Heaton Stannington vs Norton and Stockton Ancients
FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round, Saturday August 15 2015, Grounsell Park.
A small piece of football history was made on August 15 2015; Heaton Stannington of the Northern League 2nd Division played their first FA Cup game in 61 years, against Norton and Stockton Ancients, and recorded the first giant killing of the 2015/16 season. This is the story of their day from my perspective.
I had made one previous visit to Grounsell Park, home of ‘The Stan’. At Michael Martin’s recommendation at the height of the anti-Ashley unrest last season I had gone along to watch an entertaining 2-2 draw against Ryton and Crawcrook Albion. I found a friendly club with a welcoming bar, run behind the scenes by a dedicated and hard working group of volunteers and represented on the pitch by an honest and committed bunch of lads in black and white. And you can get into the match, buy a programme (the excellent Grounsell Gazette), have a couple of pints and still have change from a tenner! I vowed to return.
I had been looking forward to The Stan’s FA Cup tie and my second visit, for a while. A sunny day was forecast, I knew the clubhouse sold real ale, the publicity the match had received promised a big crowd and I expected both teams to be up for it.
The Stan had started their season quietly; a disappointing opening day defeat at Crook Town followed by a 1-1 draw at home to Thornaby. A couple of weeks earlier they had played what is believed to be the club’s first international friendly when they visited Scottish Lowland League club Selkirk and came away with a 3-3 draw. Norton and Stockton Ancients, promoted last season to the Northern League first division, had found the going tough in the top flight. A draw at home to Jarrow Roofing was followed four days later by an 8-0 hammering away to an excellent Shildon side who must be title favourites.
I arrived at the ground with the wife an hour before kick off and we had a leisurely pint in the clubhouse bar (£2.40 for a pint of proper beer!). They have a big TV on the wall so, while wor lass made a fuss of the various dogs who were in for the match with their mams and dads, I watched Everton making easy work of Southampton in the day’s early kick off. The social and economic hub of many non league clubs is the clubhouse, and they are a pleasant and integral part of watching football at this level. I’m used to drinking on Westgate Road until twenty to three and then hoofing it up to SJP just in time for kick-off. I wouldn’t dream of passing the time in the East Stand concourse for the build up, drinking fizzy chemicals out of a plastic cup for five quid a shout.
Just before kick-off we drank up and filed out into the sunshine. Although there was plenty of room around the perimeter fence, this was a decent crowd. There were about a hundred on the far side of the pitch, mostly sitting on the grass, and the clubhouse side was very busy with people still coming through the turnstile on Newton Road.
The Stan attacked straight from the kick off and with a stiff breeze on their backs took the lead almost immediately. Striker Jonathan Wright raced onto a through ball and placed his shot into the bottom corner beyond the oncoming Norton and Stockton keeper. Great start for the underdogs.
The visitors soon got into their stride, though, knocking the ball around well and playing with strength and pace. Heaton were forced to defend deep for long spells as the side from the higher division took control and came looking for the equaliser. Defend, though, they did, and a few brave blocks and timely interceptions, along with some wasteful finishing from the visiting strikers, protected the lead. On about twenty minutes the Norton and Stockton winger put in a good cross from the left onto the chest of the striker who was running across goal. The Stan defender nudged him and down he went; penalty. The resulting kick had Stan keeper Daniel Rule beat but came back off the foot of the post. A Norton and Stockton player drove the rebound over the bar, raising a cheer as loud as the one for the opening goal from the crowd.
The siege continued. The Stan battled on, defending in numbers and on occasion breaking quickly through Jon Wright, who played up front with excellent pace and deft touch all day. The half time whistle came as a relief; a couple of Norton and Stockton crosses had flashed across the goal without anyone getting a foot to them and an attack late on saw a good strike cannon off the crossbar. It had been largely one-way traffic in the first half and, facing more pressure and the fresh breeze in the second half, I worried for the men from Heaton.
We adjourned to the bar for another nice pint. There was a general shaking of heads at the news on the big screen from the Liberty Stadium where Newcastle were one down and Janmaat had gone for two daft yellows. The mood lightened somewhat when word then came through of Norwich’s 2-0 lead at Sunderland.
We checked our raffle tickets, chatted to mates and savoured our beer as the teams came out for the second half, which started as the first half had, with a goal for The Stan! I was still in the bar and only heard the cheer outside. There is no action replay screen at Heaton but I am reliably informed that a cross came over from a corner and was met by captain Joe Wear, who turned and shot into the roof of the net. A two goal cushion! There was a real chance of an upset now.
The Stan now had their tails up; playing with belief and giving their visitors a little less respect. The excellent Watson started to find space on the left and made a couple of good runs, sending in dangerous crosses which, unfortunately, nobody was able to meet. The Norton and Stockton lads, on the other hand, let some frustration creep into their game and a couple of late tackles were penalised by the officials. On 50 minutes The Stan made a substitution, the injured Yates being replaced by Rowntree who immediately scored the third goal. Wright played him in and he carried the ball into the box under pressure from two defenders. He checked back and then shot, the ball deflecting off a defender’s boot and spinning past the scrambling keeper into the bottom corner. Grounsell Park went mad! The visitors looked dejected and Rowntree was mobbed by his team mates. There was still almost half a game to play but surely this lead was unassailable.
Norton and Stockton stepped up a gear, again pinning the men in black and white back for long spells, but they were unable to find a way through a resolute defence. As frustration grew the visitors’ challenges got later and their number 9 was substituted immediately after getting a yellow card for a bad tackle which led to some pushing and shoving. They continued to press, sending shots over the bar and forcing some desperate clearances. Eventually their efforts brought a goal; a high ball into the box was headed over the Stan keeper and in on 64 minutes. The game was definitely on.
A couple of Heaton lads, defending heroically, went down with cramp. The visitors complained to the ref and the physio applied magic spray. The Stan continued to play on the break and Wright in particular remained a threat to the end. Somebody nearby in the crowd asked the linesman how long was left, 5 and a half plus stoppage time. It was getting nervy. Norton and Stockton committed more and more men forward. I heard the alarm go on the linesman’s watch signalling the end of normal time. Norton and Stockton went close with a number of good chances in the dying minutes, culminating in a Stan defender making a tremendous block on the line to prevent a certain goal.
The crowd (of maybe 250 or more) celebrated the final whistle with loud applause. It had been a great match and a hard fought victory. The Stan will now play in the FA Cup first preliminary round at the end of August at either Whitley Bay or Ryhope.
If you’re ever at a loose end on a Saturday afternoon or a midweek evening, check out your local non league team. It’s cheap, accessible and entertaining. If you go along, buy a programme, a pie and a pint to help them along. They will welcome you and appreciate your support. There has never been more money in football but it stays at the top end. There have never been so many clubs at other levels folding through lack of funds.