Last week a writer in the Daily Mail decried football's encroachment into every aspect of British life, saying that nowadays a politician would rather confess to tucking his shirt into his underpants than to not liking the game. You can take the point. No one likes to see MPs struggling to give themselves the illusion of three dimensions by listing the players they idolised in their youth, or, in the case of Mr Tony Blair, by recalling watching players who had retired before they were weaned. (Perhaps, like Woody Allen, the prime minister once suffered a near-death experience in which someone else's life flashed before his eyes.) And yet while football may appear ubiquitous, in some ways it also remains invisible. Or at least its history does.
On Saturday I walked down the evocatively named Third Avenue in Ashington, Northumberland, past thoroughfares named after Shakespearean heroines - Juliet, Portia, Katharine - until I came to Beatrice Street, two long rows of brick terrace houses facing each other across tiny front gardens and a narrow pavement.
Some of the plots are neatly tended, the shoots of snowdrops gingerly peeping up from the soil, others are a dumping ground for mouldering off-cuts of nylon carpet and the limbless torsos of discarded dolls. Certainly Beatrice Street is nothing to write home about - unless your spouse happens to be scouting locations for a remake of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, that is - but in a land where football is apparently omnipresent you might expect it to be marked in some way. After all, this was where Jack and Bobby Charlton were brought up by their indomitable mother Cissie and their father Bob, a quiet, tough man who won the money to pay for the wedding ring in the boxing booth at a local fair.
At the top of the street is Hirst North Junior School where Bobby won his first championship, the East Northumberland Boys League, at the back the alleyway where the brothers were traditionally photographed in later life kicking a ball about with local youngsters. But though Bobby has some legitimate claim to be the most famous Englishman of the latter half of the 20th century, Beatrice Street does not have a plaque or a sign.
To find out about the local football heritage you have to go along to Portland Park, home of Ashington FC. Contrary to what the marketing people might choose to believe, football does not have a home. The game is itinerant and there is plenty of evidence in the Colliers' clubhouse that it has occasionally pitched its tent in Ashington. Photos of the town's famous players line the walls. Many of them are Charlton relatives.
Cissie's father "Tanner" Milburn was Ashington's goalkeeper during their brief spell in the Football League. Her four brothers all played professionally: Jack, George and Jim for Leeds, Stan for Leicester; her cousin was "Wor Jackie" Milburn; another set of cousins, the Cobbledicks, wisely stayed away from the football field.
Cissie brought Bobby to Portland Park when he was a baby. The shouting of the crowd startled him and he burst into tears and wailed so loudly she had to take him home again. On Saturday the roar produced by the 80 or so diehards was less alarming; Ashington, pushing for promotion in Albany Northern League Division Two, thrashed Norton and Stockton Ancients 5-0.
Afterwards, the two teams sat at long tables in the clubhouse function room eating the fish and chips an Ashington committee member had brought in a few minutes earlier in a large cardboard box. On the wall by the telephone a photo shows Jack tangling with a Celtic forward at Hampden Park in the semi-final of the 1970 European Cup. The terraces beyond him are packed so tightly just looking at it sends a shiver down your spine.
Ashington council have discussed the founding of a football museum and if the club ever build a new stadium there is talk of incorporating one into it. If any of the town's footballing sons had been writers, artists or politicians, though, it seems certain they would have been commemorated by now. Perhaps this is as it should be - a true reflection of the game's value.
Except that I look back now to a time twenty-five years ago, in a bar in the northern Spanish town of Potes, when the man frying prawns on the iron hot plate heard that we were English and smiling, raised a thumb and called, ‘Bobby Charlton!’
I’ve never heard anyone do that with Hardy or Dickens.