a further two seasons at the International Stadium, but are realistic and know that the club are moving forward steadily at a time many other clubs are struggling in the economic climate.

Who is to say that when Gateshead do kick off for the first time at Prince Consort Road, it won’t be as a Football League club?

Thank you to Gateshead FC for allowing the use of the images in this piece.

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Non League Day

This weekend sees the return of Non League Day to the footballing calendar. With the Premier League and Championship having no fixtures as a result of the international break, Non League Day was set up as an initiative to encourage fans to go and take in a non-league game and support a local club.

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Will the Old Lady sing again? Juventus summer spending spree

It has been five years since Juventus were relegated to Serie B as a result of their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal, where General Director Luciano Moggi was found to have influence the selection of referees for Juventus games. Juve were subsequently stripped of the 2005 & 2006 scudetto’s and relegated to Serie B, where they started the following season with a nine-point deduction. Despite the loss of Cannavaro, Thuram and Ibrahimović, Juventus were able to bounce back at the first attempt and regained their place amongst the elite of Italian football.

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The STL Northern League 2011/2012

102 days after Dunston UTS secured a 1-0 away win at South Shields in the final Northern League game of the 2010/2011 season, the new campaign will begin in ernest. With Newcastle United live on TV on Saturday evening and Sunderland playing away, clubs throughout the region will be hoping fans looking for a football fix show their support at one of the 22 games taking place on Saturday. 
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An Iceland Paradise?

An unfortunate facet of football is that the vast majority of players signed by clubs as youngsters will not progress to the promised land of the first team.  Premiership clubs have such large squads at all levels and a sad fact is only one or two players a season will progress to first team status.  The remainder are often released before the age of 20, with the thinking being that if they haven’t progressed by this stage of their development then it will not happen.  These individuals have often been with the club since their early teens and are suddenly without a club.  Lower league clubs will often pick up these players, and some will get a second chance later in their career to return to the top level, such as Danny Graham who was released by then Premier League Middlesbrough before serving an apprenticeship at Carlisle and Watford before returning to the Premier League with newcomers Swansea City.  Players from Football League clubs who do not make the grade often drop down to non-league level and some fall out of love with the game completely and stop playing.
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Whatever happened to Brian Little?

During a recent (Football Manager 2011) press conference to announce my first game in charge of Harrogate Town, I was asked about my thoughts of the Gainsborough Trinity manager Brian Little.  Unsure whether it was the Brian Little, formerly of Darlington, Leicester and Aston Villa, I quickly ‘googled’ him on my phone and was surprised to see that it was indeed the very same fella.  I commented that Brian was one of the good guys in football and the Trinity fans can be proud of their manager.  I then put my budding Conference North management career on hold and looked a little further to find out whatever happened to Brian Little.
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Need a Footy Fix?

Its been a long old summer, and whilst there has been England U21, England U17 and England Women on varying screens over the last few weeks, it is now only a matter of time before the ‘regulation’ season kicks off again. Clubs up and down the country are reporting back for pre-season training this week, and this weekend sees some of the extra keen clubs playing friendly matches.

For those particularly masochistic football fans there is the chance this weekend to take in not one but three matches for the princely sum of £3. Birtley Town are hosting what has been dubbed Northern Leagues United on Saturday 9th July; a joint fundraiser for Birtley Town and Colbatore Onagawa. Birtley Town U17 will face off against their Under 18 counterparts, a footballer writers team will then line up against a fans team and the final game will be between Birtley Town and Ryton & Crawcrook Albion. For a far more eloquent run down of the fantastic reasons to come along and show your support take a look at Viva Northern League. There will be a multitude of abilities and no doubt many laughs, so if you can, get yourself along. You will even have the bonus of seeing yours truly huff and puff in the football writers game (for a short spell thanks to the godsend of rolling subs).
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Newcastle United – Changing of the Guard

For a few peaceful months following their promotion back to the Premier League after a year in the Championship, Newcastle United were ticking over nicely without the disasters and comedic stories that have tended to be associated with them in recent times.  No players fighting, no outlandish statements from the board and some good performances on the pitch.  However, knowing Newcastle, this was only ever likely to be a brief lull, and true to form, within eight weeks United had sacked manager Chris Hughton, replaced him with Alan Pardew and then sold Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35m on the last day of the transfer window.
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