NORTON & STOCKTON ANCIENTS (Norton Sports Complex)
The magic of the FA Cup led me north up the A1/A19 to Norton, which is on the outskirts of Stockton-on-Tees and 5 miles up the road from Middlesbrough. Norton & Stockton were playing in, arguably, their biggest game in their 51 year history, against the fans' breakaway team FC United. Two leagues separate the clubs, Norton & Stockton being members of the Northern League Division 1 (step 5) and United members of the Northern Premier League (step 3). As in any round of the cup there is always the potential for an upset as the so-called minnows get their chance to shine.
This tie attracted a massive crowd (admittedly the majority were United fans) and today The Ancients' attendance record was beaten as 1,576 spectators crammed into the basic Sports Complex ground. In fact the crowd congestion caused the game to be held up for 15 minutes and the game never started until 3.15pm. This had no effect on United who were the quickest out of the blocks and were soon a goal up after 5 minutes, Michael Norton sliding in at the far post from close in after the goalkeeper only parried the initial shot. The majority of the half was constant United attacking but they failed to convert their superior possession in any meaningful attempts at goal.
There was a long break in play when an Ancients player, Andrew Burton, went down and was eventually stretchered off. This break appeared to galvanise the home side and, with only a few minutes of the half remaining, a rare foray forward brought about an equaliser. A free kick was only parried out and Dale Mulligan had the simplest of tasks of rolling the ball home.
The second half was a more even contest, at least for the first 25 minutes or so anyhow. Against the overall run of play, the home side found themselves 2-1 up after 55 minutes after a short corner was worked to Shaun Clarke on the edge of the box and he shot low into the corner. Was the upset now on the cards? Well, frankly, no. After spurning the chance of going further in front, The Ancients then quickly conceded the equaliser, when a the ball ended up in the net after a goalmouth scramble, Glynn Hurst claiming the goal. Michael Norton then headed United back in front after 72 minutes and the homesters proceeded to cave in. Ben Deegan added a fourth on 85 minutes and with virtually the last kick of the game Michael Norton completed his hat-trick to make it five for United.
The scoreline, on paper, is a little harsh on the home team as they did put up a very brave effort, but in the end it is United who will be in the hat for Monday's fourth qualifying round draw.