'It was a pretty mad evening' - Memories of the time Whitley Bay hosted Ukrainian Super League side Metalist Kharkiv and Arsenal ace Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang took on Heaton Stannington
Instead of giving my thoughts on the ongoing situation across the National League, I thought this week’s Non-League Verdict should focus on something a little bit different.
This week marks the eighth anniversary of one of the more unusual friendlies involving one of North East non-league’s most familiar names.
On a cold, misty evening at Hillheads, Northern League club Whitley Bay made their way on to their home pitch to face Ukrainian Super League side Metalist Kharkiv.
The visitors were in the North East to prepare for their Europa League last-32 tie against Newcastle United and needed a warm-up game before their visit to St James Park.
Whitley Bay stepped up and promptly provided a side managed by former Ukraine manager Myron Markevych with a surprise introduction to life in England.
With just 12 minutes on the clock, Leepaul Scroggins headed a corner-kick beyond Metalist keeper Oleksandr Horyainov to put the four-time FA Vase winners in front.
However, the Ukrainians pulled level within six minutes with a goal that would be expected of side with internationals from Argentina, Brazil and Senegal.
It was Brazilian-born star Marlos – a cultured winger that has gone on to win 17 caps for Ukraine – that grabbed a classy equaliser as he crashed a shot past Bay keeper Kyle Hayes.
To the surprise and delighted of the hardy souls that braved the wintery conditions, Ian Chandler’s men held on to claim a famous draw against a side that would battle to a goalless draw at St James Park four days later.
The Whitley Bay captain for the night was three-time Vase winner Paul Robinson and he still holds fond memories of their unusual meeting with the Ukrainian outfit.
“It was a pretty mad evening,” he explained.
“I remember it being absolutely Baltic and they had about 93 people in their party.
“We kicked off and I swear they had the ball for the first seven or eight minutes without us even coming close to touching it – it was just like a possession session for them.
“Then we somehow scored from a corner with a goal from Scroggs and we couldn’t believe it.
“We were running back to our half just laughing our heads off, it was hilarious.
“I think there was over 1,000 people at the game, and I am sure we managed to sneak John Carver (then Newcastle’s assistant manager) into the game to get a look at them.
“Even on a difficult pitch, they were incredible and some of their touches were unreal.
“It was a great experience, but I wouldn’t have fancied the away leg in Ukraine.
“A ‘calf strain’ would have ruled me out of that one.”
Whitley Bay are not the only Northern League club to have experienced an unexpected meeting with an unusual opposition in the not-too-distant past.
The Gabon national team were in the North East to take on Switzerland at St James Park in the group stages of the 2012 Olympics.
A warm-up fixture with Newcastle United’s second string fell through and Heaton Stannington – then of the Northern Alliance - stepped in to take on the Africans at Grounsell Park.
A number of their Gabon squad plied their trade in France’s top tier including defender Stevy Nzambe (Marseille), Bruno Ecuele Manga (Lorient) and midfielder Andre Biyogo Poko (Bordeaux).
But their undoubted star was another player making a serious impact with Saint Etienne in Ligue Un – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The current Arsenal captain had plundered his way to 16 goals in 36 league appearances for Les Verts and was just over 12 months away from securing a move to Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund.
He left quite an impression on the Stan as he scored twice in a 4-0 win for a Gabon side that claimed two draws and defeat to see their first ever Olympic campaign end in the group stages.
Their meeting with Aubameyang proved to be the pre-cursor for a historic season for the Stan as they went on to secure a return to the Northern League for the first time since 1952 in the following season.
There are a number of other “unusual friendlies” involving North East non-league clubs that have taken place across the region – Swedish star Tomas Brolin and Liverpool legend Ian Rush leading the line for a Leeds United side at Blyth Spartans in 1997 springs to mind.
But surely Whitley Bay’s brave draw against Metalist Kharkiv and the Stan’s meeting with one of world football’s up and coming stars must be up there with the most memorable.
I would be intrigued to hear of any other memorable friendlies anyone reading this has taken in during their time watching football across the North East.
This week saw the launch of a new version of the Sunderland Echo Northern Goals show as we opened up the Supporters Club.
The monthly episode will see supporters from a number of North East non-league clubs join us to have their say on the latest news and to give their opinions on the current state of their own clubs.
With Covid-19 continuing to dominate the headlines, everyone in football has had a chance to venture their own opinions – but we thought it was about time that supporters were given a voice.