A 2-1 home win in Newcastle, and not a word about conflict between the high-profile manager and a controversial chairman. Instead, the magic of the FA Cup brought a winning goal from a player celebrating his 40th birthday and the kind of shock that most Tyneside fans fear they will fall victim to in due course. Newcastle Benfield – the other show in Toon.
Tucked away at the back of a housing estate, close to the point where the railway line crosses the Coast Road, Benfield is a club trying to make its way in the shadow of its gargantuan Premier League neighbour. Local loyalties are obvious: even in the clubhouse at Sam Smith’s Park, the décor is overwhelmingly black and white. Uncle Alb’s Corner, an astonishin‘Last Supper’ mural of NUFC bosses from Joe Harvey to Joe ‘The Last F@@king Supper’ Kinnear, re-anoints Kevin Keegan as the Messiah; the bird is supplied ‘courtesy of the chairman’, perhaps symbolic of some of the turkeys signed under Mike Ashley.
At Benfield, though, there’s a different messiah. Paul Brayson. Celebrating his 40th birthday, the former junior at St. James’ Park still has an eye for goal honed over several years in the Football League. True to form, he bagged the winner here, a well-taken lob early in the second half to make it 2-0 to Benfield and ensure that Ashton United’s late rally would be all in vain.
That meant success against a team from two leagues higher, the kind of giant-killing that illuminates the seasons of clubs at this level. It also showed, once again, the competitiveness of Northern League teams against their Evo-Stik League betters (in County Durham, Shildon were despatching Ashton’s local and league rivals Altrincham). The game was a fine demonstration of setting up to defeat a stronger opponent: switching to a five-man midfield guaranteed Benfield a foothold in the game, even if it took a little time for the team to settle to its task. Brayson, a willing runner up front even when he felt – sometimes loudly – that there was little support for his efforts, proved a handful and helped to spring the Ashton offside trap for Dylan McEvoy’s opener.
Ashton, banging the drum behind the goal but finding their Trans-Pennine journey tougher than anticipated, posed a sporadic threat but the officials drew more concern from the home crowd after two penalty shouts – one hopeful, the second plausible – were waved away. “Are you favouring these ‘cause they’re from a higher league, lino?”, came the shout from the touchline; near the technical area, Benfield boss Mark Convery drew a rueful smile from the flagman as he jogged away from a barrage of ‘polite enquiries’: “Just keep pretending you can’t hear me!”
The finale was tense: a late red card for Benfield’s Alex Nisbet and a later goal for Ashton’s Alex Johnson kept the result in doubt until the final whistle. But Benfield prevailed and are now 90 minutes away from emulating their best ever FA Cup run.
Groundhoppers Blog recently released its first E-book, ‘Ancients and Mariners’, following the stories of the teams in the 2016-17 Northern League season. Featuring all 44 clubs who started the campaign, and six interviews with club officials, it’s available from Amazon for just £2.49.
Sep. 16, 2017
Sam Smith’s Park, Newcastle, England
FA Cup Second Qualifying Round
Newcastle Benfield 2 Ashton United 1