It felt like a pre-season friendly. Glorious sunshine, a bucolic setting with the Cleveland Hills in the background, the thwack of willow on leather from the cricket ground next door. Sadly for Stokesley, it turned into something of a holiday for visiting Guisborough Town, two leagues higher and a class above throughout this FA Vase tie.
Being a Stokesley fan can’t be easy. The North Yorks market town has had a team since 1920, but recent years have been a struggle. The success of reaching the Northern League in 2008, the highest level in the team’s history, turned into something of a nightmare as turmoil swept the club (‘internal politics’, claimed the Northern Echo, more than once) and heavy defeats became the norm. Relegation, inevitably, sent the club back to the Wearside League – and further on-field battles – before the FA decided it was time to laterally move the club into the recently-formed North Riding League.
Stokesley may not be all that keen on the move. Clubs pushed into lateral moves rarely are, as old friendships and rivalries are cast aside. The club’s Twitter and Facebook pages still talk about playing in the Wearside League. In theory, the reduced travel of life in the North Riding should be a boon; in practice, being shunted out of a league with a long, proud history and placed in a newly-formed organisation is always likely to rankle.
That said, tonkings like Saturday’s 0-9 reverse won’t enhance the mood. After Ash Lavan completed his hat-trick to make it seven, the cry went up from the back four: ‘Keep it going!’. A passing home fan, looking like he’d already seen enough and was ready for a post-match pint, muttered: ‘Keep what going? They’ve never even started.’ It ended up one goal worse than last season, when Hebburn won 8-0 here in the same competition.
In theory, this tie should have been a reminder of brighter times. Not many Step 7 teams in this region even enter the FA Vase; Stokesley, whose ground is shared with the North Riding FA, are blessed with facilities good enough. Apart from the all-important floodlights, there’s a small ‘flat-pack’ stand and a set of dug-outs that look more substantial than the main stands at several grounds. The draw was kind, at home to a local rival from the other side of Roseberry Topping. Maybe the crowd was swelled by a clash with the cricket, but the carpark was full and the roadside straining to handle the overspill.
The programme talked optimistically of giant-killings and cup shocks; Guisborough, lifted by a comfortable FA Cup win over Albion Sports in midweek, cruised to an emphatic win. Ash Lavan’s hat-trick grabbed the headlines, two own goals in the first half helped the Priorymen on their way, and two late goals from substitute Mason McNeill piled on the pain for the home team.
It all felt a bit like the previous time I saw Stokesley, in a Northern League Division 1 game at Spennymoor in 2011-12. That night it finished 5-1, with the visitors causing a minor sensation by snatching an early lead, only to end up steamrollered in a season that ended with no wins and just four points. Four more seasons bumping around the lower reaches of Division 2 followed before relegation caught up with the club and the Wearside League beckoned. A downward spiral, once underway, can be hard to halt; Guisborough’s effortless win was a harsh reminder of the gap that has grown up between former rivals: as recently as 2010, Stokesley finished above Guisborough in NL2 and claimed promotion to the top flight.
Happily, there are signs that the team can be more competitive in league action: a couple of wins already this season, and Louis Benoit among the leading scorers with six in five games. But, as for many clubs riding the rollercoaster of football at the foot of the pyramid, it’s a long way back.
Broughton Park, Stokesley, England
Sep. 1, 2018. FA Vase 1st Qualifying Round
Stokesley SC 0 Guisborough Town 9 (Wilson, Lavan 3, 2 og, Bruton, McNeill 2)