Two days before the biggest match in Hebburn Town’s history and Paul Bennett, the manager who this week celebrates one year in charge at the Hebburn Sports & Social Ground, could be forgiven for feeling nervous as the hours countdown to the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round clash with Tyneside neighbours Gateshead. Nerves would be in the script, but as his football team have also proved this season, Bennett doesn’t follow the script.
Before the final session both Bennett, who has reached this stage of the competition before as a Newcastle Blue Star player who was defeated by Ilkeston Town, and Andrew Wood, Hebburn’s assistant manager, are in high spirits, watching Sky Sports News and joking with the players as they file into the changing room to change into their training gear. The smiles and laughter are still there as the session ends.
The management team came together at Seaton Deleval of the Northern Football Alliance, one step below the Northern League Division Two, before moving to Walker Central and then West Allotment Celtic. When a difference of opinion led to them parting ways with West Allotment, they took charge of a struggling Hebburn and have quickly built a squad that has propelled the club to the fringes of the FA Cup First Round proper.
It’s evident that the pair are close friends, but sitting in the bar afterwards, joined by some of the players, Bennett is amongst mates. His team has been built on a strong ethos of motivating, togetherness and man-management where the personalities of the players at the club are vital to maintain the team-spirit. Hebburn’s team is Bennett’s team, but conversely it is also everyone’s team at the club: everyone is involved together and there’s a genuine closeness. Will that be enough to secure a win against Gateshead? There’s always a chance. And Paul Bennett agrees.
“99 times out of 100 Gateshead are going to win; they’ll beat us comfortably. But that one other team might be this Saturday when we turn up. They’ve been training every day, practising their set-pieces and will be sharp. But there’s still that one time.
The [Hebburn] lads just have to enjoy the day and be switched on. If they are switched on and keep Gateshead quiet for twenty or thirty minutes, then you never know what will happen. There could be a sending-off here; a penalty there; and say we go 1-0 up and have our backs to the wall, well if we defend like we did against Runcorn then you never know. This could be the thing that dreams are made of. We’ll go there and enjoy the day; whatever happens, happens – win, lose or draw we’ll enjoy ourselves.
On Saturday morning we’ll be doing exactly the same as last time out against Radcliffe Borough. We’ll have breakfast together then all go for a walk before a team meeting. I’ve got something for the lads to watch after that which will feature highlights so far. I don’t really have to motivate them any more – if they can’t get motivated for this then there’s no point in them turning up. Hopefully everything we’ve done to prepare by that point will do the trick and then we’ll bus across to the ground, the lads will do what they need to do and away we go before hopefully being back at Hebburn for the night and having a good drink together.
We’ve been here for a year and we’re not that different in terms of our league position from when we took over, but then the team had played about ten games more. If you asked me or Andrew this time last year, or if you had asked the committee, we would never, ever have dreamed about being this far in the FA Cup. We’re one step away from possibly making about quarter of a million pounds, as that’s what it is really. It’s twelve grand to win this game but then if we get through then we should be on the telly. That would set this club up for years to come. But we’re not thinking that far ahead; we can’t think that far ahead.
At the start of that first year, I don’t think the club or the committee would have banked on us getting the players that we’ve got here. Me and Andrew were confident in what we were doing but I don’t think the committee quite believed us when we said: “We’re going to do this and this and this”. The club were second bottom this time last year and we ended up in mid-table. Now we’re fifth bottom but with nine games in hand on the rest of the league thanks to our Cup exploits.
Promotion is still the aim, massively still the aim, and we’ll be disappointed if we don’t go up. I’m not bothered if we don’t win the league and I’m not bothered if we don’t finish runners-up. If we go up in third thanks to the last kick of the last game then that’s job done. If we go up, have a Cup run and make some money then that’s a decent season for a non-league club the size of Hebburn.
If I was asked at the start of the season if I would take this Cup run or promotion thanks to the last kick of the season then I would take promotion. But you take what is put in front of you and you say: “Thanks very much” and you try and cope with it. [The Cup run] has been a bit of a distraction but I guarantee that of the 22 clubs in the [Northern League] First Division and the 22 clubs in the Second Division, everyone else would swap positions with me and Andrew, or Gary Middleton and Neil Winskill at Ashington, right now.
If I wasn’t involved in the game then I would be coming along to watch. It isn’t often that you would get this kind of tie. There’s massive interest in it as it’s a local derby. In a way, we are lucky that Ashington or away to Grimsby as hopefully groundhoppers will jump on board, half of Hebburn will come across and we’ll try and do the club and the town proud.
As I’ve already said: you just never know; there’s that one percent chance of winning the game. We’ve got that belief in the lads that has carried on from Radcliffe and then from the Team Northumbria game 48 hours later.
We’ve got ninety minutes of football. Look back at Hereford. Look back at Blyth Spartans. Why can it not be us?”
Words: Paul “Benno” Bennett of Hebburn Town & Andy Hudson. For more on Hebburn and much more, visit Andy’s world-wide-website Gannin’ Away and for Swedish football at Blagul Fotboll.
Picture courtesy of Simon Barclay at SB Photography, Twitter @sbsportsphoto.