The first season of the Bryson and Foster era was a memorable one with Birtley securing their first ever promotion to Northern League Division One. 

After a tough pre-season campaign featuring friendlies against Step 4 sides North Shields, Consett and Dunston UTS, the Bryson and Foster era got underway with a hard-earned point away to Brandon United on July 30th, with new-signing Glen Hargrave opening his account in the 65th minute to cancel out Adam Storey’s opener. The Hoops once again showed spirit to fight back from a two-goal deficit away to Jarrow, this time through fellow new-boy Aidan Rutledge, who pulled one back from the penalty spot after Andrew Clarkson had been felled in the box, before pouncing on a loose ball to earn his side a point. Next up was Birtley’s first home game of the season against Easington, with Hargrave (2) and Rutledge again getting on the scoresheet in a 3-1 victory. That game proved something of a catalyst, as Birtley went on to win all seven of their remaining games in August, with Aidan Rutledge notching an incredible four hat-tricks. This run included victory in the Vase at home to Ilkley Town, with the Hoops eyeing another impressive cup run.

Paul Bryson knew our strong start would give us a good platform. “We wanted to make a strong start and we made a number of key signings with Aidan, Glen, Alex Francis, Callum Turnbull, Smiggs, Conor Grant, Ryan Keltie and young Josh Strasshiem. We wanted to bring in a lot of local players into the club, this helped us bring a home grown feeling into the club. We purposely arranged pre-season friendlies against higher level opposition. This made us as fit as possible going into the league season. Our target was always to finish in the top 5 so we went in a little under the radar. That changed very quickly after our strong start and scoring a lot of goals. People knew at that point we were a real threat.”

All smiles as Birtley secure an emphatic home win against Willington.

September brought Birtley’s 10-game unbeaten streak to an end as they fell to a 2-1 defeat away to Prudhoe on a warm Friday evening, with former Birtley man Cameron Hood opening the scoring. Rutledge managed to pull back an equaliser, but Prudhoe’s Lewis Exley restored his side’s lead in the 61st minute. This was followed by a 2-1 home defeat, in an ill-tempered game at home to Bedlington, which saw the Hoops’ Mark Pattison and the Terrier’s Matty Hayton both see red. Birtley bounced back in the next fixture at home to Newcastle University, with Aidan Rutledge (2) and Jack Honour grabbing the goals in a 3-1 victory. Three days later, the Hoops showed incredible spirit to overturn a 3-0 half-time deficit to Billingham Town, thanks to another Rutledge hat-trick and a superb penalty save from keeper Isaac Robinson. September concluded in disappointing fashion, as Birtley exited the Vase to Newton Aycliffe in a tense penalty shoot-out, before losing heavily at Chester-Le-Street in the derby.

Brysa: “I think people realised we were a threat quite early on. We were scoring a lot of goals and this gave us a different kind of pressure. People knew we were in the top 5 and it was a motivation for other teams. We added Tom McIntyre at this point alongside Lewis Exley. Ex was a good addition in a time when we lost Sam Hedley to a serious injury.”

Birtley crashed out of the Vase at home to Newton Aycliffe.

October saw Birtley get back to winning ways, with Hargrave and Rutledge (2) on target in a 3-0 defeat of Washington at the Arrowmark. Despite throwing away a 3-0 lead at home to Esh Winning next time out, the Hoops had an unbeaten month in the league with the highlights being a 5-1 defeat of Ryton & Crawcrook Albion, an impressive 3-3 draw with leaders Boro Rangers, and Owen Lancaster’s last ditch equaliser to earn a point at home to Jarrow. The only defeat came in the Durham Challenge Cup, where a weakened side were dumped out by Division One Tow Law.

Owen Lancaster away at Easington

A series of weather-related postponements meant Birtley only managed to complete a single fixture in November, but it was a good one, with a Rutledge brace and Hargrave hat-trick seeing off Chester le Street United 5-2 on bonfire night.

Paul Bryson: “After two disappointing defeats in September we went on another long unbeaten run. As we entered the autumn period we had played 22 league games but then the weather changed and we only played 4 games from November to February.”

Hargrave and Rutledge (2) were again on target as Birtley hosted Blyth Town in a chaotic game which saw three visiting players dismissed. As in November, the weather put paid to the remaining fixtures, meaning Birtley finished 2022 with a victory and a nine-game unbeaten run in the league.

Hargrave and Rutledge were both firing Birtley towards the top of the league.

Birtley got the new year off to a flyer with a trip to Billingham Town’s Bedford Terrace. Skipper Jack Honour headed home the opener, before Aidan Rutledge notched from the spot and Callum Smith added a third with a cool finish, all before 25 minutes. Robbie Bird managed to pull one back for the hosts, but any hope of a comeback was dashed as Rutledge completed the rout with two second half strikes. The good form continued as Birtley welcomed Chester Le Street Town to the Arrowmark for a Friday night fixture. Rutledge and Hargrave were again on-target in a professional 2-0 victory which brought in a record crowd of 512. The final game in January saw the Hoops fall to an unexpected 2-0 defeat to a hardworking Brandon side.

Birtley started the year with a brilliant away win at Billingham.

The month of February got off to a flyer with a thumping 6-0 victory over Bedlington Terriers at Doctor Pit Welfare Park, with the unplayable Callum Smith bagging four goals. This was followed by a 4-3 victory in a thriller at home to Billingham Synthonia, which was marred by a serious injury to skipper Jack Honour. The absence of their inspirational captain seemed to trigger a loss of form, with a flat performance away at Redcar Town leading to a 2-1 defeat, before Callum Turnbull rescued a point for his side in a 3-3 draw at home to Prudhoe.

Paul Bryson “We produced some really good displays early in the new year. The wins at Bedlington and Billingham were really top draw alongside a thrilling 4-3 win over Synners at home. We brought in Matty Ward to help us with some additional fire power and Lewis Orrell who has real quality. Lewis came in from Whitley Bay so he brought us some first division experience.”

Matty Ward opening his account for the club.

The patchy form continued into March as title rivals Horden took all three points at the Arrowmark, with Marc Ellison’s injury time effort proving the difference between the two sides. A confidence-lifting 2-0 away at Washington was to follow, with the dynamic duo of Hargrave and Rutledge bagging a goal apiece. With the title now looking increasingly beyond reach, Birtley were looking to secure a play-off place, but were denied the points away at Blyth Town thanks to an injury-time equaliser from Brandon Slater – the Hoops having overcome a 2-0 deficit to lead 3-2. Birtley rounded off the month with two massive away victories over Newcastle University (6-0) – with Callum Smith bagging a hat-trick – and Willington (9-0) – with Aidan Rutledge scoring six and putting himself in the hunt to be the country’s top-scorer. Sandwiched between these however was a disappointing 1-0 home defeat to league-leaders Boro Rangers, where Rutledge was denied what appeared to be a clear penalty – unfairly receiving a yellow card for simulation.

Rutledge is tripped by the Boro Rangers keeper but the referee booked Birtley’s talisman for simulation.

Brysa knew that this was a difficult period for his side: “We went through a bit of a bad patch at this point. We lost away to Redcar and a crucial game at home to Horden. This was the first time of the season we really showed a bit of inconsistency. We were then dealt a huge blow with Jack Honour being ruled out for the season. We acted really quickly by bringing in Liam Wotherspoon from Blyth Town. Spoons is a great player, hard-working but with superb technique. That was after we played against them in a thrilling 3-3 draw.”

Birtley fired themselves into a comfortable 5th place position and secured a play-off spot.

The Boro Rangers game marked the debut of Liam Wotherspoon – a recent signing from Blyth Town – who stepped into the midfield role with aplomb, as Alex Francis moved into the back four (and took the armband) in place of Jack Honour. “Spoony” kicked April off with a brace in a 6-0 victory over Sunderland West End, and was instrumental as the Hoops swept Boldon aside 3-0, with Callum Turnbull scoring two goals. The victory was enough to secure a play-off spot, and it was just as well, as a poor performance away at burgeoning bogey side Esh Winning lead to an unexpected 2-1 defeat. The main league season was rounded off with a comfortable 4-1 victory over Ryton & Crawcrook Albion at the Arrowmark, thanks to a brace from Callum Smith as well as goals from Glen Hargrave and Matty Ward.

Brysa was pleased with our form heading into the play-offs. “We finished the season strong. Wins against Boldon, Sunderland West End, Washington and Willington secured us a play-off position with three games to spare.”

Play-offs

A play-off semi against Horden at Easington Colliery’s Welfare Park was to be the reward for a strong season. An extremely cagey opening spell was broken on the 39th minute by who else but Aidan Rutledge, with a sweet half-volley following great work by Callum Smith. Rutledge doubled his tally on the hour mark, heading home from an exquisite Wotherspoon corner. Birtley looked in complete control until the 72nd minute, when Horden were handed a lifeline after Smith was dismissed for dissent. Goals from Joshua Home-Jackson and Jack Maskell quickly followed, and the Hoops were forced to resort to the ‘dark arts’ to hold the rampant colliers at bay, and see the game out. The resultant penalty shoot-out was another close-run affair, with Horden’s third kick – which bounced down off the crossbar – proving the only miss in a set of well-taken penalties. Callum Turnbull stepped up to stroke home Birtley’s fifth, sending the sizeable away following into raptures. 

Horden, UK. April 27th Ebac Northern Football League Division Two Play-off Semi-Final match between Horden CW v Birtley Town FC at Welfare Park, Easington, County Durham. (Credit: Scott Llewellyn | @SL_SportsPhotos)

On May Day the Hoops headed to Bedford Terrace to face Billingham Town in a winner-takes-all contest to decide promotion. Billingham had the best of the first half, until Wotherspoon took advantage of a goalkeeping error on the stroke of half-time to put his side in front. Billingham continued to press forward in the second half, and got their just deserts on 65 minutes, as Jack Pounder drew his side level. Within ten minutes, the hosts were ahead, with Paul Braithwaite pouncing on a rebound to fire past Conor Grant. In an echo of the semi, Birtley were then reduced to 10-men after Sam Hedley was sin-binned for dissent. But the boys in green & white refused to lay down, and with five minutes remaining, Rutledge leapt to head home Wotherspoon’s corner and get The Hoops back on level terms. Once again, the game was to be decided from the spot, and once again the standard was excellent. However, Conor Grant pulled off a great save to deny Billingham’s fourth, which meant Birtley only needed to score their last kick to earn promotion to Division One for the first time in their history. Once again, the cool and calm Callum Turnbull stepped up and smashed his kick beyond the keeper, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Northern Football League Division Two Play-off Final match between Billingham Town v Birtley Town FC at Bedford Terrace, Billingham, County Durham. (Credit: Scott Llewellyn | @SL_SportsPhotos)

Paul Bryson knew what a brilliant achievement it was for everyone connected to the club. “We said before the play-offs started that any team could beat each other on any given day. This proved to be correct with all three play-off games finishing 2-2. All three games were decided on penalties. To be fair to our lads we scored all 10 of our penalties. The play-off final was a superb ending to an unbelievable season. We broke three attendance records, recorded our highest ever league finish, broke a club record for goals scored in one season both as a team and individually through Aidan. He finished with 61 goals which is incredible. To top this all off with the play-off final and our first ever promotion to Northern League one. I was delighted for the players, staff, volunteers and our amazing supporters. We took four bus loads to Billingham and their support got us over the line. They were amazing on the day. I would like to thank our sponsors for their support. Overall, an amazing season. We look forward to the 1st division next season.”

Birtley celebrate promotion with a famous penalty shoot-out victory in the play-off final against Billingham Town. (Credit: Scott Llewellyn | @SL_SportsPhotos)

Thank you to A View Above North East and Jordan Greivson for the video compilation.