IT was the smell which struck first; booze, beef, cigarette smoke, urinal. A four-fold assault, which robbed unsuspecting nostrils of their footballing virginity. And then the sense of vertigo, of space multiplying, the slow haul up drab concrete steps followed by an expanse of incongruous green stretching ahead. Sight: a man peeing on the terracing behind me, via a shrivelled penis and a Maxwell House coffee cup.
The noise was the biggest shock. The individual noises – a rasping cough, a guffaw, an ear-splitting epithet – coupled with the collective, swelling like the sea, seething and frothing. In the middle distance, out on the grass, above a shoulder blade or beneath a flailing arm, something was happening, something which occasionally had an influence on what was being bellowed or sung.
The overall experience was partially upsetting and wholly disorientating; my step-dad, on tip-toes beside me, was in on the joke, but I, patently, was not. What were they going on about? My first trip to a professional match had begun with a bolted half-pint of orange squash outside a pub ten minutes before kick-off and ended with a feeling of physical and mental indigestion. I hated it. I was hooked.
I was about ten at the time, possibly a bit less (I’ve never had the right memory for this business; I can recall moments, but not games. And certainly not the grounds I’ve been to. Or countries, for that matter. I blame ‘one last drink’, the world over), and I’m 40 now. Time has elapsed and the game has evolved and the experience I’ve described is now just an echo which only faintly reverberates somewhere inside.
Football and I have matured together into a grumpy, if largely companionable, middle-age. I still love it, but that flush of ardour, of relentless, one-eyed passion, has gone. Partly, that’s because I’ve written about it for the last 17 years – far longer than I was a supporter – which involves stepping away from the frontline. As I’m frequently reminded, mine is The Best Job In The World and I freely acknowledge it, albeit with it a twinge of poignancy.
There are huge compensations, of course, from simply being paid to watch games, to getting to know the personalities involved, to hearing gossip and finding stories. And yet there is a murkiness, too, and the more you discover about transfers and money, about motivations and middle-men, the more tainted that love becomes. In the North East, more than most places, football matters, but corrosion and underachievement are also themes.
I yearn for a time when there is a perfect communion of players and administrators proving worthy of the people they represent. But, should it ever happen, it will do so in a far more sterile, sanitised and affluent environment than that which I grew up in. Much of that is to the greater good – I refer you back to the shrivelled penis – but something both substantive and emotive has dissipated.
Once or twice a season, I make the attempt to reconnect with those feelings. On our doorsteps, across the region, there are a bevy of football clubs, populated by real and recognisable people, who are doing what they do because they believe in their communities. Just as with everything, there will be mishaps and there will be exceptions, but this is the sport closest to how I remember it.
Over the last few years, I’ve been to Billingham and Bedlington, Whitley Bay and Ashington, Crook and Brandon, where Steve Howey, the former England and Newcastle United defender, and an old mate of mine, had a spell in the dug-out. In September, I was invited by Andy Hudson, author of the fine Gannin’ Away blog to spend Non-League Day at Birtley Town.
The appeal for me is obvious; the ability to get to a ground at 2.45pm, to have a chat with people, to have a decent pint, to arrive at the touchline feeling like I’ve been welcomed and engaged with, not had my pockets and enthusiasm drained (and, yes, I know I get to see Premier League football for free; I’m a lucky man). For 90 minutes, I can stand and watch, within feet of players, hear the craik and be part of it.
At the highest level, it becomes increasingly difficult to relate to the individuals who represent our bigger clubs. For more of my friends than I would like to tot up, the experience has become either unaffordable or intolerable, as they have had their loyalty stretched or unrequited (more still endure it, of course). For them – and for me – the Northern League offers reconnection. A recharging of the soul.
I won’t claim to know much about the teams I go and see, I haven’t immersed myself in the history of the league, although I have a vague interest in it. I don’t go there for insight or analysis or in search of a juicy quote. I go to lean my elbows on a barrier and feel an ache in my calves. I go for a bit of numbing cold, for Bovril and a pie. I go for (some of) the sights and noises. Ultimately, it’s selfish; I go for the ten-year-old me.
Northern Sports Correspondent for The Times, George Caulkin has covered World Cups, European Championships and Birtley Town on Non-League Day. A County Durham lad, he reports on both Newcastle United and Sunderland and is recognised by many fans – including me – as the finest writer of any on the game in north east England. You can join 16,000 others in following him on twitter here.