Lower-league football in the North East is in rude health. Not only are little Sunderland giving a decent account of themselves in the second division, but plenty of North East clubs find themselves in the thick of it as the end of the season approaches, across the leagues (links at the bottom!) As ever, SCOTT ROBSON is your guide…
As we approach the last full month of the season, everything is coming to a head below the Football League, and in the last month or so we have had points deductions, Wembley hopes, good runs, bad runs and everything in between.
In the NATIONAL LEAGUE, Gateshead remain in a perilous position at the bottom, but it’s been the FA Trophy which has given the Tynesiders a boost in amongst the drudgery of a relegation battle. After defeating Oldham and Banbury away, they edged out Farsley Celtic on penalties to set up a home Semi-Final next week against favourites Barnet. One win from Wembley. They deserve massive support next Saturday on a free day for NUFC. In the league, a 1-1 draw with fellow strugglers Torquay did nothing to help the situation while neither did a one point deduction for fielding a suspended player. All is not lost – they’re only are only three points from safety with games in hand – but they have to start turning decent performances into wins. Seven wins in 35 games isn’t good enough. Home games with Scunthorpe and Dorking after the semi-final will probably decide their fate.
In the NATIONAL LEAGUE NORTH, seemingly doomed Blyth Spartans gave themselves a chance with a terrific run of results which came from nowhere. Even now they remain four points from safety with games running out, but one defeat in seven and three clean sheets in some hard away games gave them hope. Yet again it’s the home results letting them down, they’ve lost seven at Croft Park and have not scored more than one goal in any of the last ten games at home. The latest defeat v Boston last weekend may prove the final nail unless they pull another rabbit out of the hat. Darlington have gone the other way and now have a big fight on their hands to finish in the higher play off positions. The Quakers always looked in a false position when they were top, but since 11 December, Darlington are in the bottom six in the form table. Finishing third would give them a bigger advantage in the playoffs and with games in hand they should do that. But they really are running out of fuel. The continued goals of Jacob Hazel and the returning Andrew Nelson are the only bright points right now. Spennymoor, meanwhile, look like they have left it a little too late to get into those play offs. Moors remain seven points off the staggered line and will have to rely on a real collapse from the teams above. They haven’t been in bad form with only three defeats in nine but have never looked convincing enough to push on and go on a season-defining run. It was always going to be a consolidation season after losing manager and games in the Autumn.
THE LOWLAND LEAGUE is almost finished but Berwick Rangers have had a sensational finish to the season and the frustrating inconsistencies have been blown away by a run of seven wins from eight including a 3-0 win over Rangers’ under 21’s. They have only three games left but must be itching to get started again in July as they have tied up a lot of key players including 20-goal Liam Buchanan. A 4-0 away win at old league rivals Cowdenbeath delighted the fans even more. Berwick have risen to sixth now.
Into the NORTHERN PREMIER LEAGUE PREMIER DIVISION and surely South Shields can’t blow this one? Shields haven’t had any luck (or kahunas) when it comes to promotion out of this league but this year they are 13 points clear at the top with six games to play. If they don’t do it now, they never will. It hasn’t been plain sailing, it’s to be argued they have been better in recent years but have less to worry about in terms of rivals, but they are grinding out the points and Mackenzie Heaney’s goal saw off Hyde’s title challenge last weekend. Expect big parties and sighs of relief in a month or so.
Those post-match scenes on Saturday 😍
Thank you to each and every supporter who roared the lads on at Hyde. Let's do it all again this Saturday – but this time on home turf 💪
— South Shields FC (@SouthShieldsFC) March 20, 2023
Morpeth and Marske are both involved in the increasingly tight battle at the bottom. Morpeth have been in dire form but coming from two down to beat fellow strugglers Stalybridge plus the games in hand, should be enough to salvage a poor season. They must improve away from Craik Park or the likes of Marske will make them pay. The Seasiders dispensed with the services of Curtis Woodhouse after a strange few months and brought back club legend Carl Jarret. They remain deep in bother but won despite playing with ten men for over 80 minutes last time out and at home they look dangerous. They are three points from safety with two games in hand.
In the EAST DIVISION our clubs have again traded good runs and bad runs and it remains totally up in the air. Hebburn remain second despite not looking massively convincing and with an 11 point cushion they surely can look at a season extension and a home semi final. Stockton are a place and four points behind but have won only three in 11 games. Dunston are just outside the play-offs and if they win their game in hand will reach them. They are three points behind but with four out of the last six games at home they look as though they have a more than decent chance. North Shields’ on-field relegation worries are long gone after a fine run of four wins from five, however off the field they still may face demotion unless they make very rapid ground improvements. Consett’s first season in this league is tailing off alarmingly with no wins in the last seven. A couple of wins will guarantee safety but they have to stop the rot quickly. Shildon have gone the other way. A mini-renaissance has seen them within touching distance of safety. They seem to have got themselves at least a relegation play-off place now, but will be looking above at Consett and thinking they have a chance to catch them.
The NORTHERN LEAGUE DIVISION ONE has the most exciting promotion race out of all our divisions. Newton Aycliffe are top. Three points above Ashington who have a game in hand. Next comes Bishop Auckland, who are a point behind but have played two more than Ashington. Whitley Bay in fourth can still finish second with two games in hand on Bishops. Aycliffe look favourites having a decent run in, while Ashington still have to visit Whitley and Bishops. The real crunch is this Saturday where Aycliffe go to Ashington. At 5pm the situation will become a lot clearer. Top goes up automatically while second place face a play off at the fourth bottom NPL East side, currently Shildon which would add local spice. At the bottom Thornaby are in good form but remain six points off safety but three points then separate the next four and it’s anyone’s guess which of Pickering, Northallerton, Penrith or Seaham will go. A word for West Allotment also who lie fifth now with a six game unbeaten run. Whickham are seventh, Heaton Stan eighth and Benfield 11th.
In DIVISION TWO again it’s a good old promotion race. Boro Rangers lead the way on goal difference from Horden CW. There’s an eight goal advantage and a game in hand there so Boro remain favourites but the play offs are also tight with Bedlington and Birtley pushing hard. The latter have scored 107 goals in 34 games with Aiden Rutledge hitting 47 of them. Willington are waiting to be put out their misery at the bottom, 21 points adrift now.
— Birtley Town FC (@BirtleyTFC) March 7, 2023
The NORTHERN ALLIANCE hasn’t been as straightforward as predicted for Newcastle Blue Star with a dogged and bang in form Burradon and New Fordley continuing to pull on their coat tails. Star lead by five points but Burradon have a game in hand. They meet at Blue Star on Monday April 24th.
In the COUNTY CUPS St. James’ will host Blyth Spartans v Morpeth in the Northumberland Senior Cup. Spartans edged out Heaton Stan in front of 1,300 fans this week. Hebburn will look to shock Spennymoor in the Durham Challenge Cup and Sunderland will host this game for the first time in four years on May 3rd. The North Riding Senior Cup will be between Scarborough and Middlesbrough underdogs South Park (sans Kenny presumably). That will be at York City’s LNER stadium.
Phew, I will let you know how it all pans out.