Just as beer festivals are a valuable resource for the die-hard beer-ticker, so I suppose ‘hops’ are to football ground ‘collectors’ like me. Although I’ve yet to sign up for the full Groundhop UK experience – I have registered my interest for the proposed Irish trip so you never know – I have found their schedules very useful and cost-effective for adding a few new stadia to my ‘visited’ list.
The 2014 Northern League Easter Hop, staged over several days, caught my eye, though a number of other commitments narrowed my vision to just the one day, the Bank Holiday Monday trio of games in County Durham.
And so it comes to pass that I motor up the M1 and A1(M) – pausing only to deposit my son at his friend’s house in Sheffield – and turn up at Bishop Auckland’s Heritage Park ground at 11 in the morning. This is a stadium I am familiar with, having watched numerous match videos filmed there on the Darlington website, Darlo being current lodgers at the ground. This is the first match of the day, and features two teams whose names I grew up with as I read my hand-me-down Charles Buchan football annuals in the early 1960s.
Bishop Auckland and Crook Town were always prominent in the days of the old FA Amateur Cup and were known nationally to the extent that I had the former as one of my favourite Subbuteo teams, although the eye-catching light & dark blue kit might also have contributed to that. Big five-figure crowds once watched these two giants of the non-league game slug it out, although I suspect there would be slightly less-ambitious expectations of the number today, albeit with the bonus of attendant groundhoppers.
Despite the prospect of early arrivals, staff in the clubhouse are a bit slow on the ball, as the bar remains stubbornly shut until around 40 minutes from the kick-off, while the hot food arrives in dribs and drabs, although efficiently served by the young girl faced with a rapid build-up of customers. The chips & curry sauce hits the spot – there’s vegetable soup on offer too – and although I spot a Black Sheep keg dispenser on the bar, decide to opt for a quick half of the Dortmunder Union Vier pils, which I presume is a German import.
Heritage Park itself is only a few years old, and is located to the south of the town centre. It boasts a level (as opposed to undulating) pitch, surrounded by flat standing apart from a covered step terrace behind one goal, a tall main stand straddling the halfway line, and the advantage of a grassy bank on the side opposite, although I suspect this might be a no-go area for most of the winter.
Today’s game is between two mid-table outfits who slug it out for the first 25 error-strewn minutes on a hard bouncing pitch, but once the home side nose in front there’s no stopping them. They’re four up by half time and begin the second half in similar style, scoring goals regularly until seemingly deciding on 70 that enough is enough, and eight will suffice. During that time Crook Town have the temerity to pull one back! Still, 9 goals in 45 minutes seems good value to me. I do however feel sorry for the young lad in the Town goal who, apart from a howler for the fourth, is just let down by inexperience and an invisible defence.
So it’s back in the car and a 15-minute journey to the next port-of-call, the historic Brewery Field ground of Champions-elect Spennymoor Town, who may step up to the Northern Premier next season, a promotion prospect many of their compatriots in this parochial, FA Vase-obsessed league seem to shun. The club website recommends parking in the town centre, which I do, but on reflection there looks to be a lot of un-restricted street parking in the vicinity of the stadium.
Whereas the Heritage Park pitch is flat, this one is the polar opposite, with a pronounced end-to-end slope, and lots of hills and hollows. It’s a nice stadium nonetheless, with an impressive covered terrace running the width of the pitch behind one goal, raised uncovered terracing elsewhere, and a substantial main stand down one side. I briefly check out the clubhouse bar and then the food van, but there is nothing really to excite.
There’s something at stake for both sides today, with the home team needing points to maintain pole position at the top of the table, while visitors Team Northumbria look for a boost in their relegation survival battle. The latter are out of luck as early as the 13th minute as a clearance is charged down by a Spenny striker and balloons over the head of the keeper and into the net. There’s more drama as a stray ball poleaxes a spectator, with the Spenny physio the first to come to his aid. Chances at both ends are spurned but Town seem to have it sealed on 53 from a long-range free kick, and underline that with a third on 81. Cue a spirited revival from Northumbria who pull one back before a frantic finale in which a Spenny penalty adds gloss to the scoreline.
Now for another short drive to Newton Aycliffe, and the last of the three games for the day. Moore Lane is the least developed of the grounds, boasting only two kit stands – one seated – with the rest flat standing. Access is past a social club and round the cricket pitch (a la Feethams) with the complex boasting mainly pre-fab buildings which serve as offices, changing rooms and a snackery, which at least sells chips. The home team are on a run of eight successive defeats with only one win in 2014, but faced with title-chasing visitors Shildon are more than up for the fight and take a deserved lead within 5 minutes. Despite Shildon coming more into the game as the match wears on, and the home goal starting to lead a charmed life, it takes a penalty to add parity to the scoreline, with the 1-1 result probably being the right outcome.
A quick look at the crowds on ‘Groundhop Day’. There’s 434 at Bishops (average 233), 627 at Spenny (413) and at N.A. I’m guessing – as I didn’t hear anything announced – about 250 (115) so with a couple of hundred or so hoppers on the loose, it can only be a good thing for the coffers of the host clubs. Staggering kick-off times might not necessarily be popular with regular supporters and the players, but as we all know, in this game money talks. However, even a groundhopper boost would’t be likely to threaten the record crowd for a match between two Northern League teams, which according to the Bishop Auckland programme stands at 100,000! Mind you, it WAS a cup final and it WAS at Wembley. Heady days.
Programmes: BA – £1.25. Good reading but lots of adverts 5/10. ST – £1.00. Very similar, although better design. 6/10. NA – £1.50. Slimmer but light on adverts. Good on the eye but strangely lacking a fixtures list and league table. 6/10
Floodlight pylons: BA – 4, ST – 4, NA – 6