'The perfect professional' 'absolute gentleman' - Emotional tributes to Hebburn striker Graeme Armstrong as he retires after 20-year career in non-league football
The emotions were polarised as the Hebburn Town team bus slowly made its way back to the North East following their FA Vase quarter-final exit at the hands of Warrington Rylands.
Just days after the Hornets had celebrated their first ever Vase final win against Consett, dreams of a return to Wembley had evaporated with a narrow defeat in the North West.
There was clear pride and satisfaction over their exploits at the home of football five days earlier – but there was more than a tinge of disappointment their run in this season’s competition was over.
With the mood increasingly sliding towards the latter, captain Louis Storey took to the microphone at the front of the bus and called for quiet.
Above what had been an increasingly alcohol-fuelled din, the Hornets skipper was met with a respectful quiet as he delivered a heartfelt message to his team-mates declaring his pride over their successes during the most unusual of seasons.
Storey eulogised over the togetherness in Kevin Bolam’s squad and urged them to ensure this season was a start point for the next step in the club’s development.
Sentiment took over as Storey’s speech turned towards one of his team-mates – striker Graeme Armstrong
Just over an hour earlier, the duo stood in the centre-circle at Gorsey Lane, locked in an emotional embrace just moments after the full-time whistle.
The third shrill of referee Scott Simpson’s whistle not only signalled the end of the Hornets FA Vase run, but also brought down the curtain on Armstrong’s 20-year career in non-league football.
The prolific striker has forged a reputation as one of the deadliest frontmen in the non-league game after a goal-laden career representing the likes of Dunston UTS, Gateshead, Darlington, Spennymoor Town and South Shields over the last two decades.
The final move of his career came in the summer of 2018 when former Hornets manager Scott Oliver persuaded Armstrong to cross South Tyneside by leaving the Mariners for Hebburn.
The move has paid off as the striker helped the club stabilise in Northern League Division One after promotion, before winning last season’s FA Vase and securing promotion – the tenth of Armstrong’s career - into the Northern Premier League’s second tier under current manager Kevin Bolam.
But his influence goes far beyond what happens between the white lines, as Storey explains.
“I class Graeme as a lifelong friend now, and I may be captain, but what he says and does around the squad has a massive influence on how we conduct ourselves as players,” said the Hornets skipper.
“We all look up to him, everyone respects him, you have to for what he has done in the game.
“I played alongside him at South Shields, and we came to Hebburn at the same time, his standards have not dropped on or off the pitch during that time.
“He is the perfect professional.
“He’s more than a team-mate, he’s become a mentor and I have learnt so much from him that will help me throughout the rest of my career.”
Battered and bruised, still wearing a bandage from a blow to the head in the first-half, emotion flowed through Armstrong as Storey offered support to his respected team-mate.
Bolam stepped in to offer reassuring words – but the striker’s response caught his final manager by surprise but offered an insight into why he will be sorely missed by everyone at the club.
“He apologised to me on the pitch after the game, he’s apologising to me, unbelievable really,” exclaimed a shocked Hornets boss.
“That is the mark of the man, he has put his body on the line, he’s done everything he can to get us into the semi-final.
“Since I have been at the club, Graeme has been so professional on and off the pitch.
“He’s an absolute gentleman, and he is someone I want to class as a very good friend away from the game.
“The man has been fantastic for the football club and I wish I’d had him five years ago.
“When you see a player of his stature as emotional as he was at full-time, it tells you everything you need to know about what football means to Graeme Armstrong.”
With a historic season now at a close, Hebburn’s focus is turning towards preparations for making the jump to the Northern Premier League without their talismanic striker.
Armstrong’s retirement means he will leave the club with a record of 65 goals in just 95 appearances over his three seasons in the yellow and black.
Replacing Armstrong will be high on the summer agenda for Bolam and assistant manager Mick Mulhern – but as the latter explained, it is not just the goals they are trying to replace.
“He’s someone we can build a team around; someone you can rely on,” explained Mulhern
“He’s a great striker and a great person.
“He’s had a wonderful career; he’s scored goals at every level of non-league football and he deserves all of the plaudits he will get.
“We will have to replace him, but it’s not just about replacing goals, it’s about replacing work-rate, professionalism, the will to win and the leadership he provided.
“That won’t be easy because I don’t think there is another Graeme Armstrong out there.”
The defeat at Warrington may well have signalled the end of Graeme Armstrong’s career – but the impact and influence he has left behind will go on for years to come.