It’s F.A. Vase 4th Round day, and what better to be at than a tie at a Northern League ground. After all, of the 14 Step 5 leagues in the UK, clubs from this particular one have won this trophy an inordinate amount of times in its recent history – 8 victories in the last 10 years in fact, plus three losing finalists to boot.
Having decided some weeks back to target Tyneside on this day, I’ve come up trumps as Hebburn Town are at home to Shepshed Dynamo, a Leicestershire club based just a few miles from where I was born. I remember them in their Leicestershire Senior League days, when they were known as Albion, before a local businessmen took over the club, saddled it with the Charterhouse suffix, and took them to within sniffing distance of the Football League. Heady days!
Around the same time a pal and I had latched on to fellow Senior League side Friar Lane Old Boys, who were making a name for themselves in the recently-established Vase – they were semi-finalists two years running – and it was clear this competition was capturing the imagination, with crowds at FLOB’s Knighton Lane East home well into 4 figures at what was essentially a 50-men-and-a-dog kind of ground.
Taking advantage of early booking and split rail fares – 6 tickets for a return journey, same seat on the same train – it’s just a £25 day out for me (more than £100 if bought at the station) and I arrive in Newcastle just before 11.00am armed with a map of some of the local pubs. First port-of-call is the nearest Gregg’s, to run the rule over the newly-launched ‘Vegan’ sausage roll, created in Newcastle, apparently. I get the last one on display, so they must be popular, and although just lukewarm that’s red-hot by Gregg’s usual standards (well it is!)
I kill time before midday opening by wandering down by the river, and am amused to watch a diving bird of some type (probably a cormorant) which emerges from the depths with a sizeable eel wriggling furiously within its beak. It quickly realises it’s bitten off more than it can swallow, because it dives again and re-emerges without its prize. The one that got away.
There are lots of good drinking houses down by the Quayside, including the Bridge Tavern and one of my personal favourites, the Crown Posada. But I head back up towards the station behind which are two micro pubs occupying adjacent arches. The Box Social is operated by the local brewery of the same name and consists of a small downstairs bar, with another above. There are 4 cask ales on today, including two of their own, a 7.0% porter (tempting but too early in the day) and a 3.5% cloudy pale ale, Hybrid Theory, which I decide to try. It’s not much of a looker, and is definitely one for the unfined aficionados. Keg beer fans will be pleased to know the ‘craft’ choice numbers just shy of 10. The beer offering seems to be from all over Europe (a 15%abv Danish milk stout was in evidence, thirds only!)
Right next door is Beer Street, with a similar layout to its neighbour (as you might expect – rail arches tend to be symmetrical to each other). Here cask beer dominates, with a choice of up to 11 from all over the UK and the odd European beer – in this case the highly-respected Lervig from Norway – thrown in for good measure. I select Thornbridge’s salted caramel porter, Lucaria, which is as excellent as I would expect from this brewery.
Soon it’s time to head for the Metro at the main station, and a 15-minute journey to Hebburn via the Yellow line in the direction of South Shields. Zone 2 price is £4.20 return. From Hebburn station it’s a ten-minute walk to the Hebburn Sports Ground, with its floodlights visible from some distance away. I’m assuming, given the club’s very recent promotion from Step 6, that this stadium is work-in-progress, and although a fairly tidy set-up, does suffer from a very narrow passage way behind one goal which impedes access to the sizeable, TV-bedecked clubhouse, the layout of which – with the bar-servery adjacent to the main entrance, and the toilets at the far side – is less than ideal for biggish crowds such as today’s. However, there is a marquee set up to serve the drinking overspill, although I suspect this is a temporary legacy of some New Year party or other. Likewise they’ve pulled in fish-and-chip and burger vans either side of the main stand, although the food bar at the side of the clubhouse has pies (all meat) but can offer chips and curry to the non-carnivore. There’s no decent beer in the bar, unless you’re local and you swear by Newcy Brown that is!
Spectator facilities comprise flat standing all round (although not yet tarmaced down one side) and a three-step main stand, the layout of which appears to be set up for safe standing, with a crush barrier fronting every seat. There’s a covered area set well back behind one goal which looks like it’s only likely to be of any interest if there’s a sudden downpour.
I’m kind of expecting the home side to dominate this encounter, but it turns out to be quite the opposite, with Dynamo making most of the running in the first half, scoring once, missing a penalty, and kicking themselves by conceding an equaliser just before the break. After the interval Hebburn emerge revitalised and go in front before losing a man to a straight red. With 25 minutes left it’s Shepshed’s chance to prevail but despite a lot of huffing and puffing, and a late flurry at the end, it’s all in vain and Town move triumphantly into the last 16.
Could they go all the way? Well, they have a former serial winner – Paul Chow, ex-Whitley Bay – in the ranks, and recent Vase history is on their side. But also in the mix is another Northern League side, West Auckland Town, losing finalists in 2012 and 2014. If I was a betting man, I wouldn’t be looking a lot further….
Programme: £2 on the gate. Colour printed on very stiff card. Informative with limited advertising. Visitors Shepshed’s history seemed to have ended in 2013, however….
Floodlights: the traditional 4
Club shop: Didn’t see one but lots of yellow-and-black scarves and hats in evidence within the ground.
Toilets: Just the one in the bar, as far as I could see. Three urinals and a sit-down for a 700+ crowd.
Birdlife: This part of the world is famous for its Kittiwakes but as I can’t tell them apart from the common or garden gull, I’ve no idea if the shitehawks flying over the ground were of that particular breed!