There are always crowds on the way to Dunston UTS, and Non-League Day was no exception. Unfortunately for the football team, most of them are heading to the Metro Centre, that garish circle of consumerist hell. Walking from one to the other is an unsettling experience: the light and colour of the mall drains into the grey, rain-lashed relics of what was once industrial Tyneside. It’s a world of rail lines and electricity pylons, of light industrial estates and warehouses. Once, the Federation Brewery was based here; back then the team was known as Dunston Federation. Today, though, it’s long gone. Only the ironwork in the gate announces ‘Dunston Fed Brewery FC’ and a faded hoarding at one end still advertises LCL Pils, beer of choice at Working Men’s Clubs throughout the land.
There are other changes: the main stand once proudly carried a sign hailing it the Paul Gascoigne Stand. Gazza, Dunston’s most famous son, never played for Dunston, but remains firmly rooted – some might say too firmly – in the community where he grew up. As managers, even in the Northern League, bellow about keeping your shape and organizing it early, it’s sometimes hard to imagine how a maverick genius like him would fit in.
As well as Non-League Day, a relatively recent initiative aimed at luring Premier League fans to sample the lower levels during international weekends, it’s also FA Cup First Qualifying Round day. Dunston have played four games to get this far, albeit helped by two replays. A last-minute goal at Penrith earned them a crack at Skelmersdale Utd of the EvoStik Premier League. That’s two levels above, a team with a long history and still enjoying a recent revival that saw them rocket through the leagues after several seasons of struggle.
Reputation, though, counts for little. Gazza would surely approve the sentiment as Dunston roared into action from the kick-off, taking the game to their supposed betters. And within two minutes they got their reward with an audacious goal that might even have made the midfielder’s highlight reel. Liam Thear, scorer of that last-gasp winner in the previous round, found a beautifully cushioned flick with the outside of his right boot to beat Martin Fearon from the edge of the box. Not bad for a humble works team that grew; not bad for a club that survived the collapse of its major sponsor and found another one to keep it plugging away at the upper end of the Northern League.
The 249 people who laughed in the face of shopping and headed to the game were treated to another FA Cup belter. Skelmersdale sprang surprises: trying to thwart Dunston’s scouts, they lined up with strikers Ben Hodkinson and Callum Mahoney wearing 2 and 3. Hodkinson, pacy and working the flanks, was a handful, but it was a thumping long-range effort from Kenny Strickland that tied the scores.
Then came controversy: a crowded six-yard box, a shot from close range, a defender hacks it off the line. Play on? Goal? The linesman – not ideally sighted – flagged it. A group of Skem fans looked at the blurred still photo I’d managed and decided that was all the video technology they needed to confirm it; better placed supporters behind the goal felt the lino got it right.
There was a more popular refereeing decision in the second half when Dunston got a penalty for handball and Malky Morien – one of those solid, awkward centre forwards that the Northern League unearths with unfailing regularity – did the honours. But rash challenges on a wet surface – or, depending on your point of view, opponents who went to ground too easily – ensured that the ref would leave with a gobful of abuse after Dan Smith was sent off for two yellows in quick succession. A draw felt about right.
UTS Stadium, Dunston, England
FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round, Sep. 3, 2016
Dunston UTS 2 (Thear, Morien) Skelmersdale Utd 2 (Strickland, Bodie)