Bishop's Stortford 2-3 South Shields (National League North)
Plane spotting at football grounds is becoming a thing. On Saturday I got a perfect picture of them taking off and landing at Birmingham Airport from Solihull's Armco Arena, tonight it's Stansted and the nearest ground to the popular Essex holidaymakers Airport, Woodside Park at Bishop's Stortford is a stones throw away either side of junction 8 of the M11.
I've been scoring cricket games in New Zealand overnight on TV for the bet markets and my sleep pattern is all over the place. I've had my third siesta of the day and leave at 4pm with plenty of time to run the 2 hour journey, across the A52 and onto the A1 before following signs down the A14 past Cambridge towards Stansted and I'm making good tracks just nine miles away it's 6pm... But suddenly Sat Navs taken my ETA up over an hour.
There's an accident and traffic is standstill. Rumour is the South Shields team bus is in it ahead of me, they left at lunchtime and had two stop offs at Wetherby and Peterborough before hitting this incident, luckily they get through as I tweet them to 'wait for me' and I'm told they arrived at the stadium only 40 minutes before kick off.
Still stuck in it myself I'm panicking but can't turn back. I only need the next junction where the ground is situated just off the A120. Finally I'm moving and the last few miles are a whizz in and out, I'm not hanging around as I dart through the lanes and get to within yards of the ground before missing the last bloody turning, that's added another five minutes on, but finally I pull up in an industrial area, opting to kerb the motor outside the gates of the venue rather than pay £3 parking charge.
I'm rushing around like mad as I head to the turnstile, there's around twenty minutes before kick off as I ask a girl on the gate "where can I collect my press pass". She points me to around the corner of the clubhouse and a little white door, where a man is on hand to cross me off his list.
"What's your name he says" as I splutter out of breath. "You can talk" he says... "Bloody traffic" I reply.
I discuss the scheduling and travelling in the league with an old club committee member and the fact that he still doesn't know how Bishop's Stortford is located in the north explains a lot. "A lot of our players from last season have gone to Billericay" he tells me "we can't get anyone to play for us as they don't want to do all the travelling".
He points me inside the clubhouse to the turnstile entrance and I walk up to a seat at the back of the stand, it's modern and spacious here, players out on the pitch already the stand I'm in is seated with a good view but it's bloody cold.
I'm sat down with a desk for my notepad opposite is a small seated stand with a makeshift TV gantry on its roof, either side has two small roofed terraces, behind that there's workmen standing on a cherry picker with its flashing amber light watching the action, the local area is full of roadworks which caught me out earlier in missing my turning off the A120.
I'm joined by a couple of young lads from the South Shields media team. One is only sixteen, a new starter who's yet to see them win, the other it's his 21st birthday today. "What better way to spend it than sit eight hours on a bus" I say.
The two teams are out as South Shields in crisp white start by strutting the ball casually between them. Bishop's in blue are lacking confidence at the foot of the league but Shields haven't been great of late. As I ask one of the young lads 'how have you played recently' he simply replies back "crap".
This might be the game they need though and I'm already seeing joy for their striker Paul Blackett who's running off the shoulder has the centre halves treading water with half hearted offside appeals.
Blackett actually opens the scoring on 17, finishing off a good move with a stunning strike on the break, but the home side who I saw play half decent at Peterborough a couple of weeks back, are game, technically good going forward they have some real attacking threat and in Gio McGregor, Osman Sow and Kane Crichlow are causing trouble for the visitors defence.
They crack a post and force a good save before a cross causes mayhem for debutant keeper Seymour who's already had a shaky moment in dealing with a back pass. He's fumbled one straight in to his net but is saved by the referees whistle, half the fans think she's pointed for a goal but it's a harshly awarded free kick against Sow. It matters not though as a minute later Crichlow smashes home a cracker.
That goal levels things at half time as the two South Shields juniors head off for a burger. I'm left chatting to the locals who are a friendly bunch. Resigned to relegation they feel it'll be good to be back playing locally and no more trips to Northumberland, "at least you've chalked off a few new grounds this season" I tell them.
The second half seems to be flat as both sides struggle to impose themselves with any real quality, the weather is chillingly cold and the fans are yet to find their voice, but a chance on 69 has those behind the goal start singing again. "Allez Les blues" leads to an up turn in pressure from the hosts and suddenly Foxley is through, he hits hard, low and puts Bishop's 2-1 up.
That goal should be enough on 76 and you can't say they've not deserved it, but no soon as the Manager decides to go five at the back does his side concede, a short corner after some good previous defending has them switched totally off, Woods with time and space, too much, to pick his spot from inside the area.
That naivety in Stortford's side is the reason they're relegation fodder and the writing is on the wall as South Shields grab a late and predictable winner. "Why can't we facking hold on to a lead" one of their fans shouts. Many more start heading for the doors as the away team celebrate a second Michael Woods goal.
South Shields are a better team than their league position states, so are Bishop's for that matter but they have players much younger, much less experienced, but with coaching and alongside those that know how, some could certainly go on to flourish, in particular Gio McGregor, a talented and speedy right sider who frustrates more often than not, but has the pace and technique to be a really good asset in a creative or counter-attacking team.
Speaking of assets, young Emmanuel Oke, a thick set big guy of a centre half who impressed me at Peterborough, he played holding midfield and the game passed him by, there's something about him though, as there is Mbunya Alemanji a striker who came off the bench at 1-1 and helped his side get back on the front foot.
For South Shields, right back CJ Clarke impressed me as did Robert Briggs in midfield and the busy looking Paul Blackett in attack. Gary Liddle at 37 years young however the cream of their crop. Almost 800 games deep into his career you can tell he loves football and he leads from centre half by a real good professional and humble example.
Apparently it's Bishop's 150th year anniversary this season and it's not been one to remember. They need to get back to Southern League football and perhaps they are destined for the Isthmian where at least they'll get some local derbies and hopefully some players back too.
For South Shields, almost every game is a trek of unsociable distance, they have Hereford, Gloucester and Banbury still to play. Better equipped for the division though, if they get out of this league anytime soon, which is a long shot, I feel it's more likely by gaining promotion to the National League than it is, being relegated back to the NPL.
Bishop's Stortford: Jack Giddens, Riccardo Di Trolio, Sam Robbins, Harry Beadle, Gio McGregor (Aaron Greene 53), Kane Crichlow, Darren Foxley, Ethan Burnett (Mbunya Alemanji 63), Emmanuel Oke, Osman Sow, Asher Falase (Jack Thomas 80).
South Shields: Kyle Seymour, Blair Adams, Gary Liddle, Martin Smith, Robert Briggs, Paul Blackett, Michael Woods, Aaron Martin (Dan Savage 60), Jed Abbey (Mackenzie Heaney 71), Courtney Clarke, Tom Broadbent.
7:45pm Kick Off. Tuesday 9th January 2024, Woodside Park, Bishop's Stortford (att 290).