North-East football: A-Blyth and kicking

Tom Hardwick gives his views on the recent performances of Blyth Spartans, Gateshead and Hartlepool United.

Tom Hardwick
26th November 2018
Image- Tom Hardwick

With the international break and the absence of Newcastle United games, some might think that football in the area grinds to a halt. The opposite couldn’t be more true, and over the course of 4 days I managed to get to 3 games of football at Gateshead, Hartlepool United and Blyth Spartans. The results were a mixed barrel, but each was an easy and affordable option, and a far better alternative to fixtures such as Moldova vs Luxembourg.

The first of my three games was Gateshead vs Sutton United. Both teams were hoping to claim 3 points and prove themselves against a fellow playoff contender, but the spoils were shared in a 0-0 draw. Greg Olley drew a good save from Sutton’s keeper after working some space on the edge of the box and Rigg put the ball wide from a dangerous position, but chances were hard to come by and a draw was a fair result. Despite attendances often being small, the Gateshead fans always generate as good an atmosphere as they can. Many claim that the Gateshead International Stadium is a soulless bowl, and although Gateshead’s performance did little to invigorate the fans on this occasion, Gateshead are a team with vocal fans who are competing well in a league with much bigger spenders. Their next home game is against Solihull Moors on the 27th of November, and with tickets at a fiver there isn’t much reason not to head down and lend some support.

The next encounter was between Hartlepool United and Barnet on Sunday afternoon. Hartlepool have struggled somewhat since relegation from League 2, and these struggles were compounded when the visitors inflicted a 3-1 defeat. Initially Hartlepool looked the better side, and when Peter Kioso capitalised on a goalkeeping error to give Hartlepool a 1-0 lead early on, all the signs were positive. However, this lead was let slip in a 40 second horror show. The equaliser came when a superb swinging cross found Manny Duku unmarked to head home, and then almost straight from kickoff Hartlepool conceded again. No more than 3 passes had been played when Hartlepool’s defender inexplicably lost the ball to Duku, who finished confidently to give Barnet a 2-1 lead.

The 94th minute brought more misery when a Pools defender tripped over thin air, allowing Josh Walker all the time in the world to dink the ball over Loach to secure a 3-1 win. Hartlepool’s fans seemed discontent at the final whistle, but to their credit they backed the team until Walker hammered the final nail into the coffin. Victoria Park is a ground that is rough around the edges but oozes with character, and when the team perform it is filled with loyal and passionate fans who create a great atmosphere. They too are at home on the 27th against AFC Fylde, a tough fixture against a good side but one that is well worth taking in.

Finally, I headed to Blyth Spartans vs Stockport County on Tuesday night. One of Blyth’s stands is emblazoned with the quote “Spartans ask not how many are the enemy, but where are they”, and it was clear that the enemy would be the weather. It was a horrendously cold, windy and rainy night that made me question why I had bothered to venture out, but this question was answered quite conclusively by two teams who defied the conditions to produce an entertaining game. Blyth took a 1-0 lead after a huge slice of look saw Stockport’s Cowan deflect an effort beyond his own keeper, but their second goal just five minutes later required no luck. Sean Reid hit a brilliant strike from distance, guiding the ball into the top corner with the perfect balance of precision and power.

Stockport reduced the deficit to 2-1 with a header from a dubious free-kick, but Blyth went 3-1 ahead in the second half, with Connor Oliver receiving a through ball and stroking the ball past the keeper with great composure. Stockport found the top corner themselves, with Mulhern’s effort taking a deflection before hitting the back of the net, and they pushed for an equaliser. Despite their efforts, Blyth held on for a hard fought 3-2 victory.

Croft Park itself might seem basic to those used to the likes of St James’s Park, but with 3 covered terraces, a seated main stand and the benefit of not being charged ridiculous amounts for food, drink or tickets, there is more than enough to tempt football fans to visit for their next home game against Ashton United on the 8th Of December.

Football in the North-East is a lot of things. It is considering how many layers of clothing to wear, then adding another 2 just to be sure. It is endless shouts of “howay”, each in a different context and each with a different meaning that could range from anger to excitement and many things in between. One thing is for certain, and it is that football in the North East is not just Newcastle United. If you get the opportunity, you should look further down the footballing ladder, and you might just find yourself somewhere else to enjoy a game of football.

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