Whitley Bay v Newcastle Benfield
Hillheads Park / Northern League Division One / 18th April 2014
On 4th July 2013, I attended Northwich Victoria v Fleetwood Town in a preseason friendly in Flixton. That was the day that my 2013/2014 football season officially started. Originally, there was no target or any plan, apart from to enjoy the football season ahead of me, just as I had down the few seasons previous since I seemed to fall into this whole groundhopping thing. However, as the summer weeks ploughed on and I attended more and more games the idea of aiming to attend a 100 games in one season started creeping into my mind. Now, I know for some of the hardcore groundhoppers that a 100 games a season is their bread and butter, but for me, with my job, lack of car and tendency to get distracted by bars and pubs on any given matchday, a 100 games was going to be a bit of a challenge. So by the time Autumn was about to kick in, I had decided I was going for century and I stepped it up a gear in regards to attending games. For anyone who follows me on Twitter (@mophead_88), you would have seen my game number slowly creep up, but to me at times it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. Then suddenly, after Christmas, the games came quick and fast and all of a sudden I was into the 90s. It dawned on me that my Easter Holidays would probably be the time I would hit the big 100 and I decided to put a schedule in place for game no.100 to be something a bit different and a bit special.
So my holidays would begin with a trip to Hull (#92) and after trips to Old Trafford for a United U21 game, then Mossley and then a week at home in South Wales watching Taffs Well, Aberdare Town and Porth, as well as my beloved Swansea City, I found myself on 98 games on my return to Manchester. One more United U21 game later and I found myself on 99 – 1 to go! But where should I go? It looked like number 100 would be a revisit to St James Park for Newcastle v Swansea, 2 days after game number 99. Don’t get me wrong, I adore St James Park – it really is superb (as you can read here from my visit last year) – but, going to a ground I had been to before didn’t seem fitting for the magic 100th game of the season. Then it suddenly dawned on me: it was Good Friday that weekend and there’s always a football feast over the Easter weekend. By now a weekend in Newcastle was decided and I began to peruse the North East fixtures for a game to attend. A bit of reading and reasearch kept pointing towards one place and one club that I had to visit and fortunately they were playing at home on Good Friday. The scene of my 100th game of the season was decided: Whitley Bay of course!
It was a glorious day as my train rolled across the bridge, over the Tyne with the familiar sight of all those other crossing bridges to my right, including the famous Tynebridge, and into Newcastle Central station. Despite hitting a delay in Leeds, I still arrived shortly after 11am and after a dash to my hotel next to the station to drop off my bag, I was back into Newcastle station and heading downstairs towards the Newcastle Metro station.
The metro heading east towards Whitley Bay and the North East coast of England took approximately 30 minutes and I was more than happy to alight at my destination, as the metro was slowly turning into a furnace as the sun beared down on its windows. Not that I could complain about the weather, as it was perfect conditions for a trip to the seaside.
Like many parts of the North East, the town was originally an area that thrived on industry and coaling, but as both began to decline Whitley Bay became famous as a typical British seaside holiday resort; sadly, that industry also seems to be in decline in Whitley Bay these days.
The Spanish City, the town’s once permanent fairground, was the town’s star attraction and even inspired Tyneside local Mark Knopfler to pen the Dire Straits song Tunnel of Love. As a fan of Dire Straits, I made the site of the Spanish City my first port of call and with it being a good 10-15 minute walk from the station, it also gave me an excuse to see some of the town itself.
I made my walk along the pleasant seafront with the usual mix of amusement arcades , ice cream vendors and B&Bs, as well as a nice sandy beach, which looked fairly tempting on such a day, with the St. Mary’s Lighthouse heading out into the North Sea – another one of Whitley Bay’s most recognisable landmarks. Eventually, I came across the famous Spanish City Dome that was the centrepiece of the Spanish City and now a Grade II listed building. It’s good to see that the council plan on regenerating the seafront with the Dome at the heart of it. As a bank holiday fair was in full swing on the Links adjacent to the Dome, I opted to dodge the dodgems and instead find a nearby beer garden.
Having navigated my way around the vast queues emanating from the various fish and chip shops, I found myself outside the Berkeley Tavern, which I was pleased to see had a beer garden. On arriving at the bar, I decided to go for the ‘When in Rome…’ approach and begin my day with a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. I rarely drink Newcy Brown, but I always forget how much I like the stuff until I have a bottle in hand – I need to drink it more.
I left the area near the seafront and headed towards the town centre itself. The town centre is rather on the small side, but it was certainly bustling with activity on this early Saturday afternoon. With a small selection of pubs and bars on offer, I played it safe with a quick pint in the Townhouse, a large pub with a host of Newcastle United memorabilia gracing its walls, before heading west from the centre and towards Whitley Bay FC’s home ground.
The ground itself is located about 10-15 minutes away from the town centre itself, but as I trudged my way towards Hillheads Park, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that I got myself sidetracked en route, as I came across the Last Orders pub and decided to pay them a prematch visit.
£2.10 a pint! I repeat: £2.10 a pint! The Last Orders was truly a great pub choice. Throw in the fact that the locals were discussing football trivia and that the staff were very friendly and I couldn’t go wrong. When I mentioned to the landlord, Lee, who was draped in a Newcastle shirt, that I was a Swans fan who had come on a groundhopping adventure to Whitley Bay, it turned out that he had visited many football grounds himself – particularly in Scotland. However, it soon transpired that Lee’s main area of expertise in regards to football grounds is in the ground’s culinary delights, as he soon began listing off the best food he had had at football. So if you are after fine football ground food and want to know where to go, Lee’s your man.
With the game kicking off at 2.30pm, I found myself walking around the back of Whitley Bay Ice Rink and finding myself at the turnstiles of Hillheads Park just before 2pm. Why the strange kick-off time? Well that would be because this was the weekend of the Northern League Groundhop (something I wasn’t aware about until 24 hours before) meaning staggered kick-offs across the league and across the whole weekend so that the hordes of groundhoppers could make their way around the various games and grounds.
It cost me £6 to enter and I was soon into Hillheads Park. My first though was: “What a superb ground!” And my first reaction would prove correct. Despite being lodged in between the Ice Rink, a car dealership and a series of allotments, the ground can hold a quite impressive 4,500 fans (impressive for this level anyway). The main structure of the ground is the old-school main stand with open terracing either side of it, which continues around to behind both goals. On the opposite side of the pitch is a standing shelter, which runs along about 3/4 of the one side of the pitch with the words ‘Whitley Bay FC’ gracing the top of the shelter.
I had entered through turnstiles behind the main stand and was greeted with a small open area, which today was busy with the various fans and groundhoppers getting their food from the food bar, picking up their team sheets from the little box near pitch side and some groundhoppers getting their pin badges to add to their collections from the club stall selling various Whitley Bay merchandise. With today being my 100th game of the season, I decided to purchase a scarf as a memento of my day and a way to sort of celebrate my feat (although I’m sure Whitley Bay were celebrating the £7 I handed over to them more).
As I handed the money over, the friendly man behind the stall retorted “You’re the Lost Boyos lad aren’t you?” and insisted that I go make myself known to Julian, the club’s press officer. I found Julian handing out teamsheets and after introducing myself briefly, I left him to it and said I’d speak to him properly later, when there were no groundhoppers swarming him for their treasured teamsheets.
Whilst I’m talking of groundhoppers, it was a pleasure to meet the ‘Itinerant Football Watcher‘ Peter Miles and his wife. Peter, a Southend fan, puts my paltry 100 games to shame as he was already on 188 games with the rest of the Northern League groundhop to go – although I was more jealous of his upcoming trip to the Belgrade derby next weekend. As Mr. and Mrs. Miles headed off to the stand, I headed to the Seahorse pub – the bar inside the ground. In regards to the size of bars you usually find at this level, The Seahorse is very sizable with two rooms branching out on either side of the bar itself. Also, today saw standing boards placed in the centre of the first room charting the club’s history to provided today’s many visitors with some background on the club.
The club began life as Whitley Bay Athletic in 1950 and in its first decades would go on to become one of the most successful non-league teams in the country with the capture of various cups and league titles. Bay forged themselves a reputation as one of the most successful teams in the Northern League, either side of just under a decade in the Northern Premier League from 1991 to 2000. The Seahorses would also become infatuated with the FA Vase trophy during the 2000s with the club winning the competition in 2002 and then three times in a row in 2009, 2010 and 2011 making them the only club to have won the Vase 4 times.
In front of a bumper crowd today at Hillheads Park, the current Whitley Bay team were walking out onto the pitch in their blue shirts, whilst Newcastle Benfield walked outside alongside them in their yellow shirts. As the game kicked off, I took my place behind the goals and began chatting to several groundhoppers, who had come from all over the country and from overseas in some cases.
Whitley Bay had started the game well and came close to opening the scoring when Michael McMullen crashed a shot against the woodwork having rounded the keeper. There were few chances in the first half, but it was definitely the Newcastle keeper who was kept the busier, as he went on to deny Chris Reid with a low save.
I continued my lap of the ground and eventually I found Julian also circling the ground with a camera. It turned out that he was Mr. Whitley Bay as as well as being the club’s press officer, he was also their photographer. He filled me in on all things Whitley Bay and talked me through the club’s various glorious over the years – clearly a man that loves his club and was extremely friendly and welcoming to me.
I made my way past the ‘Bell End Choir’ – its not what you think, just innocently named (I’m sure) as they stand behind the one end of the ground, singing and ringing a bell – and completed my lap of my photos as the half-time whistle blew.
Half-time: Whitley Bay 0 – 0 Newcastle Benfield.
I headed back to the bar for a half-time pint, but I realised that I hadn’t really eaten all day and that my stomach needed filling – especially since I had a night out in Newcastle to survive later on. As I approached the food van, I realised that I had arrived shortly after the kick-off to the second half and I was sure that the groundhoppers would have put a good dent in their supplies. I was right, as most things had run out, but then the woman behind the counter stated, “We also do curry and chips if you fancy that?”
“Curry and chips!?” I replied, “Of course, that will do! I’m from Wales. It’s like a local delicacy.”
So off I trotted with my curry and chips in hand (which were wonderful by the way – especially the chips) and headed around to far goals, where I found Peter once again.
The Seahorses continued to hammer away at Newcastle and finally broke the deadlock in the 65th minute. Andy Robertson unleashed a rocket of a shot from 12 yards out only to see his shot smash the underside bar, bounce towards the line and then out again. Did the ball cross the line? It was impossible for us to tell from the other side of the ground, but with none of the fancy technology of the Premier League here, the ground fell silent to wait for whether the assistant referee would raise his flag or not; to most of the ground’s delight, he certainly did. 1-0 to the Bay!
As we began to make our way back around the ground, Whitley Bay made it 2-0 in brilliant fashion. Craig McFarlane received the ball on the right corner of the 18 yard box, before launching an angled shot into the far corner. It was an unstoppable shot!
We now found ourselves behind the goals and Peter began to point out to me the who’s who of the groundhopping community around me. Easily the most unique character was the man standing in front of us with no shoes on – I later learned that apparently he’s quite well known for not wearing (or even owning) shoes in groundhopping circles. It certainly made me chuckle anyway and I’m told he’s nice bloke.
It looked like game over, but Benfield grabbed a late goal courtesy of Craig Brayson’s close range shot ricocheting off another player and leaving the goalie with no chance. It looked a consolation, but the away team came close to winning it in the closing minute as a Benfield shot looked destine for the back of the net, only for Whitley goalie Mark Cook to make a superb save to deny them and to ultimately secure the three points for the Bay.
Full-time: Whitley Bay 2 – 1 Newcastle Benfield.
With the game finished, I said my goodbyes to Peter and the wife as they set off for the next game of the groundhop, whilst I headed back to the bar. I don’t think I’ve really emphasised it enough, but Whitley Bay really is a wonderfully welcoming and friendly club, as everyone I encountered in the clubhouse wanted to know whether I had enjoyed my day and hoped that I had. I caught up with Julian to inform him that his club had done him proud today and myself, plus all the groundhoppers I had encountered, did not seem to have a bad word to say about the club and their brilliant home ground.
After a drink, I decided to exit the club bar and depart Hillheads Park. Then it did suddenly occur to me that with all of the razzmatazz of today’s Northern League football, it had completely passed over my head that I had actually done the 100 games in one season! I’m fairly sure I did a little hop of joy into the air, before noticing that a couple of lads were having a kickabout on the pitch as the sun slowly began to set over Hillheads Park. Of course, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to run on and have a photo on the pitch to celebrate my century.
I said my goodbyes to the ground and soon found myself back at the Last Orders. Landlord Lee was keen to find out how I had found Hillheads Park, but I was more keen to enjoy another £2.10 (£2.10!) pint of Fosters.
I wanted something special for my 100th game of the season and in Whitley Bay FC I found it. Great club, great ground and great fans. As this was also my first ever Northern League game, and the fact that I now have a Whitley Bay FC scarf on my wall, I suppose that makes Whitley Bay FC my adopted Northern League team. Come on you Seahorses!
Onwards I went to Newcastle for a big night out to celebrate the century and what I can only describe as the most glorious ( yetdrunken) karaoke rendition of Andy Williams’ Love You Baby that Newcastle has ever seen. Apologies to those poor souls in the Rose and Crown who had to experience it (although they seemed to enjoy it).
Oh, and Swansea beat Newcastle 2-1 at St James Park with a last minute Wilfried Bony penalty the next day – faultless weekend.
Highlights: nice seaside town, reacquainting myself with Newcastle Brown, Last Orders pub (£2.10 a pint!), great non-league ground, friendly and welcoming fans, curry and chips, all round brilliant weekend in Newcastle – especially with the Swans win.
Low Points: 2.30pm KO had me rushing a bit, game slow to get going.