In a World of football dominated by headlines of players receiving six figure weekly salaries and in some cases even refusing to play, my own difficulties following a Northern League football team are somewhat different. The STL Northern League is the second oldest league in the world and steeped in history. In many ways the league continues to thrive and attendances year on year are up; but this does not disguise the fact that at a Northern league fixture you might be one of just a hundred paying punters. Oh – and a dog. There’s nearly always a dog. Sometimes just finding a Northern League ground can be a challenge. My own club – Guisborough – are situated on the edge of the North York Moors and through the course of last season we had to traverse our way around Teesside, Tyneside and the rolling hills of County Durham. One of our County Durham opponents were Brandon United and the difficulties of locating their ground demonstrates my point perfectly. The name Brandon brings to mind a Hollywood actor – something exotic, rich and otherworldly. A trip to Brandon the place does not neatly fit that description. It is impossible not to marvel at Brandon United’s continued existence. Set in such a small place and tucked away from the main town centre, it would be easy not to even know about it. From the ground you can see Durham Cathedral on a clear day and located on a steep bank, the ground sits in the shadow of Durham City. On numerous occasions I have got lost trying to find the Welfare Ground. On the occasion of one evening fixture I pulled up alongside three local youths to ask for directions. “Can you point me in the direction of the football club please?” I pleaded, half an eye on the clock with kick-off time rapidly approaching.
“Which football club?” said Skinhead number one, as though there were several in the megalopolis that was Brandon. He simultaneously held both hands down his pants and rummaged around. Either he was about to whip out a handily placed local A-Z or this was a novel method of hand-warming.
I can’t pretend that the quality of what you see on the pitch is of the same calibre as on Match of the Day, though there are moments of great skill which could easily grace the professional game. But that doesn’t matter to most fans of non –league football.
“Brandon Football Club?” I emphasised, increasingly feeling that I was just wasting my time. The first skinhead turned to one of his mates and whispered something. There was then a silence that seemed to stretch as far as Jan Molby’s waistband. Eventually, Skinhead number two turned to me and said “Brandon Football Club – aye mate. We’re gannin’ if you want to give us a lift”.
I put my foot flat to the floor and watched them in my mirrors gradually grow smaller in size as I pulled further away. They clearly sensed a missed opportunity. Skinhead number one was clearly so incensed that he felt it appropriate to dislodge his hands from his boxers to stick his fingers up at me.
If the welcome outside of the ground was decidedly frosty, inside the ground it was warm and welcoming. This is certainly a feature of football at this level. Make no mistake – the supporters of their teams are just as keen and just as partisan about their side. But the edge of hostility which so often clouds professional football is welcome in its absence. Shouts and cat calls are made towards the opposition and the officials when decisions seemingly don’t go a team’s way. But these perceived injustices are often laughed off in the hours after the game in the warmth of the clubhouse, buffet delights in one hand and glass of beer in the other.
In semi-professional football, money does have a determining factor in a team’s success, but it is only one part of the jigsaw pieces that make up the picture of why players turn up week in, week out. Around ten games into last season, when we arrived to play Brandon they had failed to win a single game and were as pointless as a lid on a McFlurry. Yet there was no shortage of effort or commitment from either side and not even a faint whiff of players preferring to sit on the bench rather than enter the field of play.
I can’t pretend that the quality of what you see on the pitch is of the same calibre as on Match of the Day, though there are moments of great skill which could easily grace the professional game. But that doesn’t matter to most fans of non –league football. You can pay the admission, buy a raffle ticket and a programme, a pie and a drink at the bar and still often have change from a tenner. The entertainment is of a different sort and the characters – both on and off the field – are of enduring appeal. Occasionally there will be a spectator who doesn’t quite get it. One fan suggested to me at an early game that Guisborough needed to be more like Arsenal; given that at the time there were around one hundred and eighty places separating the two sides, it was a bit like asking Susan Boyle to be more like Cheryl Cole.
Don’t get me wrong – watching Barcelona or Manchester United can be wondrous and the speed and fluency of movement can be like viewing a well oiled Sports car slipping smoothly through the gears. Grassroots football – as the name suggests – is more earthy. At times you are so close to the play you can almost intercept the instructions from the bench and hear the players’ movements as they strain every sinew to reach the ball. Your voice, both literally and metaphorically, can be heard in the non-league game. All told, I reckon that counts for a lot.
Mark Cowan is the author of ‘Far from the massive crowds’, a season-long journey through the Northern League which follows Guisborough Town FC in their quest for promotion. The social history of the North East and various characters seen on the terraces are interweaved into a humorous, meandering story. He has committed all profits from the book back into grassroots football.
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