The Northern League encapsulates the true spirit of football. The beautiful game played in Barcelona and Brazil was born on these pitches and you get a real sense of history by just being here.
As a kid, I used to make the regular trek along a disused railway line on Saturday afternoons to watch Newcastle Blue Star. ‘Star’, as the club were affectionately known, were the dominant team of the north east non-league football scene in the 1980′s. Established in 1930, Blue Star (who, crippled by debts, sadly folded in 2009) played home matches at a neat little conifer lined ground known as the Wheatsheaf, a title applied because of the adjoining pub of the same name. One very notable aspect of the Wheatsheaf ground was its close proximity to Newcastle airport. So close, in fact, was the runway that any particularly well struck goal kick could easily dent the undercarriage of a passing Boeing 737. Before joining the Northern League, Blue Star were Wearside League champions three years in a row. In 1985, while chasing their third successive title, Trevor Brooking, recently retired after 20 years service at West Ham, accepted an invitation to turn out for them in a game against their nearest rivals Coundon. While the swoop was ambitious, the former England midfielder was by no means Star’s only ‘iron’ in the fire. They had also tried for George Best and very nearly secured both players.
On April 28 1985, Trevor Brooking took to the field at the Wheatsheaf in the colours of Newcastle Blue Star. While much of the UK enjoyed a pleasant Spring Saturday afternoon, it should be noted that this is the North East, so naturally it snowed like billy-oh. With cars lined up on roadside verges as far as the eye could see, Blue Star’s Saturday afternoon attendance swelled in advance of 600, more than double their usual turnout. Brooking’s guest player’s fee – put conservatively at £500 – looked good value, as the former West Ham maestro put on a superb display despite the wintry conditions. Had you been on the inbound leg of that afternoon’s Dan Air Malaga flight, you may have been able to grab a brief glance at Sir Trev in fine fettle. Less than three years after coming on as a sub against Spain at the 1982 World Cup, here was Trevor Brooking pulling the strings against Coundon Three Tuns.
For me, that encapsulates the beauty of football outside of the top flight. You might not always be able to guarantee who will win the Premier League, but you’ll be able to name the usual suspects. Step down through the divisions, and football throws up some far more quirky circumstances. You never quite know what you will get or who might turn up at your club.
Many thanks to Jeff Livingstone from the superb In Bed With Maradona.