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
"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
- This will be Whitehaven's last full season at their current ground, with a brand new £6 million stadium to be jointly used by the town's rugby league club due to open before Christmas. Formed in 1994, when Marchon Chemical Works pulled the plug on a club they'd funded and given their name to, the club stepped up from the Wearside League in 2008 and have since finished eleventh, seventh and seventh again, lifting the Ernest Armstrong trophy
in 2010. Their most famous old boy is Stuart Green, who went from
Amateurs' youth sides to Newcastle United's Academy, later turning out
for six Football League clubs including Carlisle United, Crystal Palace
and Hull City. The town's biggest footballing success story is Jackie Sewell, born in nearby St Kells, who started out at Whitehaven Town, won an FA Cup with Aston Villa, six England caps - scoring three goals, including the opener in the 6-3 defeat to Hungary - and became the most expensive player in world football when he moved from Notts County to Sheffield Wednesday at a cost of £34,500 in 1951.