Hebburn Town's transformation
From the brink of collapse to a Wembley final
When Hebburn Town run out at Wembley on Monday in the FA Vase Final, it will be the latest memorable moment in a remarkable sporting turnaround. Less than five years ago, the Tyneside club was on the brink of collapse and the future seemed bleak.
The low point came in February 2017, when a Northern League Division 2 game against Thornaby attracted just 34 spectators. Worse, when committee members from the two clubs were discounted, 16 paying fans remained. There were more people playing the game than paying to watch it. After 105 years of football in this one-time shipbuilding powerhouse, the end seemed close. The club’s committee – all volunteers at this lowly level of English football – reluctantly contemplated giving it up.
The news sparked a revival. At first, it was a buzz on social media. First team manager Scott Oliver was proud of that encouraging response but warning that the club’s salvation needed more than “people saying nice things”. Words were matched by deeds at the next home game, when 281 came to watch the Hornets face Team Northumbria. “The local community gave their verdict,” noted the club’s website. A couple of weeks later, a rare Saturday afternoon with no home game for nearby Newcastle Utd or Sunderland was designated ‘Save the Hornets Day’. And the club committee at that time was quick to stress that this wasn’t just about one team.
“Football clubs at this level are all in it together,” said Mick Laffey, who was Hebburn Town’s press officer back in 2017. “We’ve seen one Northern League team go pop this season, and since we put out that press release about our problems, we’ve had a good response from other clubs. They’ve welcomed the way we tried to make this about Northern League football as a whole. The #SAVEHEBBURN campaign, while still valid, is becoming a #SAVETHENORTHERNLEAGUE campaign – and we’re right at the front of it.”
Back in Hebburn, the campaign mobilised fans who had drifted away from the team as well as attracting new ones. “When we played Team North we had people saying they didn’t realise what was right there on the doorstep,” Laffey added. “We also had folk who used to come and were spurred to get back when they thought about what they might lose.”
At the time, Wembley was a distant dream. Even then, though, Hebburn Town had close links with an impressive youth set-up and actively supported other social projects, including the local food bank. The decline in traditional industries, and the subsequent fraying of the old communities in Hebburn and elsewhere, prompted the rise of food banks and the fall of local sport.
The modern-day Hebburn Town FC dates from 1912, when heavy industry dominated the north-east. Hebburn, with its shipbuilding and engineering heritage, was no exception and the Reyrolles engineering firm set up the team, built and maintained the ground – which, even today, is shared with Hebburn Reyrolle FC of the Northern Alliance and the town’s cricket club – and funded the sports clubs.
“During the halcyon days of the last century, football in Hebburn flourished because of that substantial contribution,” said Ricky Bainbridge, another member of the committee at the time. “This is now long gone, and those old industries have been replaced by many smaller businesses spread across the town. We need to connect with these organisations to attract sponsorship, now and in the future.”
Attracting sponsorship means showing local businesses what the club has to offer in return – so increased crowds are crucial to kickstart a virtuous circle of greater local interest and greater community support.
“We’re trying to be part of a community,” Bainbridge added. “At our last game, we had people from all over the town. Now we’re hoping to show that we have something to offer local businesses who might want to sponsor the team.”
That hope was richly rewarded. By the end of the 2017/18 season, the club had new owners. On and off the pitch, there was rapid progress. The sports ground was transformed, the old clubhouse revitalised and transformed into an attractive venue. Crowds, COVID permitting, grew with the team as it climbed the leagues. Next season, despite the pandemic, Hebburn will play in the Northern Premier League, up two levels from the doldrum days of the recent past.
And then there’s Wembley. Monday’s big game against fellow Northern League team Consett should have been played last season. The pandemic prevented that and, even today, it will have to be played behind closed doors. But a rule that might have disappointed a handful of followers five years ago now affects thousands of enthusiastic supporters on South Tyneside. The hope is that the club, still in the 2020/21 edition of the FA Vase, could earn a repeat trip to Wembley at the end of May and this time play in front of a crowd. It wouldn’t be the first time Hebburn had jumped quickly from an empty arena to a huge wave of support.
A version of this article first appeared on groundhoppers.blog in 2017. Now it forms part of the Talking Northeast project, in which members of the community tell the story of what they do. For more about Talking Northeast, click here.