Sunday, 11 March 2012

Ground 207: Focus Scaffolding Sports Complex, Whitehaven Amateurs

Alan Armstrong is first across the Hebburn Sports and Social Ground carpark, hauling a bag of strips two-handed towards the coach.  "Are you the kitman today, Alan?"  Andy Hudson asks between drags on his cigarette.  "Kit man, press officer, floodlight operator and rubbish picker-upper," Armstrong laughs.  Tom Derrick, the club secretary, has a sign with 'Hebburn Town Official Sponsor' for the window.  Treasurer John Bolam is here to see the coach off before watching Sunderland in the afternoon, while committee member Paul Hill sits with his head down at the front, picking out his bets in the morning paper. "Quarter to ten and we can't see a player," chairman Billy Laffy says.  "Urine only, mind," warns the driver. "I've taken the bog roll out."  Liam McBryde, John Toomey and Callum Charlton turn up five minutes late, dressed in matching club tracksuits. "I had to work with me da this morning," Charlton apologises. "I've had me tracksuit on since half six."  Most of the squad get on at the Silverlink Travelodge after a delay caused by a missed alarm call, two cigarette breaks and a trip to the shops.  Manager Paul Bennett has been waiting half an hour by the time we pull in at a bus stop near Tyne Met College.  Jamie McClen, who made twenty-five first team appearances for Newcastle United under Ruud Gullit and Sir Bobby Robson, is picked up on a slip road, we meet two players at the Corner House in Heaton, Alex Benjamin - the Northern League's top scorer last season with 39 goals - outside a branch of Go Outdoors, and defender Dan Kirkup in Haydon Bridge.  "We are stopping at a McDonald's, aren't we?" asks a player from the back of the bus.

Midfielder Paul King's spent forty minutes looking for his shin pads and is taking a pair of scissors to his flip-flops to use instead (he eventually finds the pads in a kit bag, left behind after the previous game).  McClen - a genuinely nice bloke who serves as a mentor to the younger players at the club - jokingly sent Bennett a picture message of his monthly payslip at Newcastle with the words "Am I really going to Whitehaven?"  "Who thinks Robin Van Persie will go?" Dean Nicholson, an ex-professional at West Bromwich Albion, asks.  "I've never understood," starts someone else, "how sheep can stand on hills as steep as that and not fall over."  We pull up in Carlisle, the players piling out to a supermarket and returning with Lucozade and crisps.  "Have you got your team?" Derrick asks. "I've been bouncing it around, I just haven't written it down yet," says Bennett. "It's only one o'clock."

Manager Paul 'Harry Hill' Bennett

 Except for Derrick, who has paperwork to do at the ground, the committee get dropped off outside Wetherspoons in the town centre, walking the fifteen minutes to the Focus Scaffolding Sports Complex just in time to see the teams kick off.  Two flatpack stands back on to the rugby ground, there's a clubhouse in one corner and fenced-off all-weather pitches on two of the four sides.  The C2C cycle route and the West Cumbria Coastal Railway pass within  a few metres of the far goal. "Plenty of trains, aren't there?" a Hebburn fan tells his mate. "Last stop for those is Sunderland, isn't it?" "Aye, poor bastards."

"These four games could decide whether we go up or not," Bennett told the Newcastle Evening Chronicle after last week's home win over Brandon moved his team up to sixth, five points off second-placed Morpeth but with a game still in hand.  He starts 4-5-1, with Liam McBryde - 35 goals in 33 games so far this season - preferred to Benjamin in attack.  With Jeff Forsyth and Dan Kirkup utterly dominant in defence and Paul Gardiner pulling strings in midfield, Hebburn start impressively, taking a deserved lead when Stuart Pettit turns McBryde's goalbound shot round the post and Tony Stephenson scores his 15th of the season from the resulting corner. The visitors nearly double their lead a minute before half-time but Pettit stops McBryde for a second time, diving full-length to push his penalty kick away. "Ideal height but a hell of a save," Paul Hill says. "Was that a miss or or a save?" I ask the striker after the game. "Same thing for me."

The save gives Whitehaven renewed impetus, Leigh Dunn levelling with his 20th league goal of the season after the normally unflappable Dan Reagan drops a corner onto his head. Hebburn kick off, the ball kicked forward to McBryde, who squeezes his shot over Pettit and in at the post. "Two goalkeeping mistakes in a minute," says Billy Laffy.  Gardiner makes it three, Lee Harrison's free-kick parried straight on to his right boot, but Jonny Donat cuts the lead again with twenty minutes left and Whitehaven almost grab a point, striking the bar as the referee takes a first look at his watch. "It's a long way to come for a heart attack," Laffy jokes. With Birtley held at home by Alnwick, the three points lift Hebburn up to fifth.  "Eeh aye eeh aye eeh aye oh, up the Northern League we go," the players sing on the bus journey home after celebratory chip and sausage sandwiches in the Whitehaven clubhouse.  McClen - who plans to retire once the season finishes at the age of 32 - gives his teammates marks out of ten, Jeff Forsyth getting man of the match by popular acclaim.  The day ends as it began, back at Hebburn Sports Ground - Paul Bennett joining his players for a pint.

"Morpeth are one-nil up." Dean Nicholson checks the other scores.

Date: March 10th 2012
Admission: £4


  1. Lovely read, apart from the Sunderland quip - I guess the absent comitteeman enjoyed the win over Liverpool. Whitehaven is a Rugby League town through and through. Mention the name Dick Huddart anywhere in that part of West Cumbria and the locals react in the same way as those in Blazing Saddles do, when Clevedon Little utters the name of Randolph Scott.
    I always look forward to reading your next piece - have not been disappointed yet.

  2. Thanks very much, Pete. Big fan of your work in NVNG and Salut! too (consider that quip payback for your Matthew Norman piece, though ;))
    Hoping to finally make it to Dean Street before the end of the season. Just need a free Saturday and some sunshine.