THE August bank holiday weekend traditionally marks a watershed in the season – earlier starts as the nights draw in, the first signs of autumnal weather, the real start of the final run-in with September beckoning, football beginning to intrude and big issues about to be settled.
It’s no different this year, but, for the majority of Dukes North East Premier League Premier Division teams, there is little to play for other than pride as the championship and relegation are very close to being rubber-stamped, with South Northumberland looking nailed on to take the title, and Gateshead Fell unlikely to be able to beat the drop.
Hetton Lyons will certainly play on until it is mathematically impossible for them to catch the Bulls, but, with 45 points to make up, their only possibility of doing so will be by winning all of their remaining four games, and winning them well.
Their final three games present opportunities, with two home matches against the Fell and Whitburn, before a final-day trip to Stockton, so Saturday’s visit to Benwell Hill is arguably their toughest remaining assignment.
The Hill have only lost two league games all season, a similar record to the Lyons, and, with Richard Coughtrie back after his holidays, and Nick Jones possibly playing after working abroad for most of the summer, they present a real hurdle for Hetton, who have to reckon without both Shaun Birbeck and Rob Talbot due to work commitments.
Anything less than victory will present a focused South North with an opportunity to virtually seal things if they can win at Jesmond where hosts Newcastle have had a modest campaign.
South North were tipped out of the national T20 last Sunday, so the main prize is all they have to concentrate on, and they have an unchanged side with which to pursue their ambitions.
At the opposite end of the table, it could be argued that Sunderland still have some work to do to cement their top-flight future, particularly as they have some pretty tough fixtures in their final four weeks, beginning on Saturday with an Ashbrooke encounter against Chester-le-Street.
Despite the mental scars inflicted by a 13-game winless run, the Wearsiders continue to have a decent margin of safety, with their lead over Gateshead Fell 31 points.
Sunderland are hoping that Usman Arshad and Paul Jenkin will be fit enough to play in this one. Despite Imram Shah and Chris Watson being unavailable, Arsalan Rahim should return.
The Cestrians were boosted by their Banks Salver success last Sunday – it would have been an extremely rare occurrence for their mantelpiece to be missing seasonal silverware so it was mission completed for them.
Max Morley has gone home after being released by Durham, but Gareth Wade is back from holiday and in contention.
Gateshead Fell are edging ever closer to the First Division despite better form in recent weeks.
They have only one victory to their credit, although they may see a home game against Whitburn as an opportunity to add to that tally as their visitors have cemented their own Premier future with four wins from their last eight outings and do not have too much to play for.
Harry Thursby replaces Craig Henderson in the Whitburn dressing room which is otherwise unchanged.
In the weekend’s other games, Durham Academy travel to take on a Stockton team who expect to be able to include Keaton Jennings in their line-up as he is free of Durham commitments, while Tynemouth entertain a Blaydon side which will include Graeme Bridge following his return from holiday.
All matches start at 11am on Saturday.