Ryton & Crawcrook Albion v South Shields
Kingsley Park / Northern League Division One / 4th March 2016
Gibbo was about to hit the big ‘200th ground’ landmark and so he wanted somewhere special to mark the occasion, as well as insisting I joined him for the momentous day. After little deliberation, Gibbo opted for a trip to picturesque Richmond Town in North Yorkshire, whose ground has become a bit of a groundhopper’s wet dream with its rustic setting and castle backdrop; just Google the place to see some pictures of what makes it so wonderful – as you won’t be finding photos of Richmond Town here.
No, once again the weather had conspired against us and the evening before we were to head off to Richmond we were tipped off by a source close to the club about the game being postponed. With train tickets already booked to Darlington (where we planned to travel to Richmond from) we needed a backup plan. Several grounds were suggested in North Yorkshire and Northumberland area, but I had other ideas: anyone who knows me well will know that my favourite city in the UK is Newcastle and so I pitched the idea that we saunter on from Darlington and into Newcastle itself to find a non-league game. Gibbo was onboard with the idea. We had a few ideas of where to go, but we definitely didn’t end up remaining within the city of Newcastle…
By 9am, I was arriving into York where Gibbo would be joining me on the train. It seemed Gibbo had us well-prepared for the day as he unveiled an elaborate colour-coded ‘plan’ for the day complete with postcodes, bus/train/metro routes and times and journey time from Newcastle for each prospective game that we were considering attending. His excuse for such excessive and colourful itinerary preparing was the fact that being a trainee teacher, he had purchased lots of stationary that week and felt the urge to use it all (especially his highlighters it seemed).
Our task of choosing a game was to prove easier as we headed north with Dunston UTS, Jarrow Roofing and Heaton Stannington’s games being called off in the Northern League due to the weather; admittedly, we did begin to fill a slight uneasy that we may be heading all the way to Newcastle to find no games at all (although we had decided that the ultimate fall back was the glitz of the Premier League and Newcastle v AFC Bournemouth in a relegation ‘6 pointer).
Soon enough, our train was rolling over the Tyne and we were greeted with that wonderful view of the city, St. James Park standing imperiously above it, and the several bridges elegantly imposing themselves over the river. Newcastle really is a beautiful looking city. More importantly, the weather seemed to be fairly decent too. Whilst we surveyed Twitter to check which games were surviving the weather and their pitch inspections, there was only one place we were going to set up camp: Wetherspoons – the Union Rooms towards the bottom of Newcastle city centre to be precise. Punk IPA was purchased and I made sure to keep my jacket near, as last time I was in here, last April with my fellow Swans fans, my mate had his jacket swiped from the back of his chair right under the nose of about 15 of us Jacks. It is a great Spoons though (with some very homo-erotic art decor we noted), but nothing quite like the one we ended up in next.
Instead of heading into the city, we decided to head down towards the banks of the Tyne, which involved going down a sloping, winding alley (an alley which still slightly haunts me from a previous visit – a story for another time). As soon as we exited the alley, we found the Quayside Wetherspoons and we figured it would be rude not to go in. Good shout, as this has to be one of the least Wetherspoons-y Wetherspoons I’ve been in and ultimately one of the best.
Me and Gibbo felt positively northern in here with the place brimming with Bournemouth fans (all in AFCB jackets we noted) and even the staff all sounded like they were from Essex. To put things right and add a touch of ‘Geordie-ness’ to proceedings, we both elected to have some Newcastle Brown Ale -a drink I always forget how much I like. It was now coming up to midday too and we figured we better started making a decision on where we were watching football today.
It seemed we had 3 destinations left to choose from: Hebburn, Ryton & Crawrook and Team Northumbria (we’d be informed by our northern non-league guru Paul Brockett that the latter was not worth the hassle). After some deliberating and discussing the pros and cons of each option, we eventually decided that we’d be heading to Ryton & Crawcrook v South Shields, mainly because they seemed the most confident that their game would definitely being going ahead. This also meant that we didn’t have to leave Newcastle city centre until 13:54, when we would have to catch a train to a place called Wylam and then walk to the ground located in Crawcrook. In our heads, the 15-20 minutes on that train meant that we’d still be in Newcastle, albeit in a suburb of the city – how wrong we were there, but more on that later.
I’m fairly well-versed in the pubs and bars of Newcastle, but Gibbo was determined that we find a ‘hipster’ bar and thus sent me a Guardian article with the Top 10 such bars in Newcastle the previous evening. We opted to play a game of what I dubbed ‘Hipster pub Tinder’ as we both selected our Top 3 from the list and if we had any matches we’d head there: the outright winner was to be the Free Trade Inn – a pub that describes itself on its Facebook by saying, ‘Two things that will strike you when you go to the Free Trade Inn: 1) It’s an absolute dump, and 2) it’s fantastic.’ We were sold. What we hadn’t realised about the Free Trade Inn was that it is located a bit away from the city centre and so a 20-25 minute walk ensued; although this was all good as the whole walk was made walking alongside the Tyne, which was all very pleasant.
As we headed towards Byker, which led to me trying to sing the theme tune to Byker Grove repeatedly, we eventually arrived at the Free Trade Inn. As Gibbo put it on Facebook, this place was ‘heaven’. Yes, it lived up to its own billing as a bit of a shithole with the chairs barely supporting my not too considerable weight and the graffiti-engulfed walls crumbling, but this pub was joyous. A whole range of ale stretched across the bar and the fridges were packed with bottles of other extravagant-looking beers. Since we were heading Wylam, we both opted for different ales from the Wylam brewery and we were both more than happy with our choices. I was to miss a trick though as Gibbo ordered himself a steak pie and it did look immense – as was its taste according Gibbo.
Wetherspoons had its homo-erotic art decor earlier, well, it seemed the Free Trade Inn punters had their own take on homosexuality in the rather cool graffiti covered toilets, as the photo below shows (admittedly with some poor grammar).
We were enjoying our ale and the splendid view of the Tyne below, but the time was edging towards our 13:54 departure time and so we unfortunately had to leave and begin the walk back to Newcastle station. Inconveniently, it began to rain as we began traipsing along side the Tyne, although not enough to trouble us.
On getting back to the station there was still time for each of us to purchase a can of M&S Belgian Lager for our wait for the train and the journey itself. The train did arrive, although a few minutes late, and once all of the Newcastle United fans hoarded themselves off it to head up to St. James’ Park, we were heading the opposite way and west of the city.
The train from Newcastle to Wylam only consisted of 3 stops, which is perhaps what prompted us to believe that we were merely heading to suburb of the city; we soon realised that this definitely wasn’t the case as our surroundings became more and more rustic. We definitely were not within the city itself. By the time we alighted at Wylam, we appeared to be well and truly out in the sticks with me even questioning had Gibbo taken us to the right place. A passerby heard me questioning where the hell we’d find Ryton & Crawcrook and intervened to tell us that we just had to follow the road for 20 minutes and we’d find it. That sounded simple enough.
It felt like I was back home in my native valleys with the hills surging around us, making it impossible for us to see any sign of the ground or to judge whether we were going the right way. We were just preying that Gibbo’s phone was leading us accurately. More issues then unfolded when the road ran out of pavement and I suggested going up a country footpath as a potential shortcut. The problem was that this involved navigating a lot of slippery mud; Gibbo opted for the ‘treading carefully’ strategy whilst I went for the ‘run through it quickly and hope’ strategy. This strategy was also chosen as I was getting frustrated at the sense of unease about not knowing where we were heading and I figured (and hoped) at the top of the lane that we’d be able to see the ground or its floodlights to confirm we were heading the right away.
With Gibbo still behind I reached the summit and found myself behind some sort of abandoned farm and with a wonderful view of the fields unfolding into the distance. More importantly, I spied the floodlights of Kingsley Park: the home of Ryton & Crawcrook Albion. I squealed out my to delight to Gibbo and once he’d caught up we then had to suss out how to get there. I made the decision that we cut through the abandoned farm, complete with boggy land, and then onto the pavement-less main road, where we would have to dodge incoming traffic. Easy.
Having navigated the farmland (without any falls) we found ourselves on the road and we felt like we were now going to make it just in time for kick-off. There was some more frustration when the road seemed to go on forever, almost forcing Gibbo into a spot of hitchhiking. We made it though. Having crossed fields, farmland and country roads we found ourselves outside Kingsley Park and £5 later (£2 for tax-dodging student Gibbo) we were in.
The club only began life in 1970 and was very much a pub team before joining the Northern Alliance in 1988. Kingsley Park as it is today though would only begin to take shape during the mid-90s as the club received lottery funding to help develop the ground and build a clubhouse. The new ground was even opened by Prince Andrew.
These days the club ply their trade in the second tier of the Northern League (level 10 on the football pyramid) and today they’d be taking on South Shields; I’d been claiming all the day that the last time I had seen them play they were lifting the FA Vase trophy at Wembley, only for Gibbo to eventually point out to me that that had been North Shields. Oops. Anyway, the fact that South Shields were playing here was also another factor in drawing us to Kingsley Park today. Why? Well, South Shields can boast having Julio Arca play for them. Yes, the very same Argentinian who applied himself so well at both Sunderland and Middlesbrough in the Premier League. He clearly became enamoured with the north-east and it was great to see that he was willing to continue playing, even at this lower level.
Gibbo was perusing around the place taking photos, so I headed straight for the bar to get a quick prematch pint. That lottery money was well spent as the clubhouse here is excellent with all the usual amenities and even some comfy sofas. My attention was immediately diverted though, as I looked outside to see the players already getting ready to head out, even with 10 minutes still go until 3pm; they weren’t to be stopped and the game was kicking off a good 5 minutes early it seemed. No bother – I was happily watching on from the clubhouse, which is conveniently perched above pitch level for an excellent view.
I made it out of the clubhouse about 10 minutes into the game having watched the opening exchanges through he clubhouse. This was my first opportunity to look around the ground properly and I think it’d be fair to say I loved the place. Undoubtedly, the most idiosyncratic element of the ground is the series of bus shelters used to form a makeshift stand to the left of the clubhouse. The fact that the shelters are all varying shapes and sizes adds to the randomness of it all. Behind the far goal is a fairly large seating stand, which looked to be rusting away. Then, running down the opposite side of the pitch to the ‘bus stop side’ are a couple of sheltered standing areas. Although I believe most of the ground’s charm comes from its rural setting with the fields and hills backdropping the ground beautifully.
Gibbo was well underway in completing a lap of the ground, so I attempted to catch up with him. Whilst heading around to meet him, I checked my phone only to learn from Twitter that South Shields had already scored – somehow I had missed it when watching on from the clubhouse (they did have Newcastle v Bournemouth on TV in the clubhouse, so I’m assuming I missed the goal when I turned to watch some of that). Apparently they scored courtesy of John Grey, who scored with a header at the back post.
I caught up to Gibbo and we positioned ourselves behind one of the goals, alongside a very knowledgeable Ryton & Crawcrook fan. The game had been fairly scrappy out on the muddy pitch, although North Shields were having the better of the action. They even scored a second from a freekick, but the goal was ruled out after an alleged offside in the box, even though nobody appeared to touch the ball as it went in.
There were a couple of half chances for either team, although RACAFC should have really equalised when a ball played across the box was missed by one of their forwards with the goal at his mercy. I began the walk back around the ground with the intention of visiting the ‘Scran Van’ for some food, but I timed my decision horribly as the half-time whistle went as I was halfway around and soon there was a queue forming for food; instead I headed for the bar.
Half-time: Ryton & Crawcrook 0-1 North Shields.
After a quick peruse over the half-time scores in the clubhouse, I was back outside braving the cold Northumberland afternoon. Food was definitely needed now and so I was delighted to find no queue for the ‘Scran Van’ this time. No pies here, but cheese pasty and chips was ordered and the combo definitely did the trick for me. Now back to the football, which I started watching with my food from under one of the bus stops.
I mentioned the ‘Lost Boyos goalkeeper curse’ in recent blogs and incredibly it struck again today; for the 5th time since the turn of the year and the 4th time in the space of 3-4 weeks, a goalie went down injured in front of me – today it was South Shields’ Scott Pocklington who fell victim to the curse after getting his studs stuck in the ground and injuring his leg nastily. He was stretchered off so I hope he’s okay.
Ryton had a couple of chances, but the half was controlled by the away team, who never really looked in danger of losing the game. It was still surreal seeing Arca in the middle of the park, as he, without ever really needing to seize the game, controlled things from central midfield and kept everything nice and calm.
Ryton’s keeper was keeping them in the game with some excellent saves and it was largely thanks to him that the home team didn’t concede a second until the 84th minute. A simple tap in from Stephen Ramsey made it 2-0, just as me and Gibbo were posing for a double thumbs up photo; in fact, I missed this goal too as I had my back to the action and so we had to ask our photographer what actually happened for the goal.
On entering stoppage time, South Shields earned themselves a penalty when the influential David Foley was brought down in the box. It was to be the Argentinian Arca who would step up and confidently fire his penalty into the corner to make it 3-0. When I woke up this morning, I didn’t expect to be seeing Julio Arca scoring a penalty in a game in the middle of rural Northumberland.
South Shields had found their mojo in the closing five minutes plus stoppage time and went on to make it 4-0. Arca was the creator this time, as his brilliant cross was met by Foley, who headed in amongst the home defence.
There was even time for South Shields to almost score a fifth, only for Ryton to just about scramble the ball away, but the whistle went to confirm a deserved victory for the away team.
Full-time: Ryton & Crawcrook Albion 0-4 South Shields.
Instead of heading back to the clubhouse, we opted to leave the ground straight after the final whistle, as we liked the look of the Boathouse pub opposite Wylam station and thought we’d head there before getting the train back to the Toon. I congratulated Gibbo on joining me in the ‘200 ground club’, whilst we once again dodged traffic, slid down country lanes and navigated our way all the way back to the station.
Going to the Boathouse was a brilliant call with the pub proudly boasting multiple CAMRA awards and even claiming on the sign outside to be ‘Arguably the Best Pub in the World’. Within we found a whole host of ales and I veered towards an ‘orange’ ale (which didn’t really taste as much like oranges as I hoped). Eventually we got chatting to some South Shields fans who were still in their claret and blue scarves. They proved to be great company during our time in the pub as they quizzed us on why and how the hell we had ended up here watching Northern League football. It was also nice to hear them talk about how they were Sunderland fans who had fallen out of love with the upper echelons of football and discovered and eventually grew to love South Shields. They lamented that they wish they had discovered non-league earlier in their lives.
By 6.30pm, we were back in Newcastle proper and with 40 minutes until our train back to Manchester, I directed us to one of my favourite train station pubs in the land: Centurions. Admittedly, it was difficult to appreciate Centurions on this Saturday evening with it so full of depressed Newcastle fans, jubilant Bournemouth fans (Bournemouth won 3-1 at St. James Park) and revellers arriving off the trains ready to start a night out in Newcastle. We at least had a bit of space to watch the Leicester v Watford game on the brig screen.
The train home was a similar affair to Centurions with the train being generally full of depressed Newcastle fans alongside a handful of Bournemouth fans beginning their long journey back south. Also, in our company was some more M&S Belgian Lager. Once again, being the gregarious souls that we are, me and Gibbo got talking to some Newcastle fans, who were utterly despondent about the situation at St. James Park (I tried not to gloat too much with Swansea winning against Norwich today and pulling themselves much further away from the relegation dogfight that Newcastle are embroiled in). Newcastle fan Mark seemed to appreciate our company anyway, as he claimed our football stories had cheered him up a bit; although Salford-based Mark still seemed a bit starry-eyed from his encounter with Alan Shearer at Media City on Thursday night (he had rightly made his photo with Shearer the background on his phone like any self-respecting Newcastle fan would do).
Before alighting back in Manchester, Bournemouth fans also showed us some love by providing us with the remnants of a crate of Fosters with them saying they didn’t have time to finish them before getting off the train. Sadly, they provided us with the 5-6 cans in Stalybridge – about 10-15 minutes before we were due to get off the train. Me and Gibbo did offer them to others around us, but there were not takers, so we grabbed two each and the others were left to be binned on the train (and perhaps an opportunistic Transpennine Express cleaner may have grabbed the spares for himself).
The day finished how it started: in Wetherspoons – not that it was my choice this time. My Irish housemate had chosen the Moon Under Water on Deansgate for her birthday drinks. After performing a very drunken, bizarre dance and sing-a-long to the Diane King classic Shy Guy, I thought I’d been out far too long (it was now 1.30am) and I should go home.
Me and Gibbo are both big advocates of the ‘the more spontaneous, the better’ philosophy and we were both in agreement the next day that this Saturday had been one of the best for a while. Despite the earlier obstacles to our day and even the obstacle of the more rural areas if the north-east, the day had all worked out brilliantly. We discovered some awesome pubs in Newcastle I had never visited before; uncovered a ground that I think we’d dub a bit of a ‘hidden gem’ having not heard of it until about 24 hours we arrived there; and more importantly, we met some top people. The north-east of England is definitely a magnificent part of the country and me and Gibbo have both agreed that we both need to do some more Northern League grounds.
Highlights: I love Newcastle, Quayside Wetherspoons, Free Trade Inn, wonderful, rustic ground, good clubhouse, Julio Arca, The Boathouse, free beer from Bournemouth fans.
Low Points: weather putting plans in doubt, walk to the ground was ‘interesting’.
See all my photos from our trip to Newcastle and Ryton & Crawcrook Albion here.