My football allegiances were cast in stone when I was 7 years old. It was 1967 and we didn’t have wall to wall football coverage as we do now. My dad wasn’t an avid football man, although tales of trials for Sunderland had been passed with pride from father to son. He didn’t indoctrinate me as I have with my son. This was left to others, and those were the days of the holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton.
It wasn’t until my later teens that I began to indulge what became, for a time, my obsession. I followed Manchester United week in and week out around the country, often hitch hiking to games. On one occasion whilst I was a young soldier stationed in Dortmund, I hitched home to Old Trafford for the game, and hitched back again straight after the final whistle. They were great days, during the now forgotten Manchester United wilderness years and before the great corporate theft of our football.
Since those glorious, often miserably glorious, days, I have grown more and more disillusioned with professional football. Year after year I would say to my son (who I’d quite naturally brainwashed into following my path) we must go to watch Shields. Over and over again we’d agree to do just that – but not this week as United, Chelsea, Arsenal or someone else was on the box. In winter 2007, we finally took the first step. Noticing that a South Shields v North Shields derby was approaching we ventured along to Filtrona…and I was home!
From then on I was hooked. It was comfortable and welcoming, and I knew immediately that this was what a real football club was about. I wasn’t just a consumer at a club, I was part of one. As a supporter, I was important. I mattered.
Now quite rightly I think South Shields has something special. It just has a little more than all the other non-league clubs that I now go to. Even when I’m away with my wife I seek out a local non-league game to go to see. And almost without exception I get that welcoming feeling. Obviously, not quite as welcoming as at South Shields. But in each and every one of them I’m seen as a guest to be welcomed rather than a customer to be tolerated.
Every one of these clubs has a small group of men and women working their socks off, and for nothing more than the love of their club. It’s something you feel throughout the Northern League: people putting their heart and soul into keeping their clubs going, for no other reward than seeing them survive.
Over the last few years I’ve changed. I’ve become part of the Northern League community and I absolutely love it. My only regret is that my Premiership blinkers weren’t removed far sooner. Not that I still don’t go to Old Trafford several times a season. I’m still a United fan and I will be till I croak – but now, more than that, I’m a supporter of South Shields.