If it’s good enough for Julio Arca, it’s good enough for me. At least, that was the idea at the start of last season. Increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with the top level of the game, I was ready to take a break from Sunderland’s struggles and look elsewhere.
With the disconnect between Premier League players and the punters paying to watch them getting bigger with every passing contract negotiation, it felt like time to look for something different. Returning to the region after 20 years living away, touring the grassroots of the game also offered a way to reconnect with how much had changed – and what had stayed the same.
The plan was to visit all 44 clubs in the Northern League. The journey would run from Alnwick to Northallerton, and out west as far as Penrith. It would take in the remnants of what used to be our mining heartlands, tread through the hotbeds of amateur footie in County Durham and run into a clutch of new Tyneside teams. Along the way, a few ‘bloody hell!’ moments, encountering unlikely SAFC connections: Alan Durban and Stan Cummins managing Willington, Raich Carter turning out for Esh Winning.
In the end, though, it wasn’t really about the football. Certainly, not about the weekly round of games, the 90 minutes of hard work and occasional flashes of skill. Not because the matches were always terrible: like any season, there were crackers and stinkers. Teams like South Shields, on their way to an unprecedented quadruple, North Shields, Shildon and Stockton Town all played some good football.
Closer to home, Seaham Red Star and Sunderland RCA were unpredictable but entertaining. But because the clubs, the game, is about so much more than putting the ball in the net. It’s about providing a focus for a community, it’s about giving opportunities to local lads, it’s about representing a town to a wider world. In short, it’s about many of the things that the Premier League has forgotten in its rush for cash.
Sometimes it’s tough. Joining a crowd of 32 for Washington vs Ryhope CW, a Wearside relegation dogfight that clashed with Hull’s visit to the SoL, brought home the stark realities of trying to compete in a sporting environment that begins and ends with a handful of clubs. Washington went close to folding; the team was saved by a merger with one of the town’s youth clubs. On South Tyneside, Hebburn Town had just 16 paying customers for one game: a PR push revitalised the club, transforming attitudes around the ground and pushing gates back into the hundreds. There is an appetite for football outside the big leagues, as long as people know that the alternative is there.
One year on, enjoying the start of a new season (and the shock of a league win before the kids are back at school), it’s reassuring to have that alternative. A world where you can rock up at 2:45, pay a fiver or so to get in, stand where you like, move around if the play’s all at the other end, have a pint with the chairman at half time and feel like a guest rather than a seat number. It doesn’t replace supporting Sunderland – check out the rush to the TV screens at half time and full time, eager for updates – but watching the Northern League has its own charms. And, with so many of our games set to be shuffled around for TV this season, there are more chances than ever to get along on a free Saturday. After all, it’s good enough for Julio.
Ancients and Mariners, Andy’s e-book about the 2016-17 season in the Northern League, is available to download onto Kindle devices at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B074LZ3T2L. It costs £2.49.