Birtley Town may have been our final destination this weekend but it didn’t happen without hitches.
I selected four local games from the Northern League Division’s One and Two and let our followers on Twitter decide where we went.
Birtley Town were the clear winners and at just two bus rides away, it was a relatively easy trip to make.
Or it would have been if staff from the local bus company, Go North East, hadn’t decided to join railway workers in striking!
Faced with a barren weekend with no football, I made one last-ditch attempt to get to the match by asking on Twitter if anyone in the area was going and willing to give us a lift.
Our saviour was Karl King, a volunteer at Birtley Town who was travelling to the game from Sunderland and was kind enough to offer us a lift.
Not all heroes wear capes as they say.
Although, maybe he does? We hadn’t met him yet!
Birtley – The Journey
Saturday morning brought a message from Karl asking if we still wanted to go and we arranged a pick-up time of midday.
We met up with him at the end of the road we live on and we made our introductions and said our thank you’s. I was put at ease by the fact that he was indeed, not wearing a cape.
Karl turned out to be a lovely bloke who was easy to chat with as we made our way to Birtley.
He is one of those very rare breeds… a Newcastle United fan born and raised in Sunderland!
I love chatting with folks about football and their views on the game. People like Karl, who love the game so much that they give up their free time to volunteer at local non-league clubs, are special.
It was good to hear that Birtley Town look after him because these people are the lifeblood of clubs at this level.
With the trip successfully completed, we pulled into the car park at the Birtley Sports Complex.
Birtley is a small town that lies to the southwest of Gateshead and just to the north of Chester-Le-Street.
Traditionally a part of County Durham, it now falls in the jurisdiction of the Borough of Gateshead as part of Tyne and Wear.
The town had a population of around 8,500 at the last census.
One of the northeast’s most well-known landmarks is situated two miles to the north of Birtley Town’s ground. The Angel of the North, Anthony Gormley’s iconic sculpture stands on a hill next to the busy A1.
At a height of 66 feet and with a wingspan of 177 feet, there is no missing it if you travel by.
It is built to withstand wind speeds of up to 100 miles per hour due to the ribbed steel framework that directs gusts towards the foundations.
During the summer a statue of Sunderland-born Lioness, Jill Scott was unveiled near the Angel of the North.
More on that here.
Our original plan was to get off the bus to the north of Birtley, visit the Angel of the North and then walk into Birtley. With that not happening, I will have to content myself with leaving someone else’s photograph of it below.
Another plan had been to visit the Moulders Arms, half a mile from the ground but Karl told us he thought it was closed at the moment.
With there being a social club at the ground, we decided not to risk a fruitless walk.
We walked with Karl into the ground and we were so early, that there was nobody yet at the gate to take our entrance fee.
Before going inside the social club, we decided to have a wander around the ground.
Birtley Town – Birtley Sports Complex
Having wandered through the gate without paying, we could have easily seen out the day without doing so.
If you ever find yourself in this situation, please do the right thing and pay the entrance fee. Clubs at this level of the football pyramid need every penny of revenue just to survive.
We made it right just before halftime by paying our entrance fee behind the bar (the gateman was no longer there).
The entry fee was £6.00 and the gate is also where the pin badges are for sale at £3.50 each.
There was no programme today, so we had to content ourselves with a photograph of the team line-ups posted on the side of the clubhouse.
The entrance gate is in the southeast corner of the ground and it brings you out next to the social club and an array of picnic benches.
The southern end of the ground has more picnic tables but not a lot else. Rows of shipping containers run the length of this end and up to the tree line on the west side.
The west side has a row of trees separating the ground from the train line that runs past the Birtley Sports Complex.
There are two structures on this side of the pitch.
The first is a small seated stand, the only one on the ground. Named the Andy Foster Stand, it has space for 105 spectators.
The other structure is a covered standing area, which is useful if the rain starts to fall.
Also on this side of the pitch are the technical dugouts.
These are solid-looking breeze block structures, painted in the club colours of green and white hoops.
The northern end of the ground is similar to the south end.
A row of trees and a metal fence replace the shipping containers but otherwise, there is nothing else of note.
The eastern side of the ground backs onto the playing fields that make up the rest of the Birtley Sports Complex. A metal fence separates the fields from the football ground.
Another covered standing area is located on this side of the pitch.
Beyond this standing area, we come back to the southeast corner where the can bar and the social club are.
Time to get a drink and something to eat!
Birtley Town – Birtley Sports Complex Gallery
The social club is named Wadgey’s Bar after Ian Wadge and you can read about his importance to Birtley Town here.
Although it was still relatively early, the social club was already serving hot food and the prices on the menu encouraged us to fill up. Especially as we hadn’t had our usual pastry-based breakfast from Greggs!
It’s true, Mike Ward! A shocker, I know.
We ordered two pints of Coors (£3.50 each), a cheeseburger and chips (there was more than the advertised one chip) for Mrs Hopper and two hot dogs and chips for me.
I’m a growing boy!
I wasn’t expecting to get chips with both hot dogs, mind you… even I couldn’t eat all that.
Giant-Killing is Alive and Well
With cheap and cheerful food in our bellies, we could concentrate on the football that was being shown on the club’s TV.
Leek Town were already winning 1-0 when we sat down to start watching and they made it 2-0 with a fabulous strike in the second half.
They are two clubs we have visited and I have a lot of time for both of them.
Having said that, Leek isn’t far from my home town and I had to go with the Staffordshire team to win, so I was happy they did.
South Shields are doing well in their first season in the National League North and I hope they can continue to do so.
After leaving the bar ahead of kick-off, we got a quick picture of Karl at his very ornate can bar.
See how happy he was to have his photo taken!
Birtley Town Tidbits
Despite Birtley Town only being formed in the early 1990s, the original Birtley Football Club were founder members of the Northern League in 1892.
After the Second World War, the club were renamed Birtley Town. They went on to win the Wearside League in the same 1945/46 season.
After finishing bottom in three consecutive seasons, the club dropped out of the league in 1952.
The new Birtley Town rejoined the Wearside League in 1992.
They gained promotion to the First division of the league in 1994/95. Further promotion was achieved in 2006/07, reaching the Northern League Division Two.
After suffering relegation in 2015/16, the club bounced back again in 2017/18.
Last season, they went on to gain a further promotion to the Northern League Division One after winning a thrilling penalty shootout against Billingham Town in the playoff final.
This is the highest position the new club has achieved and puts them back where the original Birtley started.
Now, they will look to push on and have made a good start to their inaugural campaign in Division One.
Birtley Town – Pre-Game View of the Birtley Sports Complex
Birtley Town v Penrith AFC – The Game
Coming into today’s game, Birtley Town sat in fourth place in Division One, with their Cumbrian opponents in 17th.
Prior to those defeats, they hammered Sunderland RCA 6-0 and they would be hopeful of a similar result today.
Visitors Penrith, meanwhile, were soundly beaten 6-0 by promotion-hunting Shildon at Dean Street in their last outing.
Further defeats at Guisborough Town and Crook Town preceded the Shildon loss.
Indeed, Penrith have played all of their games this season away from home as improvements to the Frenchfield Stadium are being completed. This includes the laying of a brand new 3g surface and the complete project will cost £870,000.
The Bonny Blues only points this season came in a 5-1 win at struggling Tow Law Town.
Based on all this information, my pre-match prediction was for a 3-0 win for the Hoops.
After the game had kicked off, we walked around to the west side of the ground and stood near the covered standing area.
Despite the gap in league positions, Penrith were always dangerous throughout this match.
Both teams created chances but it’s no coincidence that Birtley’s goalkeeper, Alfie Gordon, was voted man-of-the-match.
In the 24th minute, things went the home side’s way.
A long throw sparked a bit of mayhem in the Penrith box before Callum Smith put it in the net for the home side.
Penrith deservedly pulled level three minutes into the second half when Luke Hunter notched from a corner.
The match went back and forth until the 83rd minute when Birtley got the winner.
A slightly mishit cross fortuitously bounced off the crossbar and was buried by Callum Smith, who bagged his second of the game.
After that, it was a backs-to-the-wall defensive display from the home side as Penrith pushed hard for an equaliser. They held out and got the three points, even though it had been harder work than they might have been expecting.
A straight red card was shown to Penrith’s Ronan Irving for dissent in the 98th minute.
With displays like this and a return to home games soon to come, I can see Penrith climbing the table in the coming weeks.
We look forward to our scheduled visit to Frenchfield Stadium in late October!
Our little yellow and black friends are not something you usually have to talk about at football games.
At Birtley, it seemed like one was trying to give us a ‘friendly cuddle’ every five minutes.
I’m glad to say, we survived the day without any swollen parts and I’d like to think it’s not normally like this at Birtley Town games.
It did make filming clips of the game a little more difficult, mind…
You can read a full Match Report here, courtesy of the Birtley Town club website.
Attendance – 121
Entrance Fee – £6.00
Programme – Digital only
Birtley Town v Penrith AFC – Match Highlights
League Table After Today’s Game
Updated league table courtesy of the Northern Football League website
Next up for the Hoops is a busy period of three games in seven days.
First up is a trip to Ironworks Road, home of Tow Law Town on the 7th of October.
This is swiftly followed by a home game against the same team in the Durham Challenge Cup on the 10th.
The final fixture of a hectic week will see the Hoops host the Lang Jacks as Whickham come to town on Friday 13th of October.
For visitors Penrith, another away trip, this time to Redcar Athletic awaits them on October 7th.
The following week sees them face Northallerton Town at home and a trip to West Auckland on the 21st.
Penrith AFC is one of our intended destinations in October if public transport allows us. We are hoping to visit Frenchfield Park for their home game against Bishop Auckland on the 28th.
Birtley Town Thoughts
Birtley Town is yet another example of a well-run and friendly Northern League club.
Volunteers like Karl are typical of the people that populate non-league football. They put in a lot of tireless work for the love of the game and their club and ask for nothing in return.
One thing I thought could be changed is that the can bar container may be better served in a different location.
As it stands, it is right next to the social club, whereas if it was moved to the west side of the pitch, this may encourage people on that side of the ground to buy a can while watching the game.
The social club can serve the east side of the ground, thus covering all areas better. I’m sure Karl would prefer that too, as it looked like he would have a very poor view of the action from where he is positioned.
A printed programme would be a nice addition, too.
I appreciate that printing costs are going up along with everything else in life but there are ways around that. Add £1.00 to admission fees and give a complimentary programme to each person paying. This gives a rough estimate of how many copies would be needed, thus reducing the cost of leftover issues.
Crook Town produce a lovely glossy issue for just £1.00, so it can be done.
Food is very reasonably priced at Birtley, an example to others that food doesn’t need to be a rip-off.
Overall, another excellent club to visit… just watch out for the wasps!
Birtley – After the Game
After the final whistle had blown, we walked back around to the east side of the ground and waited for Karl to finish his work at the can bar.
We helped him close the hatch and were soon back in the car discussing the game.
A disappointing attendance was one of the discussions we had. A combination of bus and train strikes, Newcastle playing at home and a small number of fans from Penrith all contributed to a turnout of roughly half the average attendance this season.
It was lovely not having to worry about catching buses or trains for once and a huge thank you to Karl for making football possible for us this weekend!
We were dropped off at the end of our street and in through the front door before 18:00.
A rarity on a Saturday, for us.
Next Up for Hoppers Guide
Next week will see us travel across the country into Cumbria for a game at Carlisle’s ‘other’ club, Carlisle City.
Having enjoyed our trip to Carlisle United, we are hoping for a similarly enjoyable day at Gillford Park. Or, if you prefer sponsored ground names, The Three Rivers Health & Safety Consultancy Stadium…
Their opponents on the day will be Guisborough town and we are looking forward to visiting another of the Northern League’s excellent clubs and grounds.
Onto the next!
(EDIT: The game at Carlisle City was postponed due to severe weather and a waterlogged pitch. We changed our venue to Moor Park, home of Chester-le-Street Town.)