Twitter has many benefits. However, one of the undoubted drawbacks is that I have become friends with local blogger Andy (@HuddoHudson) Hudson. This beer swilling, cigarette smoking football addict has provided numerous hours of reading pleasure through his excellent blog Gannin’ Away while also accompanying me to the pub on a few occasions … in his leather jacket no less. Indeed, it was the same unshaven Mr Hudson that convinced me to use one of my ‘passes out’ from the wife to attend Non League Day as Northallerton visited Birtley Town in September last year.
Birtley Town’s ground is one I pass frequently as it is only a stones throw from the East Coast mainline. A ground I pass at probably a hundred miles an hour and only remember it is there when I see the Komatsu diggers with their arms in the air playing the offside trap (they are in such a good line Tony Adams would be proud). It was, however, Andy’s chosen destination for Non League Day.
It must be said, despite describing myself as someone that has a passion for football, my passion has not dug this low down the divisions for some time. I remember as a kid going to see the Heed Army take on AFC Telford with a number of friends from the village where I grew up. It was my first game and I remember it being a few pounds, a few pounds more for a programme and, as an experience, brilliant. I think it was a two – nil win but I much preferred singing with the Heed Army than the actual game. I went away vowing to go back on a more regular basis … I never did.
Due to the fact I’m a supporter of a Premier League team who turns 30 this year, 2011 AD, I am very much part of the era where Sky and money have been involved in football. As a cog in the wheel of a financial services business, I also see today’s top teams as more a business than the epicentre of working class passion. Therefore, Non League Day was to be almost akin to a detox for me; perhaps Birtley Town would act as a Premier League fan Priory .. without the ridiculous fees.
As someone with a keen interest in photography, I was also coerced into producing a team photo shoot for Birtley Town, a cash strapped club currently playing without a sponsor. So you can imagine my surprise when I drove along a gravel track to the car park and failed to have an allocated spot! Getting over this disappointment would be difficult. As I walked towards a building with a mixture of smashed/boarded up windows, I did wonder if this was the start of a crime novel where the unsuspecting photographer was lured to a random area of Gateshead only to be beaten up and have all his possessions removed.
As it transpired, a number of men came running out of the changing room to warm up with the aforementioned Andy Hudson walking behind them, wet cloth in his hand and a smile on his face. The two may, or may not, be connected. A quick team shoot, with the phenomenal backdrop of a factory, and a team in black and white turn up to represent Northallerton Town. The fantastic efforts put in by Andy, Michael Hudson and Ian Donnelly to sweep down the stand and wash the chairs were rewarded by most of the fans standing opposite the main stand to enjoy the game from the comfort of their extended legs. There was even one man and his dog there to watch the game which, for me, was a personal highlight.
The game, to my surprise, had some quality in it and as a photographer, I really enjoyed capturing some of the spirit and determination of those battling it out on a Saturday afternoon for really, nothing more than a love of the game. I strolled around the ground in search of photos and it was great to do just that. I stopped to talk to my favourite football journalist as he had also made an effort to attend a non league game with his regular Premier League duties relieved that weekend. Similarly, I got a bollocking off the Northallerton fans for blocking their view as I stood to take a photo. I conversed with two young lads that had attended the game because it was free (whether it was actually free of they had sneaked in, I still don’t know). Asking why they had come to Birtley Town v Northallerton Town for Non League Day I was told, laced with Geordie twang, “I divvn’t nah, nowt better to do like is there?”. A rather portly gentleman, expertly propping himself up using a barrier and a walking stick, who I am led to believe is a supporter of Birtley Town for some time, indicated that anything would be better than watching this “pile of [excrement]”. He did have other views, although they were all very similar … “that pass was a load of [excrement]” .. “that winger is [excrement]” … “that is an [excrement] goal to concede”.
Watching the manager’s disdain for an errant pass or the crowd’s unrelenting willingness to shout at the referee’s/assistant referee from such close quarters brings you closer to football. There were not thousands at the game, probably only a hundred or so, and there were certainly no super stars, but the reasons I enjoy football were all there. Non-league will not be for everyone – I am still searching for the corporate lounge at Birtley Town for example – but it is experience, like all experiences, that should be, well, err, experienced. We are merciless in our criticism of over paid footballers spoiling the beautiful game but, if you wipe away the fake tan, remove the false eyelashes and take away the WAGs from the Premier League, you probably end up in the Northern League and the beautiful game can once again be enjoyed.
There is also one other benefit: it is local! So the only fuel you need is the half time pie from the clubhouse!
Many thanks to Gareth Johnson for contributing both this piece and the accompanying photos. You can see more of Gareth’s work here and here. Gareth also presents Toon Talk, which can be downloaded as a podcast.