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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

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Tynedale: Why is grassroots football struggling to find players?

WHAT on earth has happened to Saturday football in Tynedale?

Celebrating a winning double in 1959 are Haydon Bridge Football Club. The line-up is back from left, Brian Burrows, Joe Worthington, Andy Brown, Harry Phillipson, Angus Walker and Jeff Marshall. Front John Davey, Dennis Telford, John Brown, Barry Johnson and Raymond Duffy.

The district used to be a hotbed of the beautiful game, notably in the years immediately after the Second World War, when Hexham boasted one of the finest football teams in the North-East.

The stirring exploits of Hexham Hearts used to draw crowds of several thousand to the ground at Tyne Mills every week.

The peak of their achievements came in 1949, when in front of an ecstatic 14,000 strong crowd at St James’s Park in Newcastle, they won the Northumberland Senior Cup for the first time.

They crushed Blyth Spartans 3-0 in the final, all three goals coming from star inside right Steve Howdon. It was the first time since the competition was founded in 1884 that the trophy had come to Hexham.

In the same season, the Hearts also won the Northumberland Aged Miners’ Cup for the first time, in front of a 4,000-strong crowd at Ashington.

The previous season, the Hearts also won the Northern Alliance League title, despite having to play 11 games in just eight days in the hectic closing weeks of the season.

It wasn’t the first time the Alliance championship had come to Hexham though; 12 years earlier, Hexham AFC had pulled off the same feat.

Local football continued to thrive for the next 30 years, with the district home to two highly competitive leagues – the Hexham League and the North Tyne League.

And when the two leagues amalgamated, there was a golden era of the game, with big crowds at every game.

The drama and thrill of playing against your local rivals saw hundreds of lads turning out for their local town or village as Tynedale teams challenged the very best in the county.

There was huge interest from communities too as games would often attract more than 100 spectators, with up to 500 turning out for cup finals between fierce rivals such as the popular Clayton Charity Cup which was recently revived.

The 1975/1976 Hexham and North Tyne League championship went right down to the wire with three teams in a play-off to clinch the crowning glory.

With Rochester, Hexhamshire and Corbridge United joint top on 44 points for the campaign, the teams had to battle it out with each other once again to be crowned Tynedale’s top dogs.

With United going for a third title in four years, they got their play off to a great start with a 2-1 victory over reigning champions ’Shire.

When Corbridge and Rochester played out a thrilling draw next time out, Redewater outfit Rochester went into their match-up with ’Shire knowing they needed a victory by two goals to claim the title by the narrowest of margins of goal difference.

The tiny village football club was well supported, as were their opponents, in their trip to Haydon Bridge for the showdown, and their pursuit of the title was made difficult by a sterling display in goal by the ’Shire’s Dennis Cousins.

The custodian was finally beaten by a thumping effort from Malcolm Corbett in the second half, but Rochester’s joy was shortlived when Hexhamshire levelled through a 25-yard piledriver from Freddie Callf.

Yet the trophy was to end up in the remote village as Allan Murray and Neil Hall popped up with the two required goals to send Rochester into raptures.

During that campaign, the league was made up of teams from Haydon Bridge, Allendale, Matfen, Wark, Bellingham, Kielder, Newbrough, Hexham, Haltwhistle and Bardon Mill as football was the ultimate grassroots sport at the time.

Fast forward to the present day, and the state of senior football on a Saturday afternoon is a very different picture.

The Hexham Courant’s coverage of Saturday football takes in just six teams, with an addition of two villages on the border in the form of Ryton and Crawcrook Albion and Chopwell, who have just resigned from the Northern Alliance in recent weeks!

Of the six, two are outside the Tyne Valley with Wallington and Ponteland United both on the cusp of the Hexham constituency.

Heddon struggles for a starting XI on a weekly basis despite having 75 players registered, while Prudhoe Town relies heavily on its squad coming from the Stanley area of County Durham.

Stocksfield field local lads but have turned to players out of the area in recent years, with Hexham the main team fighting the corner for local football.

But why the downturn in the game when the sport is as popular as ever with easy access to live televised games?

Some argue that the increased popularity of the professional game is slowly destroying grassroots football.

When Kevin Keegan took over as manager of Newcastle United in the early 1990s, he won fans nationwide for his attack-minded, all-out style of play. His tactics of pouring bodies forward to go all guns blazing earned his side the nickname of The Entertainers.

And local lads and lasses across the North-East were signing up in their droves for a season ticket at St James’s Park to watch the dazzling spectacle, leaving teams without players for Saturday afternoon kick offs.

And even though Sky TV has meant fewer games now actually kick off at the traditional 3pm slot, the Saturday games of early afternoon and early evening prevent fans from turning out for their local teams too.

A change of working patterns has hindered the state of football as well, with many more people being asked to put in shifts at the weekends, especially self-employed folk who can’t afford to turn away work.

Postmen used to start work at 4am on Saturdays, ensuring they could make that afternoon’s match, but now they can start rounds no earlier than 8am, which doesn’t allow them enough time to get match fit.

When Saturday football was at its height, the Hexham and District Sunday League was created, back in 1965, for those who were not quite good enough to get a game.

It was a winning formula and its popularity rapidly grew.

But over time it was used more for people who could not make it on a Saturday, and its success going into its 50th season next year may well have impacted on the Saturday scene.

Although teams on a Sunday morning may claim it’s a struggle fielding a team each week, the situation is a lot more healthy than its Tynedale counterparts playing the previous day.

Another draw keeping the district’s best players away from local teams is the Northern League, with no Tynedale representatives in the North-East amateur Holy Grail.

A number of Tyne Valley residents face a lengthy journey to play a higher standard of football as there is nothing close to home.

There has long been talk of the formation of a super Tynedale team to pull all the local Northern League standard players together, but that is all it has ever been with plans never getting off the ground.

Perhaps the most telling reason for the decline, though, is that young, local lads just don’t seem keen to play any more.

Long gone are the days when it used to be the highlight of the weekend, a number of other things going on to grab people’s interest, whether it be spending time with their families or going to the pub with their mates.