The Northern League, Division One of which is Step 5 in the non-league pyramid, is a bit of a world of its own. Despite its name, it’s really a North East league, which was incorporated into the pyramid only in 1991. Even since then only a handful of teams have ever been promoted from it. They have some great team names – Bedlington Terriers, Jarrow Roofing, Norton and Stockton Ancients and, everyone’s favourite, Billingham Synthonia – but most of these teams have been in the Northern League for years with little thought of integrating into the wider pyramid. The Terriers, for example, won the league five years in a row from 1998 to 2002, but stayed where they were in the Northern League without applying for promotion, and the champions of the last two seasons – Newcastle Benfield and Spennymoor Town – are still there in the league as well.
There are a few reasons for this, but traditionally the main problem has been the relative geographical isolation. The next league up, the First Division North of what is currently the Evo-Stik League, consists primarily of teams based along the M62 corridor in Yorkshire, Lancashire and sometimes into Cheshire – the newly reformed Chester are currently top of it – and for a team based in Northumberland there’s a lot of travelling involved. This has impacts beyond the direct cost to the club – it also, for example, means players need to be able to take a lot more time off work. Not everyone is able to do so, and in any case many are happy to stay in the Northern League, which is generally seen as a pretty good league in its own right. It’s not like there’s a big jump in wages to be gained by playing one level higher.
This situation is largely self-perpetuating, and in recent years the Northern Premier League (the one that was the Unibond and is now the Evo-Stik League) have been doing what they can to encourage teams to apply for promotion.
Unfortunately, the experiences of the most recent two teams to take them up on it hasn’t given much encouragement to the rest. Newcastle Blue Star went in up 2007 – they were allowed to do so despite finishing outside the top two, which is the usual requirement – and Durham City followed them after winning the league the following year. On the pitch, both teams did well, lending at least some credence to the theory that the Northern League is perhaps even stronger than the one above it (though I stress that’s not my theory). Durham won the next league up at their first attempt for a second successive promotion in 2009, and in the same season Blue Star won the play-off for the right to be promoted to the (then) Unibond Premier League along with them.
Off the pitch, however, things went pear-shaped for both sides. On discovering that their artificial pitch would not be allowed in the Conference North should Durham win a further promotion, their sponsors pulled out, just as the 2009-10 season was kicking off. The club had to offload their players and play out the season with a scratch side recruited mostly from the local college. It meant a serious losing streak with some heavy defeats that saw their plight gain national attention; and of course it meant an inevitable relegation. Back in the first division – still one league above the Northern League – they’re in midtable this season, and it’s too early to say what the long-term consequences will be.
Blue Star’s plight was much worse, though less well-publicised. This site has covered some of the murky politics behind it at the time, and more info can be found from what is now their memorial website, but the gist of it was that, having had to move grounds in order to meet the criteria to play in the higher league, it was then demanded that they repay a grant previously given them for their original ground. Unable to do so, they withdrew from the league and ceased to exist – just a few weeks after that play-off win, which was to be their last act.
Undeterred, this season three Northern League teams lodged applications to be promoted, by the 31st December deadline. Dunston and Bishop Auckland are currently ninth and sixteenth respectively, and looking unlikely to finish in the top two. But the third side to apply are 2007 Champions – and winners of the FA Vase for the last two seasons – Whitley Bay. They’re currently in fourth place, but on a decent run of form since the return to action after bad weather, and look the most likely team to be in a position to step up. (Like Blue Star, it’s possible they may be invited to step up even if they finish below second place.)
Some work needs to be done to the ground – one of the problems is that the dugouts are not currently equidistant from the halfway line, and they may also need a new toilet block (as well as replacing the pie hut which recently burnt down). But crowds have been up since those back-to-back Wembley successes, and for this level – and indeed the level above – they’re very healthy. If anyone can make a go of it, they ought to be able to. Those previous experiences provide a cautionary note, but hopefully there’ll be a success story to come from this outpost of the footballing world yet.
One bit of bad news if they do go up though – they won’t be able to play in the Vase any more. Though I guess it’s probably only fair to let someone else have a go.
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