For Hebburn Town, the day there were more people on the pitch than paying customers in the stands represented a tipping point. The Northern League Division 2 team had an official attendance of 34 for its 2-1 win at home to Thornaby on Feb. 4, but once committee members and complementary tickets were discounted, the number of paying punters came to a miserly 16.
The response was swift. A media campaign highlighting the club’s plight urged the town to rally round the Hornets and ensure that 105 years of football did not come to an end. Manager Scott Oliver gave an interview to Made in Tyne & Wear TV, proud of the positive reaction on social media but concerned that the club’s salvation needed more than “people saying nice things”. The next home game, against Team Northumbria, attracted 281 to the club. “The local community gave their verdict,” noted the club’s website.
But it’s only the start. Next Saturday, with Hebburn at home to Tow Law Town and none of the rival attractions of Sunderland, Newcastle or South Shields in action nearby, has been designated ‘Save the Hornets Day’. Looking further afield, the club’s committee men are keen to stress that this isn’t just about one team.
“Football clubs at this level are all in it together,” said Hebburn Town’s press officer Mick Laffey. “We’ve seen one Northern League team go pop this season, and since we put out that press release about our problems, we’ve had a good response from other clubs. They’ve welcomed the way we tried to make this about Northern League football as a whole. The #SAVEHEBBURN campaign, while still valid, is becoming a #SAVETHENORTHERNLEAGUE campaign – and we’re right at the front of it.”
Back in Hebburn, the campaign mobilised fans who had drifted away from the team as well as attracting new ones. “When we played Team North we had people saying they didn’t realise what was right there on the doorstep,” Laffey added. “We also had folk who used to come and were spurred to get back when they thought about what they might lose.”
What could be lost is more than just Saturday afternoon football. Hebburn Town has close links with an impressive youth set-up and actively supports other social projects, including the local food back.
Ricky Bainbridge, the club’s commercial manager, programme editor and part of the volunteer committee that keeps the show on the road, explained how the youngsters came up with the idea of turning Saturday’s game into a bigger event.
“Our juniors have really decided to make a day of it on Saturday,” he said. “We’re having 22 mascots from the u7s and Hebburn Town Juniors when the teams come out and we’re trying to encourage parents and kids to get along. We’re hoping for another big crowd.”
The club hopes to break the 300 mark; some are casting an eye at the record attendance of 515 at the Victoria Road ground that has been home to the club for much of its 105-year history. But gate receipts are only part of the story.
The modern-day Hebburn Town FC dates from 1912, when heavy industry dominated the north-east. Hebburn, with its ship-building and engineering heritage, was no exception and the Reyrolles engineering firm set up the team, built and maintained the ground – which, even today, is shared with Hebburn Reyrolle FC of the Northern Alliance and the town’s cricket club – and funded the sports clubs.
“During the halcyon days of the last century, football in Hebburn flourished because of that substantial contribution,” Bainbridge said. “This is now long gone, and those old industries have been replaced by many smaller businesses spread across the town. We need to connect with these organisations to attract sponsorship, now and in the future.”
Attracting sponsorship means showing local businesses what the club has to offer in return – so increased crowds are crucial to kickstart a virtuous circle of greater local interest and greater community support.
“We’re trying to be part of a community,” Bainbridge added. “The juniors are separate, but closely linked to the first team. A few seasons ago they won a major ‘Respect’ award from the FA as one of the best grassroots clubs in the country. Now they’ve seen that we’re in a spot of bother and they’re doing their utmost to support us against Tow Law on Saturday.
“But it’s not just the juniors. At our last game, we had people from all over the town. Now we’re hoping to show that we have something to offer local businesses who might want to sponsor the team.
“We are trying to attract as many as possible, but an average gate of 100 would cover the administrative costs of staging a match and contribute to general expenditure throughout the season.”
Finances are only part of the issue, though. Local pride is also important.
“There are 43 clubs in the Northern League, all representing different towns and cities,” Bainbridge added. “I think there’s a bit of pride for a town in having a team representing them at that level. We’re trying to represent the town of Hebburn in what is quite a prestigious football league, and we’ve seen just up the road at South Shields how a bit of success can lift the spirits of the whole community.”