Mark Carruthers: Excitement and anticipation are not limited to Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough
It is safe to say that the North East’s ‘big three’ have vastly different targets for the remainder of the 2020/21 season and the mood could hardly be different across Wearside, Teesside and Tyneside.
Momentum is building on and off the pitch at the Stadium of Light following Kyril Louis-Dreyfus’ takeover of Sunderland and the Black Cats look well set to challenge for a return to the Championship under Lee Johnson.
Middlesbrough are looking to mount a successful promotion bid of their own in the second tier and secure a first season back in the Premier League since 2017 – although Tuesday night’s home defeat against Bristol City left them three points shy of a play-off place.
Newcastle United’s sole focus will be preserving their Premier League status after a run of eight defeats in their last 10 games left them just three points clear of the drop zone and contemplating the possibility of a third demotion under Mike Ashley’s ownership.
No matter what happens between now and May, the rest of the campaign will provide a whole spectrum of emotions for supporters on Wearside, Teesside and Tyneside – but the excitement and anticipation are not limited to the region’s top three clubs as our non-league scene looks to play a significant role in providing success between now and the end of the season.
It is just under ten years since Whitley Bay completed one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of North East football.
After experiencing the highs of a Wembley triumph with their FA Vase Finals wins in 2009 and 2010, Ian Chandler’s side returned to the home of football and scrapped their way to an unprecedented third consecutive win in the competition.
Whereas their previous wins over Glossop North End and Wroxham had been relatively straightforward, the 2011 final victory owed much to an outstanding display from goalkeeper Terry Burke.
Renowned strike partnership Paul Chow and Lee Kerr were on target – of course – but it was the performance of their number one that essentially helped Whitley see off a lively Coalville Town side to secure their place in the history books.
The likes of Newcastle Blue Star and Whickham had brought the Vase back to the North East with Wembley wins in 1978 and 1981 – and Whitby Town added their name to the list of Northern League Vase winners when they saw off North Ferriby United in 1997.
But Whitley Bay left an indelible mark on the competition as their unique treble added to a narrow final win against Tiptree United in the sun at Villa Park in 2002 and made them the most successful side in the history of the Vase.
Since their last final triumph, the North East has almost monopolised their hold on the competition with Dunston UTS, Spennymoor Town, North Shields, Morpeth Town and South Shields all bringing the Vase back to the region.
Two of our clubs have also experienced the downside of any final during that time as Stockton Town and West Auckland Town (twice) experienced Wembley heartache.
There are high hopes that Hebburn Town and Consett will be able to fight it out to add their name to the ever-growing list of North East winners with speculation that their 2020 Vase final could finally be played on the first weekend of May.
Their meeting could provide the launchpad for what could be a memorable week for the North East game as the FA are believed to looking at the possibility of playing this season’s Vase final seven days later – if they are able to allow the competition to continue with Covid-19 restrictions still in place.
That would offer Hebburn, Shildon, West Auckland Town and Seaham Red Star a chance to follow in the footsteps of those Bay legends and write their names into North East non-league history.
There could even be another North East triumph at Wembley before the end of the season as Darlington continue their quest to become two-time FA Trophy winners.
Just 24 hours before Whitley Bay completed their Vase Final treble in 2011, the Quakers were preparing for their Trophy final against Mansfield Town.
In front of just under 25,000 supporters, Mark Cooper’s side claimed a dramatic win as substitute Chris Senior headed the only goal of the game with just a minute left in extra-time.
Much has changed over the last decade at Darlington, but the memories of that win remain clear in the memory as they look to move into the semi-final this weekend.
Alun Armstrong’s men will be favourites to battle their way beyond Isthmian League side AFC Hornchurch at Blackwell Meadows on Saturday and reach the last four of the competition for the first time in a decade.
Excitement in the North East non-league game is not limited to cup competitions either.
Hartlepool United may have come away from Wrexham feeling underwhelmed with a point after creating a whole host of chances to take all three – but the result did help them solidify their position as genuine challengers for a promotion place in the National League.
It is just under 16 months since Dave Challinor took over at Victoria Park and he has moulded Pools into one of the most functional sides in non-league’s top tier.
The former AFC Fylde boss has boxed clever in the transfer market and his side fully deserve their place in amongst the challengers for one of the two promotion places on offer.
The announcement that the Vic could even host supporters before the season is over will only fuel their desire to return to the Football League for the first time since their heartbreaking relegation in 2017.
The North East’s big three may well be experiencing difficulty throughout one of the most unique seasons in history – but the region’s other clubs are still providing supporters with a ray of light even in the darkest of times.