When Patrick Kluivert announced that Metalist Kharkiv were to travel to the North-East of England in February, few of the Yellow-Blues would have pencilled a trip to Cullercoats beach into their diaries. With Ukraine’s second-largest city over 250 miles from the nearest coastline, the homegrown talent would not know what to do with a bucket and spade. The South American contingent, perhaps more accustomed to the sandy shores of Mar del Plata and Ipanema, would catch pneumonia from the bracing North Sea chill.
The impact of North Tyneside’s winter weather had not escaped the attention of diligent coach Myron Markevych. And so, four days prior to the Europa League tie at St. James’, Kharkiv eschewed the customarily cosy indoor training session in favour of a tune-up exhibition match. The side had not featured competitively for three months, courtesy of the gratuitous winter league break. With a lack of sharpness clearly an issue ahead of Thursday’s game, the players needed warming up in more ways than one.
The visitors required a local opponent, and Whitley Bay Football Club stepped up to the plate. The Bay may ply their trade eight tiers below their Premier League neighbours, but their reputation precedes them, having won the FA Vase a record-breaking four times in the last decade. Much like Metalist, the Northern League outfit currently sit in fourth place in their respective division. Non-league mainstays they may be, but Whitley Bay were not to be disrespected.
The Ukrainians, however, did exactly that by asking for the fixture to be played behind closed doors. No Newcastle scouts, no media presence - and, most gallingly, no local support: no momentous occasion for the residents, and no welcome windfall for the club. The Bay resisted, and a compromise was brokered. The turnstiles would be open to the public, but those in black and white paraphernalia would be turned away.
The visitors need not have worried. Despite the bitter winds, impending rain and hastily adjusted kick-off time, fans flocked behind Whitley Bay Ice Rink in their droves. It may well be true that those in the seaside dormitory town are all Newcastle United fans. But, contrary to popular belief, this is not a one-club conurbation; nor is it a one-way street. Support lines are drawn across regions, not teams. Geordies follow the fortunes of semi-professional sides in the suburbs as well as the top-flight team in the city centre. On this cold night, every man, woman and child at Hillheads - save for a small pocket of Metalist die-hards - was a Whitley Bay supporter.
Packs of adolescents huddled together in the standing area. Elderly men, decades of grassroots support under their belts, looked on, swelling quietly with pride. Hundreds chattered excitedly, with blue and white around their necks, on their heads, wrapped around their bodies. The two main stands filled to capacity, with supporters spilling out onto the adjacent terraces. The most vocal young men planted themselves behind one goal, unfurling their colourfully-worded banners and warming up their voices. Knee-high whippersnappers stood on their tiptoes at the other end, no less vocal for want of trying.
The Eastern European espionage continued right up until kick-off. After reading out the Whitley Bay team to cheers from the crowd, the announcer hesitantly admitted: “We don’t have the Metalist Kharkiv teamsheet yet.” Nor did he ever receive one. If the players had adopted pseudonyms specifically for the friendly, or swapped shirts amongst themselves in the tunnel, few of the spectators would have been surprised. Nor would they have been any of the wiser.
The players jogged onto the pitch to the tune of Local Hero, the Magpies’ stadium entrance song, equally relevant down to a man. Cries of “Haway the Bay” rang out from the stands - and the PA system - amidst the rapturous applause. For the unsuspecting away side, it was a daunting baptism of fire and ice.
From the first blow of the whistle, the difference in playing styles was strikingly evident. Bay launched the ball long, high and hard, letting the wind cause havoc amongst the Kharkiv back four. Paul Chow, on target the previous day against Bedlington Terriers, probed and prowled in Metalist’s final third, looking to take advantage of any uncertainty. “Feed the Chow and he will score”, bellowed the ultras, but the Bay’s top scorer went hungry on the evening.
The Ukrainians showed flashes of class in the centre of the park, but the Bay endeavoured to shut their talented opponents down - and even matched their skilfulness, if only for a defining moment. A delightful Lee Paul Scroggins overstep, as deft as anything from the Brazilian quartet, afforded Chris Fawcett space on the right, forcing Metalist to concede the corner.
The Papa Gueyes and Marco Torsiglieris of this world, standing at 6ft 4in and 6ft 3in respectively, have dealt with tens of thousands of corners in their time, but never a corner quite like this. With the crowd and the elements firmly behind him, captain Paul Robinson curled his set-piece towards the near post. A gust of seafront wind caught the ball mid-air, propelling it goalwards. Veteran ‘keeper Oleksandr Horyainov did his best to keep the ball out, but Scroggins was there to slam home the opening goal - perhaps the most unlikely in Whitley Bay’s long history.
The prospect of victory was still but a dream, with seventy-eight minutes left to play against a side ranked 29th in Europe by UEFA, but it was a dream infused with infectious hope. Kharkiv poured forward, displaying the slick pass-and-go movements that one would expect from an entirely South American attacking force. Willian Gomes was denied twice, first by 22-year-old ‘keeper Kyle Hayes, and thereafter by his own profligacy. The Brazilian had better luck in a supporting role, as his sweeping pass carved open the retreating Bay defence. Its recipient, fellow countryman Marlos, stepped inside his marker and placed his effort beyond the reach of the young custodian. However, the fleet-footed winger could not add to his tally, as fine goalkeeping from Hayes, and a heroic last-ditch interception from Craig McFarlane, prevented the away side from gaining the upper hand.
The frustration was written all over the Kharkiv player’s faces as the referee brought a close to the first half. One player took matters into his own hands, picking up the ball and hoisting it into the neighbouring estate in a fit of petulance. The Yellow-Blues left the pitch to a chorus of boos. Only three of them returned for the second half, as Markevych afforded playing time to the rest of his squad. Bay’s players had already seen plenty of action, having drawn at Bedlington just 24 hours prior to the game, and were due to host Celtic Nation in two days’ time. As such, Ian Chandler also made some necessary changes, albeit for different reasons than his Ukrainian counterpart.
The second half was a very different affair. Metalist poured forward, a relentless tide of patient yellow, but were unable to break down the resilient Bay rearguard. Goal-line clearances, almighty penalty area scrambles and the outstretched palms of Hayes all kept Kharkiv at bay. The final whistle could not come soon enough, and when it did, Hillheads erupted. Both sets of players left the field to a warm ovation on one of the coldest nights in recent memory.
On leaving the ground, one spectator enthusiastically boasted: “There wasn’t much between the two at all!” In truth, Metalist Kharkiv had the edge in every expected department: they were stronger, quicker, fitter and more technically gifted. But the visitors’ strengths were nullified by the Bay’s immeasurable but no less important attributes; determination, commitment, a willingness to work hard for one another. Former Alnwick Town winger Fawcett had the beating of Argentina full-back Villagra throughout. Towering centre-half Brian Smith dealt with Jonathan Cristaldo better than Manuel Friedrich did three months ago. Kharkiv used the game to regain match fitness; Whitley Bay played as though their lives depended on it.
If Alan Pardew or his scouting team were discreetly looking on, they may have gleaned a little information about the key players, or the potential tactics that the up-and-coming Ukrainians may deploy. But Metalist Kharkiv learned more on the night than they ever could have done in a training room or running drills on an all-weather pitch. They gained an understanding of the football culture that is prevalent throughout the North East. If over seven hundred fans can foster such a formidable atmosphere at a ninth tier level, the Ukrainians (and South Americans) can vaguely gauge what they will have to endure at St. James’ Park.
Many have speculated that, based on the unlikely result, Metalist Kharkiv face an uphill battle against a rejuvenated Newcastle United side. Even those who braved the elements to attend Sunday’s game could not reasonably make such a prediction. But the fans can be sure of one thing. Should the Bay continue to play at that standard, another trophy-laden season may be in the offing.