A New Season Begins
After a long bleak winter, bereft of food, water and clothes to keep off the chill, football is back!
Ok, maybe a slight exaggeration but weekends just aren’t the same without a bit of footy, are they? It’s been a whole six weeks since we visited Tynecastle for the Hearts v Aberdeen game back on May 20th.
Of course, it isn’t even just the football itself for the Hoppers amongst us. It’s the travelling to a new place, meeting new like-minded people and getting that first glimpse of a new, never visited before, football ground.
Ah! It’s good to be back!
We were kicking off the new season with a local game between two near-rivals based in Newcastle upon Tyne (I gave the Toon its formal Sunday name as this is a special occasion!) The clubs involved are both members of the Northern Football League and currently play in Division One.
Newcastle Benfield were hosting the game at their Sam Smith’s Park ground. This is about half an hour’s walk from Heaton Stannington’s ground just off to the west. They would be competing for the Jimmy Rowe Trophy, an annual game that sees the winner get bragging rights and a lovely-looking trophy to hold onto for at least a year.
Newcastle – The Journey
A short trip to start the new season and shake off the rustiness of our habits.
We started the day by popping into our local Greggs for some breakfast before heading off to catch the 10:24 bus north.
With a short detour in place due to ongoing construction in the centre of Newcastle, the journey took just over an hour. We made the short walk to catch our second bus from Eldon Square bus station and the bus was already there.
A short while later, we alighted the bus and made our way to our chosen watering hole.
We arrived about five minutes before opening time and sat on the wall outside the Northumberland Hussar, enjoying the northeast sunshine.
At noon, we went inside and ordered a nice cold pint of Guinness for me and an IPA for Mrs Hopper. This is where that ring-rustiness comes into play. I usually make a note of how much drinks cost, to give you some idea should you choose to go here yourselves.
The Greggs breakfast was holding us well and we decided not to bother with lunch and hold out for a pie or something at the game. Should you choose to visit, the food reviews at the Hussar are good!
The standout feature in this establishment comes in an unlikely place… the ceiling.
Painted onto the ceiling, to the right of the bar, is an impressive piece of art depicting one of the Northumberland Hussars. They were a local regiment, formed in 1819 as the Newcastle Regiment of Yeomanry Cavalry and renamed in 1876. The Northumberland Hussars were disbanded in 1967.
After enjoying our drinks, we made our way off towards Sam Smith’s Park, about a mile to the east.
The weather was particularly bipolar on this day. The sun was warm, the rain was wet and the wind was constant. We had enjoyed the sunshine on the walk to the ground but as we arrived at Sam Smith’s Park, we were treated to a lovely little downpour.
Just kidding, here’s the sun again.
Newcastle Benfield – Sam Smith’s Park
The first thing to know about Sam Smith’s Park – take cash!
I had been told that the club accepted cards or cash, so I was a little surprised when the gateman asked if we had cash when I showed my card. Luckily, we had a little on us and we handed over the very reasonable £6 to get us both inside.
Just inside the turnstile is the most popular section of the ground and this can create a bit of a crowd to negotiate when it gets busy. There is a bar, the social club, toilets and a snack bar, all in the same south-west corner of the ground.
If I were to make a suggestion to the club, it would be to move the turnstile entrance/exit to a place where this doesn’t become a bottleneck. This is a minor thing though and I’m sure the costs involved would make it unfeasible at present.
Due to all of these areas behind the goal, there is a large net covering this whole end of the ground.
We started our tour of the pitch by going left, past the social club and the snack bar. Well, I couldn’t go past the snack bar without taking a photo of today’s trophy that was displayed on the counter.
The Jimmy Rowe Trophy is a memorial trophy played to honour the former Benfield chairman who sadly passed away in 2019.
You can read a little more about Jimmy Rowe and what an impact he had on the club in this article I found about him.
Thank you to the lady who posed so delightfully for us in the background, too! 🤣
In the other corner, I was somewhat baffled to find a large, ornamental giraffe being guarded by a Rottweiler.
Yes, you read that correctly.
We had to get a photo of that as we have a friend who is obsessed with giraffes.
Yeah, no idea on that score either.
Heard the One About the Giraffe and a Rottweiler…?
Non-league grounds are so unique, aren’t they?
This one has more strangeness to offer up as we complete the circuit, too. Starting our way up the left-hand side of the pitch is an executive suite. At least it looked that way with comfortable-looking leather sofas and chairs and tables for refreshments under a covered roof.
This would be a great place to watch the game if it wasn’t for the fact that people are always walking past, or standing by the fence.
The home team’s dugout is next in line and sandwiched between this and the away team’s dugout, is the Jimmy Rowe Stand. This is a small structure that seats approximately one hundred spectators.
Oh! Wait! I missed out another quirky feature. Before the first dugout, there is a punchball. Presumably, the manager has a bit of a temper.
Actually, the NB Gym forms part of the Newcastle Benfield complex but it still made me smirk at the thought of an irate manager punching the ball at every bad decision the referee makes.
Maybe every club should have one!
The Lions is the nickname of Newcastle Benfield, so it makes sense that the name ‘Lion’s Den’ is emblazoned on the equipment. Those of you who have ever followed MMA (mixed martial arts) will remember that name from the early days of the UFC. Ken Shamrock and his infamous Lion’s Den fighters.
The eastern end of Sam Smith’s Park is home to another large net behind the goal. Apart from a Newcastle Benfield flag tied to the net, there really isn’t anything of note in this part of the ground.
The south side of the ground consists of another small stand (the Derek Gair Stand) and the Bob Frazer South Terrace. Unfortunately, the terrace was fenced off and unavailable on this occasion.
The Derek Gair Stand seats approximately 125 spectators and is where we chose to watch the game from. Partly because it was shaded and kept the sun from adding to my pollen-driven hayfever misery.
A combination of sun and wind had by this stage left me feeling quite weather-beaten and sand-blasted.
It was amusing to listen to the guys seated around us on about the wind blowing the roof of the stand and wondering whether they should be wearing hard hats. I’m sure it has seen off worse winds than today’s but it is still quite unnerving to see a big metal cover shaking around above your head.
A path surrounds the pitch, allowing access to all areas of the ground. A metal and concrete fence separates the path from the pitch and eight floodlights (four on each side) are in-situ for when needed. The playing surface is natural grass.
A surprising amount of dogs were at this game and I started to wonder if there was a dog show on after the game. Mrs Hopper said there was a sign outside saying ‘kids and dogs free’.
People are certainly taking them up on the offer and I can just hear the conversations that early afternoon “I’m just taking Rover for a walk, pet. Back in a bit.”
Newcastle Benfield – Sam Smith’s Park Gallery
As I alluded to earlier, part of the fun of groundhopping is running into fellow football fans and chatting to random strangers about the game we all love. As we were walking around the ground making notes and taking photos, we saw a face that seemed somehow familiar.
I spoke to the man and (I assume) his son and we were soon rewarded with confirmation that we had chatted to him before. We had both been at the game between Harrogate Town v Hartlepool United last season and were both victims of the ticketing fiasco that day. We had been talking to him outside the ticket office at Wetherby Road.
After another good chat with Chris and Christopher, we tried out the area where the comfortable seats were, to watch the game. It soon became apparent that it wasn’t a great vantage point and after the kick-off, we made our way around to the Derek Gair Stand.
Newcastle Benfield – Pre-Game View of Sam Smith’s Park
Newcastle Benfield v Heaton Stannington – The Game
Normally, I use this section to report on the club’s latest form and give a score prediction. Being as this is a pre-season game, I will just give you an insight into how each club did last season.
Last season, the Lions finished in tenth place in the Northern Football League Division One (Level Nine or Step Five), just two places below today’s visitors, who also play in the NFL Division One.
When the two sides met last year, Heaton had the upper hand over their neighbours. They won home and away and also defeated Benfield in last season’s version of today’s game.
My prediction, (based purely on this) was a 1-3 win for the Stan.
Unfortunately, there were no programmes or teamsheets available, so the only notes I can go by are the ones on Heaton Stannington’s Twitter account. (Probably more reliable, to be fair!)
The home team got proceedings underway, kicking from the west end to the east.
Heaton’s Sean Reid got the opening goal of the game just seven minutes in, with a close-range finish. A lovely through ball put Reid in with a good chance and despite being fouled from behind for what would probably have been given as a penalty, slotted it past the keeper.
A sign of things to come…
0-1 Heaton Stannington!
Three minutes later and 1-0 became 2-0.
This was a lovely team goal for Stan with some neat passing in and around the box. The ball finally found its way into the bottom right corner of the net via the boot of Leighton Hopper (A fine name, sir!)
0-2 Heaton Stannington!
Within a minute, Benfield were at the other end of the pitch and unlucky not to get on the scoresheet themselves. A cross was headed just wide of the post to keep the score at 0-2.
There was a quite lengthy stoppage in play on the 19th-minute mark after Daniel Sayer took a kick to the side of his head. He was taken off with a bloodied head after treatment. A yellow card was quite a lenient response I thought for such a high boot and hopefully Daniel is doing ok.
In the 27th minute, the Lions were again thwarted. This time a superb effort struck the woodwork from a direct free-kick on the far side of the penalty area. I managed to catch this on video (below).
In what was probably Benfield’s best spell of the game, they had another shot saved by the keeper in the 32nd minute and were unlucky not to have scored by now.
There was no denying Heaton were the better team of the half though and they compounded their superiority in the 40th minute, with a third goal.
It was what proved to be the opening goal of a hat trick for Konner Lamb in an impressive display of marksmanship. A cross to the far post was pulled back to Lamb and he calmly tucked it past the ‘keeper.
0-3 Heaton Stannington!
That was the last of the important action of the half and Heaton Stannington deservedly held a commanding lead, even though Benfield had their moments.
Half-time – Newcastle Benfield 0 Heaton Stannington 3
During the halftime interval, we made our way to make use of the toilets and to grab ourselves a snack.
The first half of the mission was successful, but not so much the second half. This is where we found out that it wasn’t just the turnstile that required cash and after waiting in line for over five minutes, we were told that cards weren’t accepted.
Oh well, at least we would be home early enough for some dinner.
The Second Half
Within seven minutes of the restart, any doubt about the result was put to bed.
Following a corner to Heaton, a deep cross was put to the back stick, where Joe Shepherd rose above the defenders and a static goalkeeper, to make it four.
He also ruined any chance of my prediction being correct…
0-4 Heaton Stannington!
With this being a pre-season friendly, there were quite a few changes in personnel during the course of the game. To the credit of both sides, this didn’t really make much difference to the flow of the game. Probably the biggest factor in the change of tempo was after Stan clearly had the game sewn up and allowed Benfield more of the ball.
This didn’t prevent them from scoring a quick-fire double though and goals five and six, were things of beauty.
Step forward Konner Lamb and take a bow. Within two minutes, he scored two crackers, starting with a shot in the 68th minute. From the edge of the penalty area, he curled a shot from left to right that flew into the top right corner of the net.
What a strike!
0-5 Heaton Stannington!
Barely had the buzz from that goal settled down than he did it again.
In the 70th minute, the Lions ‘keeper was found stranded from a simple back pass and Lamb took advantage with a lovely chipped effort that went into the same corner as his previous shot, to leave supporters of both teams applauding his efforts.
The goalkeeper will want to quickly forget that one!
0-6 Heaton Stannington!
Between the two strikes, there was just time for Benfield to get in a shot of their own. It was saved and the rebound flew high and out of the ground, unfortunately for the hosts.
Heaton almost, and probably should have, scored a seventh almost immediately as chances came thick and fast.
The player got clean past the Lion’s defence and raced through one on one with the goalkeeper. Credit to the Benfield keeper who stood tall and faced down the threat before kicking the ball from the feet of the onrushing player.
Benfield finally managed to convert one of their chances in the 81st minute. A well-taken goal to put the Lions on the scoresheet.
Jay Errington picked the ball up about thirty yards from goal, took it to the edge of the box and let fly with a left-foot shot that put the ball beyond the Stan goalkeeper into the bottom right corner.
1-6 Newcastle Benfield Consolation Goal!
Before the game ended, there was another fine chance for Heaton to grab a seventh. A good run down the left-hand side culminated in a shot that was well saved by Benfield’s ‘keeper to his left.
It would be easy to say Konner Lamb was man of the match for his fine hat trick but I’m going to go against this and give my award to Sean Reid. He led the forward line well in the first half, scored the opening goal that set the tempo and then, inexplicably, turned centre back for the second half and played just as well there.
A fine debut performance after signing from Hebburn Town for this season.
Full-time – Newcastle Benfield 1 v Heaton Stannington 6
Attendance – (awaiting confirmation)
Entrance Fee – £3.00
Programme – N/A
All that was left, was the trophy presentation, albeit a low-key affair.
Next up for the two sides are more pre-season friendly games before the season starts in earnest.
Ryton & Crawcrook Albion will be the next visitors to Sam Smith’s for a friendly game on the 4th of July.
The Lions face Sunderland RCA away from home on July 29th to open the new NFL Div One campaign. Any Newcastle v Sunderland fixture is sure to be competitive entertainment!
Meanwhile, the Stan Army, won’t need to travel again for the next few games. They have a match against their own ‘A’ team on the 5th of July, followed by home fixtures against Wallington on the 8th and Percy Main on the 12th.
Their first league game will be against Whickham and again, it will be at Grounsell Park, home of the Stan.
My first thought about Sam Smith’s Park was the name.
Is it named after Samuel Smith’s brewery, the attention-seeking media whore also known as a singer, or someone completely different? These are the things that go through my mind… constantly. Sigh!
Sam Smith’s Park doesn’t look very inviting from the outside but once you have entered, it is a nice place to watch some football. A good crowd of folks inhabit the area where the beer is available and there is plenty of space for kids to have a kick about on the northwest corner of the ground, where a mini pitch is available.
As suggested earlier, I feel it would be useful if the club found a way to separate the entrance/exit from the crowds that surround the bar and snack facilities but I also appreciate the costs involved in doing so.
All in all, this is a great little ground and is in keeping with all the other NFL grounds I have visited so far. Friendly and decent facilities that cater to all.
For those that are interested, pin badges are available from behind the bar in the social club.
Newcastle – After the Game
Following the trophy presentation, everyone headed for the same corner of the ground. Some to leave, some to use the toilet, some to grab a beer.
First, we waited for the players to troop off the field… in the same corner.
We managed to get through the crowd and make our exit onto Cherrywood, make a right turn onto Benfield Road and head to the bus stop on the A5108 Coast Road.
After just five minutes or so, our bus arrived and took us back into Newcastle city centre. The bus we needed to get home was already at the stand and we hurried as fast as my ageing bones would allow, to make sure we didn’t miss it.
Our timing was impeccable for the second time today and we were on our way home moments later.
It’s not often we are home by half past five on a footballing Saturday, so this was a nice bonus. It also meant we could make up for that missing halftime food at the magnificent culinary hands of Mrs Hopper.
One of the reasons for my… overly exuberant midriff.
Welcome back, football!
Next Up for Hoppers Guide
To follow up our first game of the season, we will again be travelling locally. This time to the Daren Persson Stadium, home of North Shields. They will be facing another northeast team from up the coast, Blyth Spartans and they are sure to bring a decent following down to North Shields.
Looking forward to this one.
Onto the next!