According to tradition, football (in Northumberland at least) was possibly first played by Roman soldiers, close to the Roman Wall, but it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that its popularity began to increase dramatically.
The Northumberland FA was initially formed in 1883, and Newcastle East End won the first ever NFA Senior Cup two years later with a 1-0 win over Sleekburn Wanderers. Shankhouse would briefly dominate the competition towards the end of the 19th century, but by 1900, many other clubs were emerging; Ashington and Morpeth Harriers were on the rise, while Whitley Bay, North Shields and Blyth Spartans Athletic were all formed.
As the county’s footballing stature grew, so too did its member clubs’ trophy hauls. Shankhouse became the first Northumberland club to win the Alliance title, following this up with consecutive Senior Cup wins, and the creation of many new clubs necessitated the formation of the North Northumberland League in 1896.
The milestones kept on coming, as Newcastle United ‘A’ became the first club in the region to clinch the Northern League championship in 1902/03, repeating the feat the following two seasons. Blyth Spartans, meanwhile, were picking up title silverware in the Alliance, topping the table in both 1908/09 and 1912/13.
The Great War temporarily brought football in the region to a halt, and when the Northern League resumed, not one Northumberland club belonged within its ranks. There was better news up at Ashington, who became members of the Football League for eight years between 1921 and 1929.
The thirties belonged to Blyth Spartans, who won the Senior Cup four times on the trot between 1934 and 1937. This was when the North- Eastern League was such as major force and the Spartans were league champions in 1936, overcoming the challenges of clubs such as Sunderland and Middlesbrough Reserves as well as Carlisle and Darlington Reserves.
War once again put paid to league football for seven years. When it resumed, Newburn were the emerging force, and the increasing popularity of the sport led to the formation of the North East Sunday Football League and the Tyneside Amateur League.
Whitley Bay Athletic won the Northern Alliance title in 1953 and again in 1954 while North Shields lifted the Senior Cup three times in this decade, though. But Northumberland teams were still conspicuous by their absence from the Northern League until the Bay entered in 1958/59.
Alnwick Town would go on to dominate the Alliance throughout the sixties and into the early seventies. Whitley Bay also broke the Durham strangehold in the Northern League, earning back to back titles in ‘64/’65 and ‘65/’66, while North Shields and Blyth Spartans were admitted to the league.
The late sixties saw Shields enter their heyday, lifting the Amateur Cup and and the NL title, and Blyth Spartans picked up the slack in the seventies, winning a slew of championships and reaching the lofty heights of the Fifth Round in the FA Cup. Around this time, Blue Star were also scaling new heights, bringing the FA Vase back to the north before going on to lift the title and four Senior Cups throughout the eighties. Balmy times indeed for the county.
Northumberland had lost the Amateur Cup and Midweek Cup during the seventies, but the Benevolent Bowl (1976) and the County Sunday Cup (1980) were both introduced, as were three new junior competitions.
A progressive senior club from the West Division – Prudhoe East End – was accepted into the Northern League’s Second Division in 1988/89. And at this time there was also the introduction of small sided soccer – a ‘mini-soccer miracle’. Just as the nineties dawned the Northumberland FA Youth Team won the Northern Counties Youth Cup in 1991 and then again in 1992. Six years later in the 1997/98 season the County’s Youth Team did even better and added the FA County Youth Cup to their previous successes in the country-wide competition in 1965 and 1969.
More recently, the success of Whitley Bay has been of particular noteworthiness, the club’s magnificent success in the FA Vase winning the competition in 2002 before an unprecedented hat-trick of successes between 2009 and 2011 only further demonstrated the continued success of football in Northumberland.
The arrival of the new Millennium coincided with Northumberland FA becoming a Limited Company and in 2002/03 the long awaited move to new premises at Whitley Park came with the inclusion of a County home ground. As if to celebrate this significant year, our County Youth team again won the Cup. A notable double was completed with the team defeating North Riding FA 2-0 in the Northern Counties Youth Cup Final.
In the senior game, Northumberland clubs have remained prominent. North Shields defied the odds to become the latest county club to lift the FA Vase, and the trophy could well remain in the region if Morpeth Town can overcome Hereford at Wembley. With Blyth Spartans soon to be back in the National League and nine teams competing across the Northern League’s two divisions, the future is looking bright for football in Northumberland.