Northern League First Division
Programme notes: “In 1894 Penrith played a friendly match against Poole’s Globe Trotters. The team was made up from a theatre company and they played in costume. Characters included Rattlebones, the Clown; Alabama, the Coon; Injun Scout; Ching Chung, the Jap; Policeman XXX; Buffalo Bill; and Tommy Atkins.” A colourful collection, to be sure. (Tommy Atkins was a generic name for a British soldier).
When the buds begin to burst I develop a sort of morbid fascination in the season’s strugglers. In past seasons it’s prompted visits to watch Pontefract and Brodsworth and, just a fortnight ago, Easington. Today I ventured to Stokesley, the only club in the top six steps of non-league yet to register a win*. They have three points from three draws and, before today, had conceded 99 goals. The nadir was a 24-1 aggregate pasting by Bedlington Terriers over two matches early in the season. The basic problem was that all 38 registered players followed the manager out of the door when he resigned at the end of last season.
The buds may be bursting but it felt like winter in all other respects. Hats and scarves were the order of the day and 10-day old snow still lingered at the top of the distant Cleveland escarpment bounding the North York Moors. The panorama – which made up for my disappointment at Easington – also includes the distinctive volcanic profile of Roseberry Topping (above) and Caption Cook’s Monument (on top of hill, below). Fittingly, the club is sponsored by Captain Cook’s Brewery.
Part of a complex that includes the HQ of the North Riding FA, a bowling green, cricket pitch and tennis courts, Stokesley’s ground has the feel of a training pitch about it and reminded me of how close this level of football is to watching it in a park. (Bit too close, to be honest). The ground is modern, small and unremarkable – if you exclude a rather quaint corner seat (above) that looks very at home among the fencing. I also like the way the dugouts (below) are sponsored by different pubs. The focus, then, was on the view and the match – which turned out to be a little cracker.
When I go to watch a struggler I either want to see first win for yonks or a good, sound thrashing. Ordinarily nothing in between really satisfies. It soon became evident that the first scenario was the more likely. Stokesley certainly didn’t play like a side long since marooned at the bottom of the table and battled well throughout. They came from behind to lead at 2-1 then Penrith – making one of many regular trips over the Pennines in this north-east centred league – levelled it just before the break. Surprisingly, there were no more goals but plenty of chances. “Squeeze! Squeeze!”, the Stokesley goalie kept imploring his defence. “What does that mean?” asked my son, Bertie. Mmmm. Tricky one to answer, that, without a chalkboard.
Penrith should’ve won the match when the Stokesley goalie saved from a one-on-one then, at the other end and with just minutes remaining, a Stokesley striker woofed the ball woefully over the bar when clean through. “It bobbled, lads, it bobbled. Honest,” is how I’d have explained it to my team mates in days of yore. Another chance moments later went similarly begging. The home side’s sub was interesting. I think the fella was Mark Harkin, billed in the programme as ‘chairman, assistant manager and coach’. Probably sweeps out the dressing rooms too. So, for Stokesley, it was a case of so near yet so far. Still, when you only have three points a fourth is an achievement in itself.
*The worst team in England: Stokesley aren’t the worst team in the non-league pyramid. As keen scrutineers of the back pages of the Non-League Paper will testify that ignomy belongs to DFS Welbeck Welfare from Nottinghamshire of the Central Midlands League (step 7) who are literally pointless. Here’s a fab pic of the setting of their ground taken a year ago. The mine buildings have since been demolished – sadly, from the groundhopper’s point of view.
Pic of the season: The big news from the Northern League, of course, is the fact that two of its sides have made it to the final of the FA Vase. Here’s a belting pic taken at one of the semi-finals: Staveley Miners’ Welfare v. Dunston UTS. For link to blog click here.