Saturday, 2 May 2015



  While there are the play-offs and North Shield's FA Vase final still to come, for me the football season ended on Wednesday night when Shildon's 1-1 draw at Bedlington handed Marske United the Northern League title. I felt a little sorry for Shildon. They are a terrific club, but the team's exploits in various cup competitions had left them with too many games in hand, perpetually playing catch-up. Besides, I have strong family ties with Marske. My mother was born in the village, my father moved there from Manchester aged one. Both sets of grandparents lived in Marske. My maternal grandmother, Winnie Fixter was born there, so were both her parents. Her father, Chappy Keeling (pictured) was an ironstone miner. His brother, Joe, a plater at South Bank, made his own false teeth out of steel plate and once, returning unsteadily from the Top House, lost them in the horse trough he was attempting to rinse them in.

I spent most childhood summers in Marske, watched the West Indian spinner Albert Padmore play as pro for the village cricket team in the company of my Granddad, and listened to his stories about growing up in Smeaton Street, George Elliot, Pudden Carr, and dance hall punch-ups as we walked down Valley Gardens.

I saw Marske play twice this season: a massively entertaining 3-3 draw at Benfield, and the four goal demolition of fellow title aspirants North Shields on a day so brutally cold on the Metro back from Meadow Well I couldn't feel my feet till Byker. Which as a friend remarked, 'Sounds like a song by Lindisfarne'. That day at Shields - who hadn't been beaten at home in a year at that point - we thought we'd seen the champions. It turned out we were right, but only just.

This season I went to more football matches than I had in a long while. Since August 9th's dismal trip to Brunton Park to see Carlisle lose to Luton (a match that had me longing for the distraction provided by the old scoreboard that showed adverts for ride-on lawnmowers), I've been to a game pretty much every week, whether I wanted to or not.

There are reasons.

When I wrote The Far Corner I was living in a rented cottage in Northumberland and had no regular income. Twenty years later I found myself in exactly the same position. It's fair to say the last five years didn't quite go the way I planned. A twenty-five year relationship ended when my partner ran off with one of my friends, I had to sell the house I'd lived in since 1991, I severed connections with the Guardian after seventeen years and income streams slowed to a trickle that at times  - to quote Paul Gaugin -entered the realms of the ideal.

In the latter case there is an upside. There are good things about not writing on sport for a national newspaper. When Eden Hazard kicked that fat ballboy at Swansea and it dawned on me that I didn't have to have a vaguely cogent and slightly amusing opinion on the event, I practically punched the air with delight.

Trying to find something fresh to say about that babbling brook of hyperbolic bullshit which is The Most Exciting League In The World (TM), sucks the joy out of you. Believe me, it's a massive relief to be able to listen to Jose Mourinho and not give a tinker's. And an even bigger relief not to have to listen to him at all.

One of the sportswriters I most admire is WC Heinz*. Heinz wrote a daily column in the New York Sun for thirteen years and then freelanced for another forty. In 2000 Sports Illustrated sent a reporter to write a feature on him. Heinz had kept all is newspaper and magazine work in scrap books. He heaved them down from the shelf for inspection. Leafing through the books, the journalist noticed that every so often he'd come across a piece that was marked with an asterisk. 'What does the asterisk mean?' he asked. Heinz shrugged, 'Those are the ones I thought were good,' he replied.

If I did something similar I'd guess I'd find most of the asterisks would be next to pieces about the North-East. It's a common assertion that writers should write about what they know. More important than that is to write about something you love, something you care about. I ceased caring about the Champions' League long ago.

And why would you be seduced by the international bombast, when there is such joy down the road? The washing flapping on lines at Crook while snow swirled around the Millfield Ground, and a trip to the clubhouse was interrupted by a man in camo-pants shouting . 'How, Harry. You'll likely not remember me, but we had a bit chat in the Wembley toilets in 1998.' The bloke on the train between Sunderland and Hartlepool (The Durham Riviera Express) saying, 'Las Vegas? Man, it's just like Seaham sea front with more sand'. The world's slowest sending off at Benfield with the ref yelling like he was driving cattle. A Penrith player who'd scored a fantastic goal coming off the field at Sam Smith Park to be greeted by the question: 'Eee, when did you get your braces took off, pet?' Blyth's victory at the Victoria Ground enlivened by a half-time pitch invasion by two bare-arsed Poolie lads who were then chased around by the world's slowest steward, while H'Angus the Monkey waved his inflatable banana at them in admonition. A drunk in a Santa hat and wig at Brunton Park just before Christmas leaping down the terracing to head the ball back onto the pitch with such power it landed in the penalty area to the biggest cheer of the day. A bloke shouting 'Get back in bed with your seal' at a garrulous Marske fan...


My life has changed since I wrote The Far Corner. These days I might reverse the sentiment in the last paragraph of the final chapter. These days I might say:  'I was standing at Hexham railway station. I was waiting for train to take me to Carlisle or Newcastle, to Hartlepool or Seaham, Middlesbrough or Durham. On the platform kids were chatting excitedly. They were happy, and so was I. It was Saturday lunchtime in a place I loved and I felt like I was heading home.'

Next season can't come soon enough.

The First Thirty Years Is The Worst is going into summer recess now for travel and minor counties cricket. It will return for the extra-preliminary round of the FA Cup, likely in a once weekly guise.

Thanks to everyone who has read the blog this year, and for all the retweets, Facebook shares, links, plugs, messageboard posts and kind words. They are very much appreciated.

Also to everyone I've been to football with this season - in particular Ian and Steve, but also Peter, Professor Straub, Andy, Rob, John, Dan, Gary, Jamie, David, Michael, Football Spoon, Ed and Al - I'd quite forgot how happy it makes me to sit in the cold, eating KitKat, drinking sugary tea and making jokes about Bobby Mimms - and you can't do it on your own (well, you can but...). Much gratitude therefore to you all.

*You can read one of Heinz best pieces here