Last night I was at Gillford Park, Carlisle watching Celtic Nation v Benfield. Gillford Park is one of those grounds you can see from miles around but can only get to by a single, bewildering route that -if you are approaching from the railway station - involves walking right past the glowing floodlit rectangle and then hooking back on yourself across unlit parkland, presumably to throw off anyone tailing you.
It was pouring down. On London Road, near a drive-thru Pizza Hut, a car sped through a massive puddle, splashing me so thoroughly that if it had been a Laurel & Hardy film I'd have taken my cap off and found a fish under it.
Over the past few seasons the home side, buoyed by the financial investment of US-based Glaswegian carwash millionaire Frank Lynch, have barrelled up the pyramid, regularly attracting crowds of over 600 to their ground on the eastside of The Great Border City. There was talk of the Conference, even of the League. Alas, like Michael Knighton's plans to transform Carlisle United into a European superclub, the dreams crumbled like so many Carr's water biscuits. Another financially boosted side, Spennymoor pipped Nation to the top spot in Northern League Division 1 last season to earn promotion into the Unibond. This summer Lynch withdrew his backing claiming he couldn't run the club from Florida. Manager Willie McStay and many of the - by NL standards - highly paid players scurried away. The gloryseekers too have evaporated. Crowds at Gillford Park this season have wobbled around the hundred mark.
Part of my reason for going to Gillford Park was to see Benfield's veteran striker Paul Brayson. Brayson began his career at St James' Park back at the height of Keegan mania before moving on to Swansea, Cardiff and an assortment of other League and Conference sides. He is 37 now, but - as the blokes at Seaham remarked of the equally elderly legend Paul Walker when I was writing The Far Corner - 'He still has all the moves'. Brayson is a small, sturdy man capable of creating yards of space for himself with a barely perceptible twitch of his shoulders. So far this season he has scored 18 times for a Benfield side that has struggled to get out of the bottom half of the table. In the top flight of the Northern League only John Campbell of Jarrow Roofing and Consett's Michael Mackay can match him.
In Cumbria in the teeming rain, I sat in a main stand that smelled of petrol, behind two blokes who smoked electronic cigarettes and cleared their throats with such thoroughness they must have sucked the dirt out from beneath their toenails. On a pitch so marshy it was a surprise not to see a heron playing at centre-back, Brayson rarely touched the ball, expending most of his energy complaining at the referee. Benfield were 2-0 down at half-time. The gents toilet in the main stand is next to the away dressing room. Through the wall you could hear the clatter of studs and the manager yelling: 'We've missed three fucking chances. Three golden fucking chances in the first fifteen fucking minutes. The game kicked off at 7.45 not 8 o-fucking- clock.....'
I watch the restart, then begin the 45 minute walk back to the station to get the last train east. The rain keeps falling. By the time I get on the train even my pants are wet. My mobile buzzes. The game at Gillford Park has ended. Benfield have score five in the second half. Brayson outstanding. Go and see him while you can. It is worth a fiver of anybody's money - even your own.
On the train journey to Carlisle I read the latest issue (15) of The Blizzard. It's something of a North East special with excellent pieces by Jonathan Wilson on a sentimental walk from Roker to Wearmouth and George Caulkin on the grim situation at St James' Park. There's also a photo-feature on ex-Darlo target Tino Asprilla in which he dons the coat he wore when he arrived at Newcastle United in a snowstorm, and Scott Murray's account of the 1974 FA Cup Final (Geordies may need to read that from behind the sofa). Best of all is an edited extract from Michael Walker's new book on North East football Up There.
I worked with Michael at The Guardian for many years and I am admittedly biased towards him since he looked after me at France '98, not only buying me meals when he found out the paper weren't paying me any expenses, but also intervening with the office manager to secure me a pay rise. Despite that I can honestly say that if I'd never met the author, or if he'd done me a grave injustice, I'd still heartily recommend Up There. It's brilliantly written, thoroughly researched, warm, passionate and funny.
You'll find Up There in local bookshops and on Amazon.
The Blizzard is available here: https://www.theblizzard.co.uk/product/issue-fifteen/