Blue Square Bet Premier football returned to Boston United after an 11-year-absence... but was Gateshead versus Newport County worth the wait?

York Street hosted Blue Square Premier action tonight.
York Street hosted Blue Square Premier action tonight.

“It’s beyond a joke. It’s embarrassing.” That was Newport County manager Justin Edinburgh’s opinion when asked about his side playing their league clash against Gateshead at Boston United’s York Street ground tonight.

Fortunately, for the staunchly proud people of this town, his comments weren’t aimed at their cherished stadium.

That would have made him the most unwelcome guest since Alan Harper first walked into his brother’s beach house in Two and a Half Men.

Instead, Edinburgh was venting his frustration at the fixture itself, which was finally played at the fifth attempt this evening.

Yes, the FIFTH attempt! But was it really worth the wait?

Well, if you are Adam Bartlett then the answer is most certainly ‘yes’.

In a game short in excitement, the Gateshead keeper probably came out of it all smelling the sweetest.

Regularly exposed by his defence, he coped well to keep a clean sheet, pulling off the game’s most - or should that be, only - memorable save when Aaron O’Connor looked certain to score.

Through on goal he hit a ferocious strike, but Bartlett spread himself well enough to divert danger.

If you are Ryan Donaldson, the Heed forward, your answer would be ‘no’.

Deep into stoppage time, he somehow fluffed the chance to win the match... in comical fashion.

A low cross into the County penalty area saw Tony James’ sliced clearance look set for his own net.

At full stretch, keeper Lenny Pidgeley could only scoop the ball upwards, into the path of Donaldson.

But - somehow, from almost under the crossbar - the forward managed to head over.

So, why was National Conference level football played at the Jakemans Stadium this evening... for the first time in 11 years... and so flipping far from both teams involved?

Well, that would be down to Gateshead’s International stadium.

Its prestigious title would suggest that the venue had been double booked: Perhaps for the likes of Usain Bolt and Jessica Ennis to grace the track which encircles the pitch? Maybe for an England Schoolboys under 15s contest against a touring Argentinian side? The North East versus Scotland at tiddlywinks, at least?

Afraid not. It’s a matter of the turf, you see.

Drainage complications and the recent havoc caused by Mother Nature has left their home venue unable to host football for the remainder of the season.

So - like a mini version of the Brazilian national side as they prepare for next year’s World Cup - The Heed have suddenly reinvented themselves as a touring team.

Hartlepool, York and Blyth have all hosted Gateshead’s home fixtures in recent weeks. And tonight it was the turn of Boston. For a cash payment, of course.

This led to the evening’s best chant. Newport fans launching into a hearty chorus of: “You’ve only got eight grounds.”

Even the misinformed Alannis Morrisette would find irony in the fact that tonight’s ‘away’ side are the ones nicknamed The Exiles. Don’t ya think?

Indeed, the epic journey Gateshead have had to make for this ‘home’ match (185 miles, three-and-a-half hours, according to a quick look at the AA Route Planner) probably explained the lack of fans they brought.

It’s a long way to go to watch any side, particularly one who began the day in 19th spot.

On the flipside, the moving of this fixture to Lincolnshire was a godsend for the Welsh supporters, no matter what gripes Edinburgh has.

For the County army hitting the road, the 205 miles (four hours) from Newport to Boston is a mere jaunt to the cornershop in comparison to the 306 miles (five hours 15 minutes) it is from Newport to the Angel of the North, and then some.

The distance between the actual venue and the place which should have hosted the match is so great that, after a couple of ridiculously wayward strikes from the home side, one County fan had the nerve to shout: “It’s landed in the goal... the goal in Gateshead.”

He deserved a bigger laugh than the titters he was given. But you’re only as good as your audience.

Boston wasn’t too bad a distance for tonight’s referee, Declan Ford, whose post-match expenses will only include a request for petrol money to cover his journey from Lincoln and back.

And as he drives home, he’ll have just enough time to question why both sets of supporters gave him so much stick considering he put in a competent - if sometimes whistle-happy - performance.

The abuse he received from the terraces would perhaps be made worse if he was to discover that Howard Webb - the last man to officiate a World Cup final - was on the same plot of land, the guest speaker at a sportsman’s dinner at the adjcent Pilgrim Lounge.

But tonight there were no studs-to-chest Nigel De Jong-style challenges for either official to let go. Quite frankly, it was a subdued affair.

Newport’s Christian Jolley was the most exciting thing on show for the first hour, causing The Heed all sorts of problems with his pace, if not his finishing.

But when his number was held up, the neutral’s source of excitement disappeared to the bench.

Gateshead versus Newport County has never been a fixture I have looked out for in the past.

But - like opening the bathroom window to discover Wayne Rooney doing kick ups in your back yard - curiosity kicks in and you just have to watch.

Having a random match at this level so close to home was enough to bring myself, and a few well-wrapped Bostonians, out for the night.

Those present in their Pilgrims scarves were watching on with green eyes, remembering when their team last played in this stadium at Blue Square Bet Premier level.

In case you’re interested, that was on April 20, 2002.

Goals from Daryl Clare, Mark Angel, Simon Rusk and Anthony Elding secured a 4-0 victory over Graham Westley’s Farnborough that day, a time when Southwark Crown Court, the Inland Revenue and dual contracts meant little, if anything, to the delirious home support.

A goalless draw at Morecambe and a 2-0 win at Hayes later and the Pilgrims were a Football League team for the first time.

Oh, how the mighty... and United.. fall.

For the impartial observer, tonight’s contest was also a chance to witness two teams the Pilgrims have faced off against in the past.

The last time Boston faced Gateshead, they lost 2-1.

That was on November 24, 2007 in an away FA Trophy tie.

John Froggatt scored on that occasion. But even less memorable than the match that day was the performance from Pilgrims debutant Danny Sleath.

The spindly teenager, on loan from Mansfield Town, made his only appearance of an unsuccessful month-long spell.

And no United supporter who made the trek to the International Stadium would have left realising how much progression the player would make in years to come, or just how his presence would have been missed this season.

You have to go even further back through the record books to find the last time the Pilgrims met the Exiles.

That was on April 29, 2000.

Remember that day? Maybe you will if I tell you it was when United paraded that humongous Dr Martens shield (a little shorter but a lot wider than then-manager Steve Evans) around this stadium, having secured top spot in the division and promotion to the Conference a week earlier with that memorable 3-1 victory over Grantham Town.

Micky Nuttell scored that day as the Pilgrims drew 1-1 with their guests.

Yep, it’s that long ago that Micky’s teenage son Jordan is not breaking into the United first team.

So, in hindsight, is this concept of playing home games in a different part of the country - a bit lit Britain’s version of the NFL making the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers meet one another in London, but without the giant carbon footprint - going to take off?

Well, judging by tonight, I’d say the answer is a firm no.

Outside of the Premier League, the majority of a football clubs have the majority of their fanbases rooted firmly on the doorstep.

That sense of togetherness, of us against them, creates a buzz around the ground.

Tonight, supporters of three different clubs came together to create an attendance of just 227.

You probably won’t be shocked if I told you that just seven fewer people watched Stamford host Boston United in pre-season.

For a game, which threatened to have an impact on both teams’ fortunes this season pre-match, but offered about as much atmosphere as a quiet day at the library, it was just a shame so few were able to watch.

Although, to be fair, they didn’t miss much.