What has the Northern League ever done for us?

#11 Tottenham Hotspur

The Northern League’s Tow Law Town played an unknowing hand in breaking an eleven-year old Londoner’s heart. To be fair if it hadn’t have been them, it would have been another club in the Tyne and Wear locality. But Tow Law Town it was and that unavoidable path cannot be changed now.

It was here that Christopher Ronald Waddle began his playing career. And it was most likely on the pitches of the Northern League where people first began to notice the languid wizardry that would later blossom and flourish in the footballing cathedrals of St James’ Park, White Hart Lane, The Stade Vélodrome and magnificently but ultimately tragically so, in Turin on one balmy summers’ night in 1990.

Think about a Geordie and Spurs and you think of the other one. Inextricably linked with the club, Paul Gascoigne evokes sentimentality and romanticism for Spurs fans of a certain age. I’m no different. But Chris Waddle was my first footballing hero. The player I fell in love with and would seek to emulate in the playground. I was always transfixed by the nonchalant ease with which he ghosted past defenders using the rapid step-over technique that pundits would drool over. You know the one. The one that Ron Atkinson would enigmatically christen ‘the lollipop’ in subsequent years.

Needless to say, such extravagances did not go down too well in the cut-and-thrust of 25-a-side and sponge tennis ball lunchtime free-for-alls and I would inevitably end up with grazed kneecaps and torn trousers after yet another baffoonish tumble.

It was never that way with Waddle though. He somehow made it look so easy. Sometimes, he even looked like he just couldn’t be bothered. His shirt would hang out as if thumbing his refusal to conform to established rules whilst his hair, shorn as it was at the front, but flowing at the back captured the de rigueur style of being fashionably unfashionable. Although Glenn Hoddle might have been more highly regarded at White Hart Lane at the time, there was something less aloof about his rhyming partner on the wing.

Waddle was the star attraction of the first match I ever went to. It was in 1989 against West Ham, a few weeks after Hillsborough and everybody was still reeling from the horrors that we had all witnessed on our television screens. Maybe I’ve romanticised it as the years have gone by, but the crowd seemed to part in order to allow my meagre little frame to move to the front, against the perimeter fence. I was terrified and kept looking round for reassurance from my dad. But after the match kicked off, the cage disappeared and the feeling of being so close to my hero set the spark that has never really gone.

And maybe the fact that Waddle was a winger allowed for this. Gascoigne played in that match, but I can barely recall him. His presence in the middle of the park was so distant. But when my memory sometimes gives me a flash of that first match, I always see those step-overs and the shabby demeanour that was Waddle.

It wouldn’t last, of course. Waddle left Spurs later that year for Marseille and I cried all night. All the juvenile emotions took hold: anger, betrayal, disbelief. Thankfully, Waddle’s departure also taught me my first lesson in adult fandom: players come, players go. Soon enough, the other Geordie cried and captured my heart.

Forget Fast Show catchphrases, Pizza Hut adverts, the mullet, that penalty and Diamond Lights, for this Spurs fan at least, Chris Waddle will always symbolise that slow, elusive bridge from childhood to adulthood. The Northern League therefore, made me a man.

Spurs fan, teacher, father-to-be and one of the very best football writers around, you can follow Greg Theoharis on twitter here and on his brilliant Dispatches From A Football Sofa.

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