What has the Northern League got to do with Newcastle United? Well, if you care at all about the history of your football club, the answer to that is an awful lot. Every single great Newcastle team – including East and West End, who both started out as Northern League sides – has included at least one player who came from non-league football. Colin Veitch, captain of our first three title-winning sides and six times an FA Cup finalist, was spotted at Rutherford, who still turn out in the Northern Alliance. Stan Seymour, ‘Mr Newcastle United’ himself, was packed off to Shildon in the now-defunct North Eastern League as a young player and told to “come back when you grow up”. He eventually did, winning the 1924 FA Cup and, three years later, the First Division title in a black and white shirt. Bobby Cowell, a three-time FA Cup winner in the 1950s, came from Blackhall Colliery Welfare and Joe Harvey, his Wembley skipper and the last Newcastle manager to win a major trophy, from Edlington Rangers. Frank Clark, a full-back in the Fairs Cup winning side and later a European Cup winner with Nottingham Forest, made his first league appearances in the colours of Crook Town. Chris Waddle made sausage seasonings while playing on the wing for Tow Law. Peter Beardsley came from Wallsend Boys Club; Alan Shearer from Cramlington Juniors.
Doesn’t happen today? Our first-choice goalkeeper played a dozen Northern League games for Seaham Red Star and only last summer Michael Richardson, an 18-year-old midfielder who’s already made the first team bench, was turning out for Walker Central, a Northern Alliance club with aspirations of making it into the Northern League.
I was brought up a Newcastle fan. The first time I saw a team play in black and white stripes was at Hebburn Town Football Club, where each summer a Newcastle XI comprised of the semi-famous and complete unknowns would turn up to give a boost to the local club’s coffers. But when I was old enough to go to St James’ Park Northern League teams became little more than a footnote in the Sunday newspapers. I watched Newcastle Reserves at Murton and Bishop Auckland one year and very occasionally took in a match at South Shields or Jarrow Roofing, but my heart – and money – belonged to the team in the Premier League. I wrote for a fanzine, travelled home and away, and followed Newcastle from Rushden to Zagreb, from Kyiv to Barcelona.
Things changed. I got older, moved abroad. When I came back to England the tickets had got ridiculously expensive and I was out of the habit of going to football every week. Like an increasing number of other people nowadays, I got my football fix from TV or in the pub with my mates.
Last July, twenty-four hours after coming back to Newcastle from six months in Ukraine, I found myself sitting by the side of a football pitch, watching Horden Colliery Welfare take on another of those big club XIs (this time from Hartlepool United). There was a cricket match going on next door, a couple of kids were kicking a ball back and forth behind one of the goals, and the North Sea – I swear – looked almost cartoonishly blue behind the rows of red-brick houses. “I’ll have to do this again,” I thought. So I did.
In between then and now I’ve seen some wonderful games and some abysmal ones, watched teams kick and rush and pass and move. I’ve found a pint of beer for under two quid at the home of the first World Cup winners, learnt to love hot cups of Bovril laced with white pepper, recognised a couple of dozen names from old Newcastle reserve teams and watched an FA Youth Cup winner and an ex-international captain playing for Spennymoor Town. Most of all, though, I’ve remembered that watching a game of football is supposed to be fun.
And that, to me, is what Northern League Day is about. The fun you can still have with your mates (or your dad), watching a game of football in which both teams are giving their all. It costs £4, a fiver at the most. A tenner will get you ninety minutes by a touchline and enough change left over for a couple of drinks. It’s a beautiful day outside. What do you have to lose?