I won't bore you with the history of South Shields United - mainly because they don't have one. Founded and managed by Gareth Allen (described in Ian Cusack's Village Voice as "Humpty Dumpty with Tourette's"), they were promoted out of the Northern Alliance league's bottom division in only their second season, and ended last year as Durham FA Minor Cup winners and beaten finalists in the Dave Foster Cup. Heady days indeed.
After moving between council and community centre pitches, United have settled at the Harton & Westoe Miners' Welfare ground, which they share with Simonside FC. An 8-2 win over Peterlee Town in their last home game has attracted a crowd of nine, with an extra three on the balcony during breaks in the bingo. At Level 12 of the National League System, this is the lowest level of football I've seen since England played Algeria.
Hampered by the pitch, Shields play a modified version of what FC United of Manchester manager Karl Marginson calls 90-90 football: 90% of their play comes down the left of midfield and 90% of their passes go out for a throw in. Heddon, more famous for starting the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak, have a penalty appeal turned down ("Blatant," admits Allen) before the home side take the lead. A crossfield pass is cut back into the centre where a diving header smacks the ball beyond the keeper. "What a good goal, what a good goal," purrs the man in the Heddon manager's coat who's standing on my right.
He's not so happy with the second. A shot hits the base of the post, the rebound is hacked off the line, and the ball goes in at the third attempt. "It was offside in the second line or whatever you call it," he says to his mate. "Yer watch too much telly ye, man."
"Two-nil's a horrible score," consoles the Heddon manager in his half-time team talk. "They won't know whether to go for it or to sit back. The next goal's massive." The players listen silently - then concede a third with the first attack of the half. A free-kick is nodded down and Heddon's keeper hits the ground like an imploding smokestack, only to find the ball's already crossed the line. "Dear me, lino, that was never a free kick," says one Heddon supporter. "Are you from South Shields?" asks another.
Heddon score from a corner, Shields hit the bar with only the keeper to beat, the sun drops below the starter homes behind the far goal. "They're trying to play impossible balls," says the Heddon fan as a last-minute through ball goes out for a goalkick.
Date: 6th November 2010