Kevin McGrother2 Comments


Kevin McGrother2 Comments
Catering at Brandon.JPG

I was watching Norton & Stockton Ancients play Stokesley in the Northern League and it was the highlight of that, or any other, festive season in recent memory; a Christmas present that is still giving today as I now follow the Ancients home and away.

Technically of course the Northern League is anything but 'non-League', being the second oldest football league in the world and this season celebrating its 125th anniversary, and with more than 100 years' head start on the young pretender that is the Premier League.

Non-League is still known for affordable, competitive football kicking off at traditional times, in grounds filled with character where the conversations of players and officials drown out the chants of the crowds. For me, if it comes down to a choice between the two, then non-League wins every time.

And since my Boxing Day conversion, I've witnessed one promotion, a relegation, a new clubhouse (badly needed after a previous stand blew away one stormy night), an FA Vase quarter-final and the club's biggest ever crowd - 1,526 - against FC United of Manchester in the FA Cup.

Interesting times and I've loved every minute - I've even ended up writing the club's match-day programme in the process.

This season, FA Vase holders Spennymoor start the league as strong favourites and begin with a 4-0 home win against Ashington, a defeat so humiliating that the visitors leave straight after the game. Suspicions that the home side then helped themselves to Ashington's 20 untouched post-match lasagnes were heightened after an unexpected 3-1 defeat two days later to West Auckland Town.

The Ancients find themselves down in the Ebac Northern League Division Two for the first time in four years, and start their promotion charge with a 1-1 home draw against league newcomers Heaton Stannington, themselves returning to the Northern League for the first time since 1952.

Any thoughts that mid-August is too early for football - there are two cricket matches in play on neighbouring pitches - are soon swept aside with a lively game that includes a mass brawl, a red card, a missed penalty, one of the match balls getting lost in the neighbour's huge holly bush and the Ancients' new centre back - a dead-ringer for Martin Keown - limping off injured.

In a 42-match season, it's pushing it to suggest that the second game is crucial, but an early win would certainly settle the nerves. And so to the first midweek game of the season, a Wednesday night trip to Brandon United.

Brandon is on the outskirts of Durham - close enough to see the top of the Cathedral tower from the touchline, but in character a million miles away from the mediaeval city.  

A former pit village that last saw mining nearly 50 years ago its colliery Welfare Ground is one of the few reminders of that industrial past.

Like many grounds at this level, the Welfare Ground takes a bit of finding. "Take the next left then drive through the gap in the row of houses," I'm advised by a man at a bus stop. Having tried two gaps, ending up in two cul-de-sacs, I strike lucky with the third and follow an unmarked track up to the ground.

As at all Northern League grounds, a friendly welcome awaits, and at £5 admission and £1 for the programme, there is little danger of fans being priced out of the game.

It's a small crowd - a smattering of home fans in the stand, the still-injured Martin Keown tucking into chips and beans, and a woman sitting comfortably in her own deckchair, placed level with the 18-yard box. There's the obligatory man with a voice that carries for miles. "It's a bit quiet Brandon," he bellows as the home team are forced back.

The away support is boosted at half-time by the arrival of the couple who provide match-day catering at Ancients' home games. Their 30-minute journey turned into a 90-minute nightmare trek thanks to a mis-programming of the sat-nav. Only when they reached the other side of County Durham did they realise they were heading back to where they'd bought their bunk beds the week before. About 15 miles off course, they'd struggle to get a glimpse of Brandon, even from the top bunk.

They arrive to find the Ancients 0-2 up at the break, thanks to one impressive counter attack and some questionable Brandon defending from a corner. While the deckchair lady stretches her legs behind the goal, the rest of the crowd congregate around the refreshments and hospitality area: one converted shipping container for fans, a second, deluxe version (with table and chairs) for committee members and officials - it's Container City in the collieries.

Tea is served in proper mugs for £1 and as I wait for mine, I look at the framed pictures of Bobby Charlton running out for Manchester United and the less recognisable Brandon United Reserves teams of seasons past.

In my experience, the catering at non-League grounds is always a highlight of any visit. Billingham Town offers free biscuits (note, can include crackers) and Sunderland RCA is as famed for its corned beef hash as it is for the colourful instructions constantly barked from the touchline by ex-Sunderland and Scotland player, the 77-year-old George Herd.

I recall a Good Friday visit to Esh Winning, when the only item on the menu was fish finger sandwiches - an entire crowd fed by just a few loaves and fishes - truly a miraculous achievement.

Back underway at the Welfare Ground and a further four goals come in the second half, making the final score Brandon United 1 Norton & Stockton Ancients 5, a very satisfying performance. The management were calling for a clean sheet but few would deny Brandon's number ten his goal and on tonight's form, he'll get plenty more at this level.

Three days later and the Ancients are back on the road with a Saturday afternoon trip to Thornaby, admittedly only four miles from Norton's Station Road home.

Thornaby struck lucky in the Lottery a few years ago and received grant funding for ground improvements. On my way to the ground I hoped it hadn't been improved too much. Previously, it was possible to park overlooking the touchline and watch the entire game from your car, though changing ends at half time had the potential for gridlock.

There are encouraging signs as I arrive at Teesdale Park: the entrance to the ground is still down the long woodland drive I remember, but when I eventually get to the car park, sheets of green tarpaulin block out all views of the pitch.

And despite being forced from the car in pouring rain, I have to admit that the area is being transformed for the better. It now appears to be part football ground, part nature reserve as bird boxes, bird feeders and even a hedgehog house surround the pitch. Umbrella-topped picnic tables mingle with tubs of flowers.

Ordering a tea from a hatch in another converted shipping container, I hear someone suggest its going to be Chelsea against Wolves today, as the all blue of Thornaby welcome the black and gold of the Ancients. Martin Keown is spotted in the bar.

Thornaby go two up within half an hour, each time the cheers from the home fans causing Keown, pint in hand, to come racing out, just too late for both goals - hopefully he'll be more up with play when he's back in the team.

The Ancients pull one back before half time through one-time Apprentice contestant Rocky Andrews, brother of Spennymoor's Sonny. The Andrews brothers are named after boxers - as indeed is sister Cassie (a la Cassius Clay). It was Sonny's goals which helped to get the Ancients to the FA Vase quarter-final in 2010 and I've high hopes for Rocky - early signs are promising.

I don't win the half time raffle - I never do. The prize today is a box of veg and the winner makes unnecessary comments about the size of the courgettes (careful, the League's Secret Shoppers who listen out for bad language may be about) then we're back underway.

The rain gets even heavier in the second half. I shelter under a tree, keeping one eye on the hedgehog house. The Ancients have a hat-trick of goals ruled offside before new signing Nicky Martin back-heels the equaliser at the end of a lovely passing move. More encouraging signs for the season ahead.

It finishes 2-2, another great game to end a really enjoyable opening week. Two draws, a win and eight goals scored.

I get back to the car and hear all the news from the opening day of the Premier League season.

I hear of great goals to look out for on Match of the Day; I will watch them and I will no doubt enjoy them, just not quite as much as the three games I've seen this week.

Match of the Day might have its multiple camera angles and computer analysis, but will it have the shipping containers, hedgehog houses, balls lost in holly bushes and local talent?

No, I didn't need any reminder why I love going to football so much, but if I had, this week has certainly provided it. Whatever the results, wherever the grounds, I know the months ahead are going to be a lot of fun. So here's to 125 years of the Northern League and to grassroots football - may it never change.

Always scheduled to coincide with an international break, Non-League Day gives fans across the UK the chance to see what's going on at a club that might be on their doorstep which they may be unfamiliar with or even knew existed.

Many non-league clubs are almost exclusive volunteer run, with money taken at the turnstiles often funding thriving youth set-ups, projects and facilities which are of benefit to the whole community.

For many supporters of non-league football it's the sense of belonging and preservation of traditional values that remains so appealing. The vast majority of games still kick off at 3pm, ticket prices are realistic, you can often stand anywhere in the ground and will always be guaranteed a warm welcome by people who run their clubs for a love of the game.

Non-League Day 2013 takes place this Saturday.  Find out more at 

This piece was commissioned by American clothing brand Original Penguin to celebrate Non-League Day on September 7th 2013.