Norton United FC vs Gateshead FC
FA Cup First Round
Sunday 9th November 2014
Autonet Stadium, Smallthorne, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire
I love FA Cup First Round weekend. As the nights draw in, fireworks fizzle out and the pumpkins are pied, there’s a real feeling that the football season is bedded down and in full swing. 48 lower league sides join 32 surviving non-league teams to manoeuvre one step closer towards the potential glamour of the Third Round.
Kicking off the weekend was a familiar face; with coverage back on the BBC after a seven-year hiatus of Adrian Chiles grimacing his way around the lower echelons, Shaun Reid was proving to be something of a star attraction.
The Warrington manager, who almost witnessed his side’s cup run come undone beneath the dodgy floodlights at Cantilever Park against Colwyn Bay, was now something of a media darling. His broad Liverpool tones and aggressive ‘up and at ’em’ demeanour was being presented as the embodiment of the FA Cup’s early rounds.
Giving broadsheet newspaper interviews was now part of the job. Acknowledging brother Peter’s ridiculous headwear in an X-Factor style good luck message from India live on BBC2? Not a problem.
Delivering Churchillian speeches to stirring backing music for the opening credits? Why not Scouse it up a bit with liberal use of the word ‘yooz’? (i.e “There’ll be millions watching yooz here tonight. Yooz can prove how good yooz are. Once yooz cross that line, I can’t do nuttin’ for yooz. Yooz your heads etc”)
Warrington did serve up an excellent appetiser for the weekend on Friday night, knocking out League Two Exeter City under the fully functional floodlights, and booking their manager a visit to Manchester for the live televised draw on Monday night. James and I are unaware of anyone using the ‘WTFC happened there’ headline that we predicted two rounds ago.
A busy Sunday schedule followed a fairly shock-sparse Saturday and, with Halifax Town kicking off against local rivals Bradford City on BT Sport as I left the house, I made the 40-mile trip out of Derbyshire and towards Staffordshire towards the tiny mining community of Smallthorne.
Taking in the truly stunning scenery of the Derbyshire Dales on a crisp and sunny Rememberance Sunday, I passed several cyclists tackling a 1 in 4 climb. A lesser blog might compare their uphill challenge to Norton United’s task against a professional side some 77 places above them in the league ladder. The Underdog Blog certainly wouldn’t peddle such a metaphor.
I’m going to be watching the game with my very funny friend, Jo D’Arcy. Jo is a Spanish teacher and stand-up comedian, occasionally at the same time, and lives just five minutes from the ground. She’s rearranged a lunch date to come with me and freely admits she has next to no interest in football. I’m adamant that I can win her over.
We meet at the top of Community Drive, the busy entrance to Norton’s ground, as cars park in every available gap in the surrounding streets and housing estates. I’m relieved to see she’s already looking excited at the prospect of an afternoon at the football as I approach, following a tricky parallel park.
Our tickets are waiting for us; I called during the Warrington game and was assured that they’d be reserved, so we make our way through the busy bar area to collect them after a steward insists that we put a pink band on to indicate that we’re both over 25.
It’s full of early-drinkers watching the early-Premier League kick-off. The game has been switched to Sunday, presumably to avoid clashing with Port Vale’s 3-4 defeat to MK Dons yesterday, although many more of the fans here are also likely to have an eye on Stoke City’s clash at Tottenham.
We make our way out of the bar and into a large marquee with straw on the floor and a country music band setting up – naturally. Nothing says FA Cup quite like hay down for a hoe down, but it’s a nice addition to the afternoon, I suppose.
We collect our tickets and make our way down to pitchside. It’s at a lower level than the entrance to the ground and almost 2,000 fans have already filled every visible space around the advertising hoardings. At the entrance side of the pitch, there’s effectively a makeshift two tiers as fans gather on bankings and in the raised walkway areas for a better view.
On the opposite side of the ground is a sheltered stand behind the two rather tight-looking dugouts. We make our way towards it and observe an impeccable period of silence before moving closer to the corner flag for a better view.
We’re already three deep and straining our necks into the sun to see the game kick-off. At the opposite end of the ground there’s a large banner that reads ‘Good Luck Mr Skellern’, in reference to local PE Teacher Leigh Skellern, who starts on the bench.
Visitors Gateshead sit 3rd in the Vanarama Conference and, taking games in hand into consideration, are currently the side best placed to challenge runaway leaders Barnet, having narrowly missed out on promotion to Cambridge United in last season’s play-off final.
Behind our goal, around 100 away fans have gathered, and they make themselves known early with an array of songs.
“Lyrically, they’re a lot stronger than us,” says Jo, already finding her loyalties tested by the imaginative wordplay of the travelling support.
This isn’t her first match, although she reckons she can count them on one hand. A trip to see Stoke as a schoolgirl and a Bilbao match during a period living in Portugal are among her previous trips to watch the beautiful game, even if she did later correct the latter to Benfica after giving it some thought. She’s more into Languages than Geography.
“What happened there?” she asks, as a Norton defender appears to consider dribbling his way out of trouble past two Gateshead players. He thinks better of it, and launches the ball up the line. I explain why I momentarily panicked on his behalf.
“You don’t mind me asking questions, do you?”. I don’t at all, and I’m still relieved that she appears to be enjoying herself.
The first real chance of the game falls to Norton, as Chris Baker’s header misses the target in the 8th minute. It’s an encouraging start for the home side and, spurred on by Warrington’s heroics on Friday, they have every right to believe in a possible upset.
Norton sit a few places higher than the Yellows in a parallel regional table, and, like Warrington, are also in unchartered territory after an impressive run of form during the qualifying rounds.
Recent FA Cup campaigns haven’t been as successful, with the First Qualifying round usually proving to be the final hurdle, but goals from Lee Cropper and Kyle Diskin were enough to knock out ninth tier Shildon in a replay and book a place in the First Round for the first time in their history.
There’s plenty at stake for the home side. The chairman has promised to take the players to Las Vegas if they win through to the next round…provided they also get drawn against Sheffield United away.
Formed 25 years ago, Norton rose from the tenth tier to the eighth recently, scoring 100+ goals in two of the last three seasons to gain promotion to this level. Masterminded by manager Scott Dundas, that attacking, free-flowing style has been in evidence this season; they overturned a 4-1 deficit with 25 minutes to play against Brigg Town last week to win 7-4. “We only know how to attack”, was Dundas’ summation pre-match.
“We’re just attack-minded footballers. I wouldn’t know how to defend anyway as I never knew how to defend as a player”, said Dundas before the game.
“Attacking and getting on the front foot is what I’ve brought into the team. Defences don’t like that so it’s served us quite well up until now.”
Defending might be a useful attribute, looking at the Gateshead line-up. With former Everton and Wales international John Oster pulling the strings in midfield, the Tynesiders have lost just one in twelve, scoring an average of almost two goals a game in that time.
Opposite Dundas is Gary Mills. A former European Cup winner with Nottingham Forest, Mills is in his second season back in the Conference, and looking to repeat his previous success at York City, who he guided back into the Football League in 2012, after coming so close last season. Given that York sacked him before the season was out, with the side just four points above the drop, it could have been a blessing in disguise.
Norton’s defensive frailties are quickly exposed in the tenth minute. Oster’s defence splitting pass found Alex Rodman, who turned Winkle easily and slotted the ball under Roberts and into the net. It’s the first ‘away’ goal I’ve witnessed in over six hours of football for The Underdog Blog, and it feels like an ominous indicator of what’s to come.
Instead, the home side regroup and look fairly solid. Chances are limited but, aside from two ‘goals’ from Ramshaw in quick succession that were both correctly ruled to be offside, they contain their visitors well.
Gateshead do look dangerous on the attack, though, and play a quick and expansive game by comparison to their hosts. Down the left-hand side, Nick Anderton pushes forward regularly.
“It can’t be…can it? I wonder if he’s related to…”, I begin, stopping mid-sentence as I realise Jo is looking at me with bewilderment. She playfully adds an “it can’t be” every time the left-back, who I’m fairly confident is no relation to the former England international Darren, gets the ball.
Norton start to give Gateshead problems, mostly from set pieces, and begin to impose themselves on the game. The long throws of Winkle cause the most problems, and every freekick is launched directly into the box.
Midway through the half, Norton clear the ball clean out of the ground. The ball flies over our heads, over the netted fencing and into the back garden of a bordering house, leaving Jo in hysterics. It’s been a fairly common occurrence in the early qualifying rounds, but it’s sheer slapstick to the infrequent fan. The ball bounces around and settles in someone’s garden in a style and setting not too dissimilar from the famous Peter Kay advert.
John Oster is dictating the game in the middle of the park. He takes a corner by us and gets some fairly unnecessary flack about “finding his level” from a group of young fans by us, who are also here for the first time. Oster makes an inaudible comment back, but the most striking feature of the exchange is his baby-faced looks at the age of 35. He’s football’s answer to Benjamin Button crossed with Marty McFly.
Gateshead doubled their advantage in the 39th minute. Craig Baxter’s unchallenged cross from the right was met by Rob Ramshaw, who found space to head in unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box.
Ramshaw added another minutes after the restart. Rodman’s shot from outside the box was spilled to the feet of the striker by Roberts, and he pounced for an easy third.
As half-time arrived, we made our way around the back of the goal to grab a drink. The Gateshead fans were in confident mood, with one announcing that you could still get 100/1 for an 8-0 win as we walked past. The late capitulation in the second half had made that look a tempting price.
Jo bumps into an old school friend and then a fellow teacher as we make our way to the bar. It seems most of the local area has turned out to support Norton on their big day. We abandon the hot food queue and eventually find a small building selling hot drinks. A lady in her seventies serves us, wearing a pink ‘Think 25’ wristband. You can never be too careful with these things.
We opt for a higher vantage point on the opposite side of the ground for the second half. Norton’s early pressure is good but it feels like the difference in fitness levels begins to kick in around the hour mark as Gateshead keep the ball well.
A nasty injury to Winkle halts play for around five minutes as the player is carried off. It’s a stark reminder of the risks taken by players at this level, and it’s hard not to feel concern for how serious it looks for both his weekend and weekday career. Mr Skellern replaces him, giving his students something to cheer if nothing else.
Jo has to leave early with around half an hour to go. Her lunch date is calling and a comeback is looking unlikely. She seems to have enjoyed the experience, while perhaps remaining unlikely to invest in a season ticket.
Ramshaw rounds off the match with his hattrick in the 74th minute. His simple run to meet a cross from Oster looked more like a training ground exercise, although his excellent lobbed header left Roberts with no chance.
The distant sound of the country and western music strikes up in the marquee behind us with around five minutes to go. Whether it would have started early had the game been slightly more competitive remains unknown.
As the referee calls time, the players receive warm applause from the fans. They’ve worked hard and, without what Dundas would later call “a mad five minutes” before half time, they remained competitive against a Gateshead side that always looked in control. One fan next to me summarised Gateshead as “a class apart”, and it’s difficult to argue.
While the prize money and increased gate will come in very handy for Norton, it’s clear that the many Port Vale and Stoke fans have enjoyed their day. As the crowds spill into the marquee, out of the ground or into the bar, it feels like this small non-league side have gained a few new supporters this afternoon.
The players won’t be going to Las Vegas. Instead, their £2,000 bonus will go towards a squad trip to Spain in the summer. It’s a nice metaphor for the bittersweet FA Cup also-rans, I suppose. Aim for the stars and you might just reach Magaluf.
The Underdog Blog Record 2014/15
P 5 W 3 D 1 L 1 F 4 A 4 GD 0
Norton United FC vs Gateshead FC
FA Cup First Round
Sunday 9th November 2014
Autonet Stadium, Smallthorne, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire
Norton United FC 0 – 4 Gateshead FC
Ramshaw (39), (43), (74)
Norton United: 1. Roberts, 2. Green, 5. Clarkson (Smith – 75′ ), 6. Beaumont, 3. Fogg, 7. Blackhurst, 4. Winkle (Skellern – 61′ ), 8. McDonald (Hawthorne – 75′ ), 11. Baker, 9. Cropper, 10. Lennon
Substitutes: 12. Hawthorne, 13. Fletcher, 14. Smith, 15. Skellern, 16. Bradbury, 17. Skellern, 18. Dawson
Gateshead: 1. Bartlett, 16. Baxter, 5. Curtis, 6. Clark, 21. Anderton, 7. Oster, 8. Turnbull, 25. Pattison (Jones – 55′ ), 12. Ramshaw, 29. Wright (Rankine – 55′ ), 23. Rodman (Guy – 75′ )
Substitutes: 2. Jones, 3. Wilson, 10. Guy, 13. Baird, 15. Allan, 19. Rankine, 20. Caskey
Ref: Lee Swabey