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Saturday 26th October 2013 ko 10.30

Northern League Division Two

HEATON STANNINGTON 3 (Wright 19p 89 Smith 21)

BIRTLEY TOWN 0

Att 412

Entry £3

Programme £1

Badge £2

Is the heartland of the Northern League Newcastle-on-Tyne? If not, it certainly feels like it! With the Northern League celebrating its 125 year anniversary this 4-game hop in Newcastle was the second of 4 events, that will culminate in a massive 11 game 4-day hop over Easter next year. The events are covering the grounds not in the league when the Northern League groundhops ended 17 years ago.

It was certainly handy that the grounds on this hop were all in a 3 mile radius of each other in the east of the city. Nearby is Gosforth where Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler was brought up.

The first event in Cumbria, in August was enjoyable, but the gremlins, especially with that essential of the groundhop- programmes, were there were all to see, so it was gratifying to see organiser Harvey Harris at Grounsell Park early, and with programme packs ready for distribution to notoriously impatient hoppers. It set the tone for the day, and it was clear that both league and clubs had learned from the mistakes of the past.

I decamped to the bar to write down the line-ups and discovered, apart from the real ale buffs quaffing the 3 beers on tap, that the Northern Alliance trophy was on display. It’s quite a sight, and the club won the league for each of the last two seasons. They’re currently second in their new league, but their stay may be short if they can’t get 50 seats and floodlights installed by the end of March, back to the Northern Alliance they will go. The main problem is, as ever, the floodlights but here the issue is the land, the ground is a former quarry so simply getting the floodlight pylons to stay up will prove to be both difficult, and probably expensive.

Still a bumper crowd, and a well presented groundhop game will help. This game was how it should be, with plenty to buy and the staples such as catering, merchandise and the programme imaginatively done. Clubs on the subsequent NL hops could do a lot worse than use Heaton Stannington as a blueprint.

The match-up was interesting too, with the most recent addition (although they did play in the NL from 1939-52) to the league playing a founder member. Heaton won the game easily enough, 3-0 was a fair reflection on play but that, sadly, isn’t what the game will remembered for.

The Northern League is, correctly, extremely keen on fair play and sportsmanship, so Birtley’s Mark Brereton’s sickening punch on Heaton’s Paul Blakey was the last thing that should have happened on a day to celebrate 125 years of the Northern League specifically and non-league football generally.

It was a mad couple of minutes for Brereton; his two footed challenge a few seconds earlier earned a booking from referee Tom Armstrong (jnr) when others would have sent him off. That challenge provoked a scuffle and behind Armstrong’s back Brereton threw the punch, breaking Blakey’s jaw, sending the Heaton man to hospital and the club considering pressing charges. Brereton removed his shirt, and walked off the pitch, either of which could have earned a second booking had Armstrong so desired, but in purely footballing terms a bad situation was to be made worse.

Armstrong consulted his two linesmen, Ian Owens and Peter Nedyalov, and to everyone’s amazement NEITHER HAD SEEN THE PUNCH! The Birtley bench did the sensible move and turned Brereton’s departure into a substitution, throwing on Cameron Nichol. What Brereton didn’t know, and I would guess Messrs Armstrong, Owens, and Nedyalov too, it that Sky were reporting on the game and caught the incident on video.

Hopefully, since the player wasn’t punished on the pitch, the League can use the footage and charge the player, although I suspect that will have to wait until the Police have concluded their enquires. Whatever happens, I hope not to see the culprit on a football pitch again.

It left a sour taste in the mouth through no fault of anyone other than Mark Brereton, and hopefully Paul Blakely will make a speedy and full recovery.