Mark Carruthers: The Ebac Northern League football famine is over and it's back with a bang
The opening matchdays of an eagerly anticipated season have promised so much and delivered even more in front of a whole host of impressive attendances across the region.
The buzz of matchday was clear as soon as I made my way towards the main entrance at the Daren Persson Stadium on Saturday ahead of North Shields’ home game against West Allotment Celtic.
Slowly, but surely, supporters made their way through the gate and into the clubhouse 276 days after the Robins had hosted their last competitive fixture.
Seeing familiar faces in their usual places like they had never been away, engaging in the same old matchday conversations as another season got underway with hope, positivity, and excitement all undiminished for the time being.
All three emotions were heightened throughout a frantic 90 minutes when both sides could claim to have deserved all three points but were forced to settle for one apiece after a hard-fought 1-1 draw.
Value for money was there in abundance.
A quick post-match conversation with BBC Newcastle’s Paul Dixon revealed an assessment of yet more excitement at Whitley Bay’s home game against Whickham and, even more importantly, another impressive attendance approaching the 450-mark.
The two North Tyneside fixtures were not alone in suggesting an appetite for live action and that familiar matchday feel remains very much amongst the North East football community.
A scan of the opening day crowds across Division One warmed the heart with the average attendance across the ten top tier fixtures was just a touch under 300 – Consett’s home fixture against Seaham Red Star was the peak with 491 supporters making their way to Belle View.
Division Two offered more joy with over 200 at Kingsley Park to see Ryton and Crawcrook’s Albion’s dramatic late win against Heaton Stannington and crowds of either side of 150 witnessing Horden CW’s Northern League return against Washington and Jarrow’s narrow home loss to Easington Colliery.
In total, across all 20 opening day fixtures, Northern League grounds hosted an impressive total of 4,187 supporters as competitive football finally returned after almost a year.
The first midweek fixtures offered more reason for optimism with Bishop Auckland’s home game with Newton Aycliffe attracting over 400, Whitley Bay’s Hillheads meeting with Penrith falling seven short of that total and Ashington’s fine 4-0 win against West Auckland Town played out in front of 337 spectators.
Division Two continued to show an increase with 210 seeing Redcar Town’s first ever Northern League home game as they claimed a narrow 1-0 win against Blyth Town and both Horden and Chester-le-Street Town hosting just short of 200 supporters for their home fixtures.
The nine fixtures held on Tuesday night and Wednesday night took the total attendance at the 37 league fixtures so far this season up to 7,784 and an average of over 210 per game – which is very promising for clubs across the region.
The number crunching only tells half of the story with a large dose of eye-catching tales being played out at grounds across the leagues.
Redcar Athletic debuted in Division One with a 2-1 home win against Northallerton Town, Sunderland RCA edged a nervy derby with Ryhope CW and Ashington shared four goals at Penrith as both clubs celebrated the long service of much loved and admired Bonny Blues stalwart Bradley Hodgson after he stepped down following 17 years as their club mascot.
Paul Brayson, 44 next month, scored twice as Newcastle Benfield edged a seven-goal thriller at West Auckland Town and Newton Aycliffe’s game at Billingham Town matched that total as the visitors claimed a 5-2 win at Bedford Terrace.
An injury-time winner broke Blyth Town’s hearts upon their return to Division Two as they fell to a defeat at Northumberland rivals Bedlington Terriers, Horden edged out Washington on their own return and Birtley Town hit the heights with a 5-0 win at Esh Winning.
The entertainment increased on Tuesday night as Thornaby inflicted a 5-3 defeat on West Allotment Celtic as their hosts celebrated their first competitive fixture at East Palmersville, Ashington hit four against West Auckland Town and Penrith held off a late fightback to win by the odd goal in five at Whitley Bay.
Boldon CA debuted in Division Two with a hard-fought draw against former Wearside League rivals Horden CW and Durham City collected a point in an entertaining home draw against Bedlington Terriers.
And on Wednesday, Benfield claimed another win against Crook Town as the evergreen Brayson bagged another two goals and Cameron Gascoigne, nephew of Paul, crashed home a 25-yard stunner that the England legend would have been proud of.
I don’t really need to encourage any football supporters to visit their local Northern League grounds over the season, the facts, figures, and stories speak for themselves and should provide enough encouragement on their own.
Let’s have more of the same over the coming weeks please!
There are, of course, bigger challenges ahead for the Northern League and their member clubs as they look to continue the momentum built up over the last four days.
Covid-19 remains the elephant in the room, with its presence still providing lingering doubts over whether an uninterrupted season will be played out over the next nine months.
The return of the region’s 11 National League North and Northern Premier League clubs on Saturday week also offers another alternative for floating enthusiasts and groundhoppers alike.
That is without considering the region’s big three and their long-awaited return to league action – although genuine optimism and excitement over their prospects for the new season remains conspicuous by its absence.
But for now, at least, the Northern League has a short-term monopoly over the competitive fixtures and clubs will hope the feast will continue long into and beyond the dark nights of autumn and winter.