From dire straits to the brink of Wembley: The story of the transformation of Hebburn Town FC
James Main tells the story of a remarkable period of change at the Northern League club.
Despite their league campaign being declared “null and void” at the end of March, much to the dismay of manager Kevin Bolam as they were sitting in a promotion place, Hebburn Town are two games from reaching the FA Vase final after a 2-0 win over Plymouth Parkway in the quarter finals of the competition in front of a record crowd of 1,705.
But just three years ago, the club came very close to extinction with crowds as low as 30. The Hornets were adamant not to go down without a fight, with the aim of preserving their rich history of over 100 years. The team was originally known as the Reyrolles, because of a large factory that stood next door to the ground, with many employees playing for the club.
Ricky Bainbridge, now the club’s deputy chairman, played for the club in the late 1960s. Speaking fondly of his playing days, Bainbridge said: “I was only 19 years old and played in the side that won the Wearside League for the first time.
“The football club was known then as Reyrolles and was in fact the factory side for the joinery and engineering factory. The team included a number of Reyrolle employees and the ground was one of the best in the North East at the time maintained by full time staff from the company.
“There was no proper clubhouse however, although there was a building between the two football pitches which housed an open viewing area upstairs for watching cricket and football on the pitches and the changing rooms were downstairs for both home and away sides.”
Fast forward to the 2011/12 season, after a rocky period in the club’s history, things were looking up for the team as a successful FA Cup run saw them make it all the way to the fourth qualifying round before a 3-0 defeat to Tyneside neighbours Gateshead at their International Stadium.
The club were also promoted to Division 1 of the Northern League under then manager Paul Bennett, but after he left at the end of the 2012/13 season and took the vast majority of his squad with him to Jarrow Roofing, new incumbent Scott Oliver had to completely rebuild his squad – leading to inevitable relegation back to Division 2.
In the second half of the 2016/17 season, things got particularly serious for the club financially with attendances very low.
Bainbridge described how it felt to be around the club at the time: “It was extremely difficult and we were rather dejected in the fact that you’d turn up and give your usual input to the game coming on a Saturday and then finding out that there was hardly anyone in the ground at all and basically the revenue that you were taking at the gate wouldn’t even pay for the referees and that was the trouble – you were running at a loss as soon as the gates opened.”
The club decided to launch a campaign called “Save Hebburn” and it gained the club a lot of publicity. Players were playing for free, and not one of them left the club during that season despite this.
Stephen Rutherford, who is now the Director of Football at Hebburn, said on the campaign: “It was the wider non-league community that helped, there was a fundraising page which raised a bit of money but also professional clubs in the area – Newcastle brought an U23 side – Peter Beardsley brought his side down and I think it attracted a crowd of over 500 all paying guests which helped so in a time of crisis it’s really good to see a non-league community pull together.”
Not only did Newcastle bring a side along as part of the fundraising campaign, but Sunderland played in a friendly against Hebburn too. Bainbridge believes that the campaign saved the club.
He said: “There’s no doubt that the Save Hebburn campaign saved the club and it gave Scott some well-deserved awards when he took the club back into the first division.
“The support from all areas around the town, people’s donations etcetera was tremendous including a massive contribution from the players who said if you can’t pay us you can’t pay us. Not one player left the club, they all played right through to the end of the season.”
Since the successful campaign to save the club, new owners have come in and invested heavily in both the club’s infrastructure and the playing side. This resulted in promotion back up to the first division of the Northern League, and two successful campaigns in the top tier thereafter.
Bainbridge was very complimentary of the new infrastructure: “The major overhaul of the clubhouse contributed greatly to the development of a community club because now in Hebburn it’s the venue of choice for so many activities,” he said.
“It’s difficult to put into words the change, you see it every day – every time I go in something has happened, changing the dugouts round, giving room to fill the games etcetera. It’s just been a magic conversion.”
The Hornets have a very ambitious plan for the next five years, with progression key. This has attracted some top-quality players to the club.
Rutherford said: “They see our project, they want to be part of it. I’m very excited about the future, big things will happen here. It will take time and it will take the support of the town, the community and the people of South Tyneside.”
While the club don’t know when the 2020/21 campaign will begin, the management are busy preparing for it and have re-signed the majority of the players from last season, while also making three additions – including experienced goalkeeper Liam Connell and West Auckland’s star striker Amar Purewal.
But the main aim at the moment, is to win the FA Vase, if and when that’s concluded.