Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Ground 317: Druids Park, West Allotment Celtic

Sometimes it pays to stay where you are.  Newcastle Blue Star were among the venerable names of north-east non-league football.  FA Vase winners in 1978 and Northern League champions in 2006, they had once had the financial clout to fly Trevor Brooking up from London on a £500 fee to play against Wearside League title rivals Coundon Three Tuns. Just to be on the safe side, they'd tried for George Best too.

In 2007, Star took up the FA's offer to be one of the founder members of the Unibond First Division North.  To meet the Unibond's stadium requirements, new Blue Star chairman Dave Thompson arranged to share the 10,000-capacity Kingston Park with his Newcastle Falcons rugby union team. "My vision for Blue Star is for it to be a community club for the people of Newcastle," Thompson loftily informed the local press. "Today's announcement comes after a huge amount of planning, and represents a significant day for North East sport."  Two years later, Blue Star thrashed Curzon Ashton 4-1 in the First Division North play off final and were promoted to within three divisions of the Football League.  It was the final game they ever played.

A decade of patient work on the club's Wheatsheaf Ground had failed to meet Unibond standards but had left it with a state-of-the-art 4G surface paid out of a Football Stadia Improvement Fund grant.  When Blue Star moved to Kingston Park, their former home was used as a training ground for the Falcons and for first team games by Gosforth RFC. The FSIF cited breach of contract as the football club were no longer using the facilities and demanded its grant be repaid. Thompson responded by pulling his funding and the 69-year-old club folded without kicking another ball. “This is a long saga without a simple solution, but you cannot sustain a team on 80 fans turning up every week," Blue Star's former benefactor complained to the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. 

With Blue Star just a memory, the Wheatsheaf was used by rugby players and the Newcastle Vikings American Football team, joining the ever lengthening list of lost Northern League grounds. This summer alone Billingham Synthonia's sumptious 2,000-capacity cantilevered stand closed owing to "unsustainable maintenance and running costs" and West Allotment Celtic moved out of Blue Flames  when the Northumberland FA hiked the rent up by £3,000 a season with £300 more on top for every home game over 25.  For a while it looked like West Allotment  - just a year short of their 90th anniversary - might go the same way as Blue Star, the club tendering their resignation from the Northern League.  "It's a disaster," secretary Ted Ilderton thought. “The people who run the club are all getting old. We don’t want to be standing around in open fields.”  By May, the club had been relegated from the Northern League's top-flight but had managed to secure their existence with a move to the Wheatsheaf, now known as Druids Park. Tonight they were preparing for life in Division Two with a friendly against Blyth Spartans Reserves, formed out of a link up with New Hartley FC and newly admitted to the Northern Football Alliance, three divisions lower than their hosts.  

The artificial surface was flanked by rugby posts, the back end of a Premier Inn, wheelie bins, a conifer hedge, two metal-roofed stands and a car park, where most of the few dozen spectators were congregated within a few metres of their cars.  Spartans seized an early lead with an uncontested header.  "What did we say before the game?" the Celtic keeper asked rhetorically three times. "Let's learn from it," a defender shouted back.  "Fucking hell," said the keeper.

The visitors played the tidier first half football, clipping the crossbar with an identikit header and several conifer branches with a shot that needed shaking down from the tree.  Allotment deservedly levelled with a strike that curved around the goalkeeper's dive, the swish of ball on net lost to the roar of an aeroplane engine at the other end of the ground.  "Pick it up again," demanded a Spartan as the floodlights blinked on and two blokes on a picnic bench demolished the last of their half-time chips.  With ten minutes left, a crossfield ball was played first time back across the centre and turned in by Peter Murray. "Great goal," the bloke next to me clapped, looking up from his phone. "Quality," someone shouted.  "We go again," screamed the beaten keeper, hoofing the ball upfield.  Whatever the result, for West Allotment going again is a triumph in itself.

Admission:  Free
Date: Monday July 24th 2017

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