If there was a competition to determine the most competitive and compelling area for non-league football, then the North East would undoubtedly be a contender for top spot. From the National League right down to the Northern League Division Two, there are a myriad of teams with interesting and storied histories, playing exciting football in front of crowds much larger than their counterparts across the rest of the country. Discussing every club worth mentioning in the region would generate enough material to write a book, but there are a select number that stand above the rest, each contributing to the North East’s status as a real hotbed for the sport.
A lot of people might assume that South Shields are something of a northern Billericay Town, and when you look at the club’s recent successes, such a link can be forgiven at first. However, while South Shields might be backed a considerably wealthy owner and be bolstered by ex-professional players such as Julio Arca, there are none of the absurd antics and controversies that surround Billericay. Geoff Thompson is a local businessman who decided to put something back into the community, and when he purchased the club in 2015, he immediately bought back Mariners Park, the home ground from which the club had been exiled for 2 years. His sizeable but sustainable investment aided South Shields to promotion from the Northern League Division 2 in 2016, winning the league with 107 points, and then an unprecedented quadruple the year after, winning the Northern League Division 1, Northern League Challenge Cup, Durham Challenge Cup and the FA Vase. The club’s momentum has not been halted this season, and they are yet again perched at the top of their division, hunting for a third successive title win. The club seems to keep going from strength to strength, and with an average attendance of 1527 this season, it is clear that there is a fanbase big enough to sustain a club at the highest reaches of the non-league pyramid. With there being little sign of the South Shields bubble beginning to burst, this is a club brimming with potential, and one to pay close attention to in the future.
For non-league clubs below step 4, perhaps the ultimate prize is the FA Vase. It offers a chance to prove yourself as the best at this level in the country, with a showpiece final that offers a chance to play at Wembley, on the same pitch graced by some of the greatest to have ever kicked a ball. If there is still some uncertainty as to how good non-league football in the North East is, then the list of this competition’s winners should dispel these doubts. The past 9 finals have been contested with at least one team from the North East involved, and in 8 of these finals the team from this region has prevailed. The most successful team in the history of the competition is Whitley Bay, who despite not being the wealthiest of teams, or fielding a team of ex-professionals, have won the trophy 4 times since the turn of the century, and 3 times in a row from 2009-2011. The club may have been somewhat inconsistent in terms of league finishes in recent years, but they have proved that they can handle the immense pressure of cup competitions, a pressure under which the very best of professional football teams often crumble. Arsenal’s 3 FA Cup wins in 4 years might have been lauded by the media as impressive, but Whitley Bay’s historic treble is even more remarkable, a feat that only adds to the case for the North East being at the very top of the non-league hierarchy.
South Shields are not the only club to have meteorically climbed through the leagues in recent years, with Spennymoor having also done so. Their rise was perhaps more prolonged than their regional counterparts, but no less spectacular. The club was borne of a merger of Spennymoor United and Evenwood Town, the former of whom had endured an arson attack on their clubhouse before going bust in 2005 with only 33 games of the season played. The new club won promotion from the Northern League Division 2 in 2007, and despite winning the league 3 times from 2010-2012 (and the FA Vase in 2012), they decided to reject promotion to ensure they were financially viable. In 2014 this promotion to the Northern Premier League Division 1 North finally materialised, and after a playoff loss to local rivals Darlington in 2015, the club won 2 successive playoff finals to reach the lofty heights of the National League North for the 2017-18 season. For a club that was on the precipice of fading into memory to undergo such a successful transformation is testament to the hard work and dedication of those involved. Furthermore, with the side sitting in the National League North’s final playoff place with several games in hand, there is a real possibility of this stratospheric rise continuing for Spennymoor.
Gateshead, Marske United, Stockton Town:
The focus on these 3 teams is not on any of their past achievements, but instead their cup exploits this season. Gateshead have had to work harder than any other team to reach the semi-finals of the FA Trophy, with not one of their games being decided in 90 minutes. After a heroic comeback from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 away at Leyton Orient, they battled their way to a 3-2 win in the quarter-final replay, undeterred by letting a 2-0 lead slip before stabbing home an 80th minute winner. If Spennymoor get through their quarter final replay against Bromley, the two North East sides will meet in what would be an exhilarating semi-final that would guarantee a place in the final for a side from the North East.
This situation has been replicated in the semi-finals of the FA Vase, with Marske United facing off against Stockton Town. This battle between two Teesside teams ensures that, for the 10th year running, the Northern League will be represented in the final, an unprecedented achievement for all concerned within the area. Neither team has reached this stage in the competition before, and with both sitting in the top half of their division, it promises to be a close but well fought encounter over two legs. Whichever team does eventually prevail will have a chance to extend the incredible run put together by North Eastern teams at Wembley, and further cement the fact that this region is one of the best in the country for non-football.