Mark Carruthers: Attendances are booming in non-league but will the Newcastle United and Sunderland takeovers impact that?
The last few years have been something of a perfect storm for North East non-league football - but bright new dawns at Newcastle United and Sunderland could threaten to bring it all to an end.
There has been a stark contrast in the mood across the region’s non-league scene and the emotions being experienced by supporters at St James’s Park and the Stadium of Light in recent years.
Ambition and drive have been conspicuous by their absence on Tyneside and Mike Ashley’s draining presence has continued to cause further frustration amongst one of the Premier League’s most passionate fanbases.
Sunderland supporters have also been forced to witness the slow and depressing decay of their club with two avoidable relegations and unsuccessful attempts at promotion from League One being played out to a background of incompetence and broken promises.
Looking at the wider picture for North East football, the region’s non-league clubs have benefited as disenfranchised supporters from the “big two” finding their way to new grounds in search of their football fix.
They have done so during an exciting and progressional time for the non-league game in our region with clubs pushing for promotion up the non-league pyramid and further success arriving in the FA Vase.
As a writer, you are encouraged to double and triple check all information before putting it into print - but, such was its remarkable nature, clarifying Newcastle Blue Star’s attendance for Friday night’s home game against Ponteland United needed more than one or two repeated attempts.
The fixture takes place in the Northern Alliance, the seventh tier of non-league football and a full ten tiers below the Premier League.
Yet Blue Star’s mix of ambition and community involvement attracted an attendance approaching 1,000 - a figure that surpasses attendances at step one National League fixtures at Boreham Wood, Dover Athletic, Weymouth and King’s Lynn Town over the last month.
It is the latest success story for the region’s non-league scene and that success poured over into Saturday’s fixtures.
A crowd of 637 witnessed Whitley Bay’s Northern League Division One home game against Consett and 450 were on hand to see the top-six clash between North Shields and Thornaby.
Division Two leaders Heaton Stannington welcomed 420 supporters through the Grounsell Park gates and they were rewarded with a 7-0 win for the hosts.
Unusually, all four of our National League North clubs were at home, and Blyth Spartans, Darlington, Gateshead and Spennymoor Town all posted attendances of over 1,000 on Saturday.
South Shields - one of the real success stories of the last half-decade - have hosted over 4,200 supporters for two home games inside three days at the 1st Cloud Arena.
Obviously there are exceptions, but the majority of North East non-league clubs have seen increases in their attendances during the “perfect storm” caused by consternation at the top level and a thirst for football after the drought caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Staff and volunteers at clubs have more than played their part with the promotion of fixtures being more visible on social media and in the public domain and they have been rewarded with some impressive figures during the season.
But new-found loyalties will unquestionably be tested in the short and long-term by recent events on Tyneside and Wearside.
The frenzied scenes that met the announcement that Mike Ashley’s monotonous 13-year ownership of Newcastle United offered new hope for a fanbase slowly having the life sucked out of them.
The new ownership offer riches, structure, drive and ambition in abundance - a feast after the famine caused by Ashley’s careless and loveless approach to owning the Magpies.
Of course, it would be foolish to ignore the issues that surround the Saudi Arabian involvement in the consortium that has been handed the keys at St James’s Park and uncomfortable and unavoidable conversations must be carried out with difficult questions answered by those involved.
But it would be difficult to begrudge any supporters being enthused by the endless possibilities that are now within reach on Tyneside.
There is a rejuvenation of hope on Wearside too and there can be no doubt Sunderland are finally looking ready to end their four-year stay in English football’s third tier.
The haphazard ownership of Stewart Donald, and a number of questionable appointments across the board, have left Black Cats supporters to cling on to rare moments of promise.
But with new owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus putting an effective structure in place and Lee Johnson overseeing a recruitment drive with purpose, they could and should be a new belief that a return to the Championship can be secured over the next seven months.
The hard work would truly start if and when Sunderland return to the second tier and move within one promotion of a Premier League place - but there is unquestionably a revitalised feel around Wearside.
The question is where does this leave the non-league game? Can they work alongside both clubs to continue attracting increased attendances despite the new attractions on the banks of the Tyne and Wear?
Is the new-found love at non-league grounds more enduring and capable of resisting the temptation of a return to bright lights of the Premier League and EFL?
Will a rejuvenation of fortunes at the big two further add fuel to the continued enthusiasm across the North East non-league scene?
Of course, St James’s Park and the Stadium of Light only have limited capacities - but a regular complaint of non-league clubs has been a willingness of supporters to forego live action in preference for the warmth and comfort of sitting in front of a live stream in a local pub.
An interesting and uncertain period lies in wait as we ponder if increased attendances and positive atmosphere at non-league grounds become a regular fixture.