This was my third visit to Grounsell Park over the last year and in that time both the ground and it’s occupants, Heaton Stannington have been growing and evolving.
My first time seeing the Stan was on Easter Monday 2013 when I saw them beat Wallsend Town on their way to winning last season’s Northern Alliance championship.
At that point, the work to bring their ground up to Northern League standard was just beginning, with concrete ‘hard-standing’ being laid around the pitch.
They took the step up to the Northern League in the summer, rejoining a league that they last participated in back in 1952, and with it came more onerous requirements as far as facilities are concerned.
Teams in Division 2 of the Northern League need to have a minimum of 100 seats, and with a mammoth fixture list, an adequate floodlighting system is also essential in order to play midweek through the winter.
It is this grading that really marks out English non-league football from it’s counterparts in Scotland, where simply having an enclosed pitch will satisfy the basic expectations of the Scottish Junior FA and the likes of the East of Scotland League.
Only when clubs are looking to gain an SFA Licence and join either the Highland League or new Lowland League does the criteria ramp up a bit. Up until now, only a small number of clubs have done the work required.
Fundamentally, I believe in football as a meritocracy and that the best team(s) in any given league should be given the opportunity to test themselves at the next one up.
Ground grading can be a barrier to that, but provided that the criteria is proportionate – unlike the ludicrous 10,000 seat former SPL nonsense – and there is financial help available to aspiring clubs, then I think it is a good thing.
Northern League treasurers and committeemen may well disagree, but I think that the criteria that applies to Step 5 of the National League system in England seems fair, especially when clubs are given some time to meet the standard.
All that said, the enforced relegation of Ryhope Colliery Welfare back to the Wearside League didn’t seem right last summer when their team on the park actually earned promotion to the Northern League’s top division.
The good news is that a similar fate looks unlikely to befall Heaton Stannington this year.
The new floodlights have been erected since I last visited in October and the seating won’t be far behind it. Apparently there were some complications in sinking the lighting pylons due to the geological make-up of Grounsell Park, the site of a former quarry – adding to the cost.
On the field, the Stan are making good progress and stand a decent chance of still being involved in the promotion race as the season comes to its conclusion in late April. Not bad for a side that plays for expenses only.
At that ‘business’ end to the season, the Stan might look back on this game against South Shields as a bit of a lucky break.
In bright yet blustery conditions, they got off to a very poor start, conceding from a corner after barely ten minutes and then going further behind to a comical own goal.
Now playing in Peterlee after being evicted from their old Filtrona Park ground, South Shields were good value for their lead and looked likely to go on a claim three points.
That was until disaster struck Stan midfielder Lee Johnson who went down in agony after an innocuous looking aerial tussle in the middle of the park and didn’t get back up again.
The incident happened with 58 minutes played after it became clear that Johnson would need ambulance treatment for a suspected back injury, the game was halted at that point, becoming my second abandonment of the 2013-14 campaign.
Had an ambulance turned up in good time the game might have continued, but it eventually took 45 minutes for the call to be answered, by which time several players had changed into their tracksuits and enjoyed us in the clubhouse for a drink.
In the meantime, Johnson lay face down on the pitch, covered over but no doubt freezing cold.
Going all the way to Newcastle and seeing half a game at Newcastle Academy and less than an hour of this game wasn’t ideal, but these things can’t be helped and the main thing was that the player involved wasn’t too badly hurt.
The diagnosis, confirmed on the Heaton Stannington website, was “a swollen kidney and a chipped hip bone, as well as muscle damage.”
Being able to retreat to the clubhouse was, of course, the silver lining.
A warm welcome is always on offer at Northern League clubs and it was good to catch up with the Stan programme editor Ian Cusack for a couple of pints before we headed back to the city centre for the train back to Edinburgh.
The Grounsell Park clubhouse serves ‘real ale’ at bargain basement prices and with £3 admission to the game and a well written programme on sale for £1, there can’t be many better value for money days out in Newcastle than watching Heaton Stannington at home.
Hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m back for a fourth visit.
Scoring: 1-0 Smith, 2-0 Kerridge, 2-1 (?) Davies
Attendance: 123 (official)
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