It’s Monday evening. 48 hours after the history boys of Heaton Stan have recorded their largest victory as a Northern League club, blowing away Brandon United 9-1 at Grounsell Park. Manager Dean Nicholson and his assistant Andy McBride are in ebullient and engaging mood. And who can blame them when things are going so well?
A most amicable chat turns animated when the conversation turns to a goal scored on Saturday that ought to live long in the memory of all those who witnessed it. Already leading 3-0, a bewildered Brandon backline is about to be cut open again with stunning rapier-like precision. As black and white shirts swarm around the edge of the visiting penalty area, we’re about to be treated to one of the finest team goals you will see all season. That it is scored at Step 6 of the pyramid matters little, this was a goal deserving of a place at the very apex of the game. Andy Burn, Lee McAndrew, Kevin Carr, Liam McBryde and – there to stitch it together with poise and precision, the mercurial talent of Dean Holmes – combined to produce exquisite, intricate approach play before Holmes, a wonderful, will o’the wisp talent for many years, provided the finish of worthy aplomb. It had flair, it had finesse, it had fluidity. You almost felt like going across to the turnstile and donating another fiver’s worth of admission for such entertainment.
For a fleeting moment, the pair are transported back to the touchline. The faces again wreathed in the same smiles as they had been on Saturday. For all of the individual brilliance of many players over the course of such a great start to the season, nothing is more satisfying than such a goal. It’s the result of all the hard work that goes on throughout the week to ensure standards are met and maintained when matchday comes around. It’s a goal that encapsulates the season so far. It helped Stan register a ninth league home win out of ten, a draw with Carlisle City back 9n late August the only blemish on an otherwise perfect record.
They’ve scored 16 goals in the last two home games, seven alone from chief marksman McBryde. “I’ve known Liam for years, he’ a guaranteed goalscorer,” says Dean of one of his many impressive summer recruits. “You are only as good as your goalscorers in this league and if you have someone you know will get you 25-30 in a season, you are halfway there.”
No wonder gates are growing. At Grounsell Park there’s a real groundswell of support.
I ask Dean to go back to the summer, when the Stan began their search to replace the long-serving Derek Thompson, a man with the club in his DNA.
“I’d always said that, even when I was managing in the Alliance and enjoying myself, that the Stan was always a job I would go for if it ever became available,” he recalls.
“I spoke to people around the non-league scene in Newcastle and they all said the same thing. It was a club with a tremendous reputation. I just wanted the chance to speak to the club and try to sell myself.
“The interview process was handled exemplary. There were no targets as such. It was about being asked can you provide enjoyment? Can you win games? Can you play good football? Can you get people through the gate?
“When I was told I was successful, I accepted straight away. It was massive for me and the work started right then.”
Dean wasted little time in asking Andy, plus Scott and Tom Flynn to join him at Grounsell Park, albeit after several missed phone calls to his right-hand man.
“I knew something must be up when I saw the missed calls,” Andy smiles.
“I’d been with Bedlington Terriers for three years and had a great time there but it was not a tough decision to accept when Dean asked if I’d come in with him.
“I knew the Stan had a tremendous reputation, that the club had ambition. It was a great opportunity and it was a chance to have a crack at it with my good pal. I couldn’t say no.”
With any appointment, there is always an element of risk. Dean readily accepts that.
“I’d played in the Northern League but hadn’t managed at this level so I knew it was something of a risk.
“I had lots of messages of congratulations but I was straight on the phone to sort my staff out and to start looking at players to bring in.
“Me and Andy had a vision that, on the pitch, is married with how the club wants to be off the pitch. I look at our crowds and ground and think we are a Step 5 club, the challenge is to build a Step 5 team.”
After early reverses at Ryton and Tow Law, the Stan have put together a 16-game unbeaten run. When did it click?
“Losing at Ryton on the first day, although it was disappointing, may actually have done us good,” says Andy. “We beat Birtley in the next game and got an immediate response.”
For Dean, it was a gloomy night at Dr Pit Welfare Park that proved illuminating.
“It was 0-0 at half-time and Dan (Regan) had kept us in it with some good saves,” he recalls. “And in the second-half we got a couple of breaks and took our chances. You remember wins like that, when you haven’t been at your best but still find a way to get the three points. Likewise at Boldon, we could have come away feeling sorry for ourselves after being denied a late winner but we have gone on to win every game since.”
To go on such an impressive run offers little to luck and fortune. It takes serious planning. Dean freely says he can find himself thinking about football 12 hours a day. Andy nods.
“People think we are part-time at the level, but we are anything but,” says Dean pointedly.
“Every day you are thinking about the last game or the next one, or about what to do in training, who is fit. It’s constant.
“It’s an honour to be part of this club and you have to treat it with respect. We want people to come and enjoy themselves. My Dad comes, my family come, they love it. We want everyone to feel the same.”
The sense of community runs throughout the interview. Words like togetherness, unity, spirit and brotherhood frequently crop up. To borrow from the name of another Newcastle-based club that plays in black and white stripes, they are very much a united bunch.
Amidst all of the goals on Saturday, something else stood out. The calibre of substitute warming up at half-time. It cannot be easy picking a starting XI to many options. Crucially, the attitude on the bench is as positive as it is on the pitch.
“I’ve said to lads that there might be times when they are not in the team but that they have to be happy to be part of a squad trying to achieve things,” says Andy.
“We’ll play over 40 games in the season and you don’t achieve things with just 13 players. You need 20/21.
“But they have all bought into that, all bought into what we are looking to do. There’s a brotherhood there. They have really bonded in that dressing room and that has saved us a few headaches!”
It’s that esprit de corps that has carried Stan through a 16-game unbeaten run.
“There’s a real buzz around the place. There’s a massive spirit between the backroom team and the players. They all deserve huge credit. They all appreciate what the volunteers do off the pitch and so they know we have to do our jobs on the pitch as well.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling. I listen to the way the crowd cheer us on, how they appreciate players when substitutions are made. I said to Andy it feels like a Conference North crowd. There’s a real sense of togetherness.
“You’ve got to have the right players but you’ve got to have the right people too. And the news lads have gelled with those who were already here. You need the right ingredients. And if you have a tremendous dressing room that’s 80% of the battle.”
“We’ve shown we can score goals in games like Bedlington (7-0) and Brandon, and we’ve shown we can play good football against other top teams in the league like Sunderland West End. But we’ve also had games where we have had to really battle to win, like at Billingham Synthonia away. There is steel in there too and you need that.”
Indeed, the forward play of Holmes, McBryde, Leighton Hopper and others may steal the headlines. But, behind them, Regan and his defensive backline have been miserly all season. “We’ve used a few different central defensive partnerships this season and it’s been the same with the full-back positions. But all of those lads have played a big part in what we do.
“And then there’s the midfield lads too. Take Kev Carr, he has been a great example of what we are about this season and the huge upturn in form.”
They still don’t mention the p-word, despite building an impressive lead at the top of the league table. But Dean has been promoted from this division three times as a player, so he knows what is required to get around the course. The Stan look capable of lasting the distance. And fans will be delighted to see them in the Winners Enclosure come April. Which does beg one last question, however. In a season of so many wins, how come both Dean and Andy are yet to find themselves at the top of another table, the monthly supporter-run Punt Stan horse racing tipster competition.
“I’m going to stop backing favourites and go for 25/1 shots,” laughs Andy before making a seriously impressive point.
“When we were asked to get involved we did so right away because it’s important to be part of things like this.
“It’s like how we always make a point of making sure we go into the bar, have a pint and speak to people. We’ll always do that, come in and show our faces, because we want everyone in the club to feel together.
“Who knows how long this run will last? There’ll be a time when we’ll lose a game but, just like already this season, we’ve got the lads who have proved they will run through brick walls and who have the ability to bounce back.”
The last word goes to Dean. “We want the whole community to be part of things here. I love engaging with as many people as I can after games. I cannot promise to chat to all 400 people individually who come to watch but I’ll give it a try!”
Right now, the Stan are certainly doing their talking on the pitch. Long may that continue…
Author: Gary Oliver