Tuesday, 24 June 2014


The following piece was published in The Guardian on 23rd February 2007. The game, as some readers guessed, was Blyth Spartans v Workington at Croft Park. I went to the match with a German friend, a medical scientist who works at Newcastle University, and his eleven-year-old son. He told me afterwards that he had never understood why the British got so upset about players faking injury until that day. ‘In the Premier League the players are just like everywhere else, rolling about all the  time, but this afternoon, wow! There were some tackles I thought, ‘That man will never walk again, and ten seconds later he was on his feet running about. It was fantastic.’

Faith restored amid camel hair and carping

The Dutch photographer Hans van der Meer made a lovely short film a few years ago that captures the strange and plaintive beauty of amateur football. As its title implies, "Flemish Fields" was filmed in Belgium, but its landscapes and participants will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has followed the non-league game in Britain. Here are the no man's land pitches, the washed-out, shapeless kits covering washed-out, shapeless bodies and the melancholy middle-aged spectators with 70s hair-dos and charity shop overcoats.

At one point in the film a man pops his head out through the window of a prefabricated concrete clubhouse and bellows the same phrase over and over again in futile rage. You don't need to speak Dutch to interpret his words: "Get up their arses, for Christ's sake."

It was much the same in the North-East on Saturday. The surface was rutted mud, the players so vulnerable looking that whenever the ball struck their pale thighs with a sound like an angry chef slapping an oven-ready chicken you felt the urge to call social services. And when the Tannoy announced that the sponsor had selected the big No6 as the home side's man of the match, the bloke behind me bellowed, "how can there be a man of the match when they've all been shite?"

It was a poor reward for his team's heroism. Though I'd have to say that the big No6 would not have been my choice either. He was a singular figure who combined the big lumpy torso of Steve Bruce with the slender, awkward legs of a young moose. I could only recall him touching the ball once. He had collected a hopeful through pass and humped it directly into touch and then, when one of his own midfielders protested, pointed to his right eye and barked: "Anticipate, Dazza, son. Vision."

My man of the match would have been the bloke behind me. He had bottle-top glasses, an elaborate macramé bonnet of lank grey hair and a shiny baseball jacket in a shade of blue so bright it must have been radioactive. The bloke behind me had played a blinder. All afternoon he'd been subtly prodding and probing from his position near the left touchline. It had begun in the first minute when he noticed that the linesman nearest us bore a passing resemblance to Aled Jones and signalled it by singing "Walking in the Air" in a high-pitched whine every time the official was called into action and burst thrillingly into life with the lightning turn and finish on the half-hour mark that produced ,"either your pencil's snapped, referee, or your mind has".

I admired his courage, because abusing match officials at non-league games is not without dangers. A friend who refereed Northern League games once sent a spectator off for foul and abusive language. He had not intended to, he explained later, but he had heard the phrase "Where's your yellow card, ref, wedged up your arse?" coming from the direction of the home bench once too often. "It was a gadgie stood next to the dug-out wearing a tracksuit top," he said. "I thought he was one of the subs so I took his name and showed him red." The man had protested that he was a paying customer and couldn't be ordered off, but my friend, "sensing that any show of weakness at this stage might end badly" had advised the man to read league regulations before directing him to spend the remaining 37 minutes in the clubhouse amid the scent of fizzy beer and smoke of cut-price king-sizes, the clack of dominoes and the TV racing from Wincanton.

I don't think the bloke behind me on Saturday would have surrendered his place so meekly. With five minutes to go the opposition broke away and the linesman failed to signal an obvious offside. "Stop pissing about with that snowman and wave your bloody, flag, you squeaky Welsh twat," the bloke behind me cried. The onrushing forward collected the pass, rounded the keeper and popped the ball in the net.

It was too much for the man in a camel-hair car coat who had been standing at an oblique angle to play for the entire match. He stalked off, pausing only to howl indignantly: "The pitch is shit. The ground is shit and you lot are a bloody disgrace." As he walked away the bloke behind me yelled after him in the nasal-posh accent of a train customer service announcement: "Thank you for choosing the Welfare Ground. We hope to welcome you again soon."

And after that he and the rest of the spectators fell silent. A cold wind was blowing from the North Sea but I felt a warm tingle rising in my chest. Before Saturday I had been feeling disillusioned with football; this was a sign that my love for it had been restored. Though in retrospect maybe the corned beef slice I'd had at half-time played its part too.

The photo shows the toilets at Evenwood Town - a ground that sadly no longer exists. It was taken by Pete Doddman at the 1994 Northern League Groundhop


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