Newcastle United are perhaps the best-supported underachievers in world football. The Magpies were last champions of England so long ago that Thomas Hardy and Wyatt Earp were still breathing when Hughie Gallacher lifted the old First Division trophy in 1927. When Ruud Gullit was manager in the late 90s he assumed the club was cursed, and sought advice on exorcism from a local priest, even asking the kitman to sprinkle salt in the St James’ Park changing room to ward off evil spirits.
Sadly I was saddled with the Magpies as a child, and although they’ve been spoiling my weekends for several decades now, I still hold a season ticket in the Gallowgate End. But with fans locked out of the Premier League, I’m scratching the football itch elsewhere.
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On top of this recent move by Premier League clubs to charge £14.95 to watch their games on a pay-per-view basis might be the final straw for many football supporters. It’s not so much the cost that irritates me, but the relentless grasping venality of professional football — so it was great to see Newcastle United supporters respond by raising over £20,000 for a local foodbank rather than giving more money to the Premier League.
Instead I’ve found joy with the Ebac Northern League, the second oldest football league in the world (founded in 1889), and the stage for some of the great names of amateur football: Bishop Auckland in their light and dark blue halved shirts (started by theological students from Oxbridge exiled in the north); “the Lawyers” from Tow Law FC, whose Ironworks Road ground, perched on the freezing slopes of the North Pennines, is reputedly the coldest in English football; and the famous West Auckland, “World Cup” winners in 1909 and 1911 when a team of Durham pitmen somehow inveigled their way into an international tournament against professional European sides and won, twice (including a famous victory against Juventus).
The first non-league side I ever supported was West Allotment Celtic, a North Tyneside pit village team who played in the Northern Alliance. The father of a school pal was their club secretary so we got to hang out with the “committee men” in their matching V-neck sweaters, raid the post-match “buffy” (buffet) for plate pie and pease pudding, and travel to away fixtures against exotic opposition like Carlisle Gillford Park or Spittal Rovers (the most northerly team in England).
But I’d grown up with stories of the most famous non-league team of them all: Blyth Spartans. My great-grandfather, despite being wounded at Arras and Passchendaele, had been the Pep Guardiola of the coalfields, as a combative halfback and then manager at Croft Park — the Nou Camp of North East amateur football. Blyth might not look much like ancient Sparta, but the locals shared a similar devotion to hard work and athleticism, and there can’t be many football grounds where Plutarch is quoted above the grandstand: “Spartans do not ask ‘how many are the enemy, but where are they.’”
The stand in question is known as “the Fed Shed”, after the Federation Brewery, a cooperative run by local workingmen’s clubs, and the cooperation that was such an essential part of the coalfields transferred naturally to team sports like football. Indeed, almost all of the greatest British football managers emerged from the mining communities of northern England and Scotland: Shankly, Paisley, Busby, Chapman, Stein, Robson and Kendall are all well known, but there was Jack Greenwell too (a member of that all-conquering West Auckland side and who went on to manage Barcelona), and Jimmy Hagan, formerly of Washington Colliery FC, who coached Benfica and Sporting Lisbon in the 1970s.
As much as the sport itself, I’ve always loved the social history of football, especially the relationship of teams to places. Prof John Tomaney, a Sacriston lad like Bobby Robson, well understands the affection that people still feel for the towns and villages of Northern League country, and has written powerfully in defence of the “parochial” against the “condescension of the cosmopolites” who see in it something morally suspect, exclusionary and culturally limiting. Instead, Tomaney argues, “its cultures and its solidarities are a moral starting point … in all human societies and at all moments of history”. For as Seamus Heaney once wrote, “we are dwellers, we are namers, we are lovers, we make homes and search for histories”.
I’ve long been fascinated by the history of my own birthplace, North Shields, and proud of its achievements. The motto of the old Borough of Tynemouth Messis ab Altis (“our harvest is from the deep”) was a clever reference to the fish and coal that made the town prosperous, and this, plus the three crowns for the Northumbrian and Scottish kings buried at Tynemouth, still adorns the red shirts of North Shields FC — the team I follow.
“The Robins” have a famous history, founded in 1896 and twice Wembley winners (in 1969 and 2015), they now play in a well-kept ground on the fringes of the famously tough Meadow Well estate. I just love going there, not least as Shields have a really good side this season, the matches are usually entertaining blood and thunder contests, and, frankly, I can take the dog with me. The badinage is consistently good too. At one game in January this year a fussy young referee caused a despairing voice from the Shields bench to cry out “How ref! Did you get that fucking whistle for Christmas!”.
Although I’m evangelical about watching football at this level, not everyone is convinced, among them the West Ham fan Prof Helen Thompson. Prof Thompson has seen some raucous football crowds in her time, but after dabbling in non-league she thinks that the supporters of Dulwich Hamlet seem to be “acting out a pastiche of 1970s/1980s football that I am pretty convinced most never experienced, where the atmosphere is entirely unrelated to what is happening on the pitch”. There is certainly a different dialogue between non-league players and spectators, but North Shields crowds (whose derby match with cross-Tyne rivals South Shields is known as “El Workingclassico”) have a humour and authenticity that I find hard to resist.
Harry Pearson is the uncontested laureate of Northern League football. His hilariously well-observed The Far Corner and The Farther Corner are essential introductions to the joys of the non-league scene, and North East culture more broadly.
Both these books are also like gazetteers of the Red Wall, and Pearson has some trenchant views on why in 2019 so many of the Northern League towns, from Sedgefield to Blyth Valley, fell out of love with an increasingly bourgeoise Labour Party that didn’t seem to share its values. “Those people don’t go to these places,” he observed in a recent interview, “football fans do. And what you have at Northern League clubs are working-class people running them. No one interferes, no one tells them what to do. They are left alone by the middle class, people like me, and they do it really well.”
The Northern League is certainly doing well. Crowds are healthy, the football is consistently good, and my friend Terry Mitchell has just steered the “Steelmen” of Consett AFC to Wembley for an all-North East FA Vase Final against Hebburn Town (Northern League teams have won eight out of the last eleven Vase finals). It’s hard to pinpoint what explains this success, but after years of watching these teams I can say that the qualities that Northern League fans value most are hard graft, intelligence and courage above all.
The football writer and Sunderland fan Jonathan Wilson has done more than most to help us appreciate why the way the game is played is worthy of serious study (and was himself a former turnstile operator at Whitley Bay FC). Wilson reminded me recently that it was a Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano who once encapsulated what football can tell us about place and identity, and why it deserves our attention. “A style of play is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and affirms its right to be different,” Galeano wrote. “Tell me how you play, and I’ll tell you who you are.”