University teams don’t always have the greatest of reputations in the non-league game. In the Northern League, especially, there are unhappy memories of how Team Northumbria abruptly quit the competition on the eve of the 2018/19 season, throwing the fixtures into confusion and causing great frustration. Elsewhere, clubs like Team Bath emerged from the lecture theatre to reach the FA Cup First Round but struggled to capture the public imagination.
Newcastle University is the Northern League’s new intake of students. Nicknamed the Royals, they’re among the freshers in this year’s league after winning promotion from the Northern Alliance. They’ve also helped to breathe new life into Kimberly Park, once the Northern League home of Prudhoe East End, later renamed Prudhoe Town. That club came to grief during the 2017/18 campaign, forced to resign from the Wearside League due to a lack of players. The Prudhoe Town name lives on in youth football, while the Kimberly Park ground is now home to the Uni on a Saturday afternoon. It’s a welcome return to action, especially considering past wrangles about who owned the ground towards the end of Prudhoe’s Northern League tenure.
It’s a tidy enough venue, more attractively sited than its location next to the town’s tip would suggest. The name comes from the Kimberly Clarke paper mill, for years a major employer in Prudhoe before the mill was purchased by SCA Hygiene. It’s a large site, with trees lining two sides and a compact but welcoming clubhouse behind a covered terrace. The solitary stand is some distance from the touchline, while a low grass bank surrounds three sides of the pitch.
Saturday’s game was a battle between two newly-promoted teams. The Uni arrived via the Northern Alliance, Sunderland West End came from the Wearside League. The students had made the better start to life at a higher level, comfortable in mid-table while West End look to be clear of the relegation battle but remain in the lower half. However, in the recent tradition of Tyne-Wear derbies, it was Sunderland who took the lead through Chris Tarn. The Uni battled back to lead 2-1 at half-time, helped by a dodgy offside call, then extended the lead at the start of the second half and held on to win 3-2 after a Josh Winthrop penalty put West End back into it.
On the field, then, things are looking good for Newcastle University. The problem – as seen at Team North in the past – was off the pitch. The crowd of 45 was almost the lowest of the day in the Northern League. That’s not always enough for a club to be sustainable at this level, although the additional resources available as part of the university’s sports set-up can ease that problem. What it can’t do is make for a better atmosphere at the game, something that leaves universities challenged.
Kimberly Park, Prudhoe, England
Dec. 7, 2019. Northern League, Division 2
Newcastle University 3 (Douglas, Alambritis, Browne) Sunderland West End 2 (Tarn, Winthrop)