For a team that didn’t much want to be in the Evostik League, Morpeth Town are making a good fist of life at a higher level. The club’s Craik Park ground got a summer spruce up: two new stands, hard standing all around, an old shelter moved from pitchside to behind one of the goals, new fencing installed. It’s a far cry from the distant days when the team played on a tatty patch of grass inside a running track used by Morpeth Harriers. The athletes have moved on, the footballers have made the place their own and, on a bright and brisk autumn afternoon, it’s a fine venue for a match.
On the field, things are going similarly well. A 5-1 demolition of Gresley Rovers in their previous game put the Highwaymen seven points clear at the top of the league. Striker Jack Foalle, recently signed from Whitley Bay, grabbed his first two goals for the club in that game. In the programme, he talked about the prospect of playing at a higher level persuading him to leave the Bay and join Morpeth. Saturday’s game against Belper Town brought another goal – three in three games for Morpeth, 20 in 20 all told this season.
Foalle’s first-half strike, an improbable flick from a low free kick that seemed destined to loop harmlessly out of play but somehow nestled in the net of bemused goalie Leigh Overton, was a rare highlight in a game that was always watchable but seldom compelling. Belper, resurgent after a sluggish start to the season, earned a draw when George Milner rose unchallenged to head home a looping cross. For the neutral, it felt like a fair outcome; neither team did quite enough to take all three points, Morpeth’s lead at the top of the table increased to eight points with most of their rivals on FA Trophy action.
On a previous visit here a couple of years ago, researching ‘Ancients & Mariners’, an E-book snapshot of life in the Northern League still available to download from Amazon, Morpeth were highly ambivalent about the prospect of stepping up another level. At the time, the FA was finalizing its proposals for compulsory promotion for the champions of step 5 leagues; in the Northern League, geographically isolated, this idea met with a mixed reception. For Morpeth chairman Ken Beattie, the problem was a combination of travel time – Belper had a 179-mile journey from Derbyshire to Northumberland, midweek away games play havoc with the schedules of anybody who has work to go to – and the maximum potential of a club of this size. Morpeth, a small town close to Newcastle, has competing football attractions from the Premier League to famous non-league names like Blyth Spartans. Beattie’s feeling was that, without the kind of wealthy, ambitious backing that has pushed the likes of Spennymoor and South Shields on exciting upward journeys, promotion offered significant challenges and scanty rewards.
There are hints of that feeling in the programme. Foalle’s evident excitement at playing at a higher level is offset by references to long bus trips and the “thousands of miles on the road as they head from one ‘regional’ opponent to the next” described by the club’s media officer. Winning games, playing good football and enjoying the novelty of new opposition has pushed attendances up; freezing ticket prices at the same £6 it used to cost to watch Northern League action here won’t have hurt either. Right now, it’s a honeymoon period for Morpeth; the challenge is to build a long-lasting relationship with the higher leagues.
Craik Park, Morpeth, England
Evo-Stik League Division One East, Oct. 27, 2018
Morpeth Town 1 (Foalle) Belper Town 1 (Milner)