It had been coming for some time. That monotonous antipathy towards the Premier League had been building in me over a period of time with the effort to leave the bar and wander off to the match as kick off time approached becoming more and more of a chore. The chance to sit down in a stadium, isolated from society as supporters around me, having paid so much money for a ticket, felt obligated to keep their eyes glued to the pitch as twenty-two overpaid, couldn’t-really-give-a-toss men ran around it, staring so hard and so quietly that they forgot they could have a conversation with their neighbour. Football had well and truly changed for me. I fell out of love with the game just as surely as if the game had spat me out. I wasn’t a fan, I wasn’t even a customer. I was a fucking pound sign.
I stopped going to matches, preferring to watch in the pub with my mates. Beer and conversation, the latter being so integral to the matchday experience, became my new love with a square box becoming a small factor within my enjoyment, replacing that round ball that was all I had ever known.
And then I went to Whitley Bay. It was March 29, 2008 and it was the day that football love began to slowly sweep back over me. 3,000 Whitley Bay fans crammed into Hillheads on a Saturday afternoon of torrential rain. It was the first game featuring a Northern League team that I had been to since my dad took me to see a Newcastle United reserve side play at Hebburn Town some twenty years earlier. The crowd were on edge as Bay attempted to overturn a first-leg deficit. They failed to do so on aggregate but as I walked back to the Metro, having stood with my mates for 90 minutes, I realised what had been lacking in my life. I had conversation; I had 22 men who cared about the game and were flying into tackles and running through brick walls for their club; I had live football that I could relate to.
It took a while for me to really break my Northern League virginity after that game. It was April 21, 2010 and I went along to North Shields to see them play Whitehaven. From that moment I had well and truly returned to being football’s mistress.
I rarely watch televised games; why would I? Why would I want to watch people I can’t relate to? I want to watch men who have grafted all week, just as I have. I want to watch men who love the game and put in more than they take out.
This season I have travelled from Birtley Town to Lewes, from Gala Fairydean to Austria Salzburg, just to watch football; over eighty live games so far, all due to two days out watching live Northern League football.
With apologies to Victor Hugo, but what the Northern League means to me is this: life is a flower of which football can be the honey.
Writer of the excellent Gannin’ Away, one of The Guardian’s 100 football blogs to follow in 2011, Andy Hudson is currently engaged in a Quixotic quest to visit every football ground known to man (and sample a decent tasting pie at each one). You can follow him on twitter here.