Another Road to Wembley begins this weekend as a number of the North East’s club kick off their quest for a day in the sunshine on the biggest stage English football can offer.
Wembley is a place where the North East’s giants have been conquered, a place where they have wilted under the pressure of expectation and left the national stadium without a silver pot to show for their efforts.
But look beyond the “big three” and Wembley is a place of elation and celebration for a whole host of the region’s non-league clubs.
Yes, this weekend sees the start of this season’s FA Vase.
A competition that has been dominated by Northern League clubs for the past decade.
Whitley Bay are four-times winners, with three of those triumphs coming between 2008 and 2011.
When their three-year reign ended, Dunston UTS took over in an all-Northern League final against West Auckland Town.
In 2013, it was Spennymoor Town’s turn to take the trophy with a 2-1 win over Tonbridge Wells.
The 2014 final was something of an anomaly.
The North East were represented, but the Vase was won by Sholing, as they secured a 1-0 win against West Auckland.
Graham Fenton’s North Shields helped return the trophy to North East hands with a 2-1 win against the much-fancied Glossop North End.
The last two finals have seen heavy wins for our clubs.
In 2016, Morpeth Town overcame the odds with a 4-1 hammering of a Hereford side that were backed by nearly 20,000 supporters.
And last year, South Shields sealed a near-perfect season with a 4-0 win over Cleethorpes Town.
That win marked the first appearance at Wembley for former Sunderland and Middlesbrough midfielder Julio Arca….and he even got to lift the Vase.
This season will see a number of Northern League clubs tipped to continue the near-monopoly of the competition.
My tip is West Auckland Town, a club steeped in history but without a Wembley triumph to their name.
They have a highly-talented squad, a management team desperate to secure the FA Vase and the stars seem to be aligning for the County Durham side.
Elsewhere former winners Morpeth Town have been tipped, as have 2016 Northern League champions Shildon.
But for me, it’s West Auckland that will return the trophy to the region once again.
The Vase kicks off on Friday night, as Whickham host Newton Aycliffe at their Glebe home.
And Saturday sees a number, but not all of the Northern League clubs kick off their road to Wembley.
Former winners Dunston UTS and former finalists Bedlington Terriers are involved, as are Steve Harmison and Tom Wade’s Ashington.
They will include a new signing, Spanish winger Victor Manquillo, twin-brother of Newcastle United defender Javier.
If you fancy a visit to a local game they are listed below, including Championship down to Northern League.
Please note only games taking place in the North East this weekend have been included, some clubs are playing outside of the region.
I can recommend Heaton Stannington for anyone looking for a warm welcome and a decent pint of real ale.
Also highly-recommended is a visit to up-and-coming Blyth AFC, as they host West Allotment Celtic in a midday kick-off.
Anyone attending that fixture could double-up with the 3pm kick-off at Croft Park, where the in-form Blyth Spartans host Boston United in the National League North.
Sunderland v Sheffield United
Hartlepool United v Dagenham and Redbridge
National League North
Blyth Spartans v Boston United
Darlington v Leamington
Ashington v Easington Colliery
Blyth AFC v West Allotment Celtic 12:00
Brandon United v Bishop Auckland
Chester-Le-Street v Silsden
Darlington RA v Harrogate RA
Esh Winning v Penrith
Heaton Stannington v Carlisle City
Marske United v Ryton & Crawcrook Albion
Northallerton Town v Alnwick Town
Ryhope CW v Guisborough Town
Seaham Red Star v Albion Sports
Stokesley SC v Hebburn Town
Tow Law Town v Crook Town
Northern League Division One
Billingham Synthonia v Sunderland RCA
Morpeth Town v Washington
Newcastle Benfield v Whitley Bay
Stockton Town v Shildon
Team Northumbria v Consett
West Auckland Town v North Shields
Words: Mark Carruthers