Saturday, 27 February 2010

Shildon 1 Whitley Bay 5

FA Vase quarter-final
Attendance: 1,505

So much for winter breaks in the football season. Mine had gone on too long. The gap between the second round of the FA Cup and the quarter-finals of the Vase is always testing. My wait for a match was nothing, though, compared to Shildon’s wait for a home tie in the Vase. Astonishingly, they have been drawn away on the last 18 occasions, the odds for which are 264,000 to 1.

I arrived early to get a feel for the place by visiting Locomotion, a satellite of the National Railway Museum, along with a couple of scarf and hat clad Whitley Bay fans. (The world’s first steam-powered passenger train set off from Shildon in 1825). The museum wasn’t busy and neither was the town exactly buzzing with cup fever. In fact, it wasn’t buzzing at all. Shildon seemed deserted of people and cars and the only sound was church bells. I wondered if I’d got my days mixed up and it was actually Sunday until I turned the last corner and saw the queue for the turnstiles stretching 50 metres back past Eric’s Fish Bar. (He can have never had it so good. The number of people eating his wares brought to mind the biblical story of loaves and fishes). The kick-off was delayed by 15 mins – not something that I expect happens a lot here.

Stepping inside was like going back in time and set the scene for my most quintessentially northern football experience since Ryton/Halifax. Gluepot of a pitch, leaden skies and run-down ground in a post-industrial town: I was in my element. Not a hint of Handshakegate here. Children were lifted up to watch proceedings from bedroom windows while blokes nursed beer cans as they peered through caged windows of Portacabins also known as the Bill Aisbitt Hospitality Suite. I've seen more welcoming jails.

The dominating main stand is more of a giant roof with (what I assume to be) an original grandstand below. Terraces are separated from seats by a line of breeze blocks and, most incongruously in the middle, a domestic wooden banister painted in gloss black. The pitch is enclosed by rusting metal poles supported by crumbling concrete posts and faced with warped wooden hoardings decorated in a peeling paint and various fungi.

Shildon dominated the first half-hour and deservedly took the lead when a shot was pawed out and the rebound knocked in from close range. Whitley Bay then got a penalty when a Shildon player stamped on one of their attackers and was also sent off. The penalty was converted (see video clip at end of post) and the dismissal proved to be the turning point of the contest. It was also the point at which I realised which team was which. Easy mistake to make: the impressive turn-out of Bay fans was sporting blue and white which matched the colours of Shildon. Further confusing things, the only livery in the stadium was a course of alternate red and white (Shildon’s old colours) bricks above the turnstile – and Bay’s away strip was yellow.

At half-time the fella next to me swigged from his hip flask and a couple of other lads tucked into their sandwiches and cracked open the Thermos. Ah, it was bliss to be back at a real football match. Whitley Bay took the lead after the re-start with a header from a cross and on 74 mins it was game over when another header ricocheted in off a Shildon defender. Soon after a second home player was sent off (and Bay had a man dismissed too). Cue max exodus of Shildon fans with the zeal of Premiership box holders heading for prawn sandwiches – or, in these parts, seconds from Eric’s. The squib was already damp without them wetting if further. I felt very sorry for the players. Here they were playing their first home Vase tie for five years and the locals couldn’t even be arsed to stay until the end and applaud the lads for their six-win cup run and their greatest since 1959 (when they made the quarter-finals of the FA Amateur Cup). Bet Shildon wish they were playing away again.

I felt sorrier still for Shildon when Bay started scoring goals for fun to give to make the final score misleading. We’ve all been there as kids: you’re tired, your shoulders are slumped, the opposition’s running rings round you and, frankly, you just want to get back inside for tea from your Mum. The town of Shildon had won my sympathy from the moment I’d read in the museum about the closure of its rail engineering works in 1984 and the feeling was back again at the end of my visit as the
crowd almost shrunk to the size associated with Northern League matches, the sun at last shyly shone and the final goal was greeted with a ripple of applause more appropriate to a boundary at cricket. Like the month that starts on Monday, Shildon arrived like a lion but left like a lamb. The Railwaymen had reached the end of the line. The one away tie they longed for – at Wembley – was not to be.

Little known fact: Shildon was home to a major fake fur factory. Customers included the British Winter Olympic team of the 1950s, members of the British Antarctic expedition from the same era … and Sir Bruce Forsyth and Danny La Rue.

On the trail: Among the crowd was a group that is following the FA Vase 'From Welfare to Wembley' in aid of the Alzheimers Association. To see some more pics of the match (and others from their trail) and give them a few quid click here.