This time last year James Williams’ main claims to fame were playing cards with Lee Clark at Newcastle United’s training ground and being one of only three people to order lager in Northumberland’s most celebrated real ale pub during April’s inaugural Northern League Day. Since then James has started up his own blog, the excellent Footyramblings, contributed articles to In Bed With Maradona and the Newcastle United supporters’ site Leazes Terrace, shared a pitch with Whitley Bay’s Paul Chow and Paul Robinson, and begun a mission to visit every single Northern League ground before the end of the current season. Following in the footsteps of Harry Pearson and Mark Cowan, author of the highly recommended Far From the Massive Crowds, James is currently planning to write a book about his Northern League experiences.
You’ve been journeying around Northern League grounds since the start of the season. Were you always planning to turn your travels into a book?
I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a book for a while. It’s on my list of 100 things to do before I die, so thought I might as well make it something I am interested in.
When did you get interested in the Northern League?
When I was younger I often watched my local side Durham City in the Northern League at both the old and new Ferens Park grounds. In addition to that I occasionally watched games at Esh Winning and Brandon as they were the closest grounds to home. My interest in the Northern League was rekindled after visiting Northern League Day at Ryton last season when I realised it had been a long time since I had enjoyed a game that much.
You’ve reached the halfway point in your travels, any regrets so far?
I haven’t had any regrets thus far. Occasionally when I have gone between two games I have chosen a 1-0 over a 4-4 or 5-5, but regardless of that, I have enjoyed all the trips (although the drive back from Whitehaven had me questioning my sanity).
How’s the general standard of play been? Was it what you were expecting?
The general standard of play has been very impressive. It always amazes me how many teams try and get the ball down and play at this level, which is aided by some exceptionally good pitches for non-league football.
A while back you wrote about the influx of players from north-east England into Icelandic football, including ex-Whitley Bay forward Tomi Ameobi. Are there many others you think could make the step up to a higher league?
It is a cliché but there really are a lot of very good players at this level. As documented on Viva Northern League, Chrstie Elliott has recently stepped up to league football in Scotland, and Nathan Fisher has taken to professional football at Gateshead without any problems. I’ve seen so many talented players it is difficult to pick out a few, but in no particular order the top five that have impressed me thus far are Barrie Smith (South Shields), Dean Critchlow (Team Northumbria), James Decosomo (Guisborough Town), Tony Shandran (Bedlington Terriers) and Gavin Cogdon (Spennymoor Town).
What’s next after you complete your tour? Are there any grounds you`d particularly like to revisit?
Hopefully the book. I will definitely be returning to some of the grounds and clubs that I have visited. I have been to Filtrona Park a few times and have always enjoyed visiting there, and I was also made very welcome at Horden CW and Guisborough Town in recent weeks.
Where are you planning to visit next?
The plans are quite fluid due to real life rearing its ugly head from time to time, but at present the next five games planned are Crook Town (16/11), Marske United (19/11), West Auckland Town (22/11), Billingham Town (25/11) and Stokesley Sports Club (26/11).
Swearing during games is something the Northern League has been very keen to tackle over the last couple of seasons. Do you think it’s a big problem?
As a thirty-something male the swearing doesn’t bother me, but I can see why it would upset some people, especially with regards to children going to the games. It is a tricky situation as it is part and parcel of playing football, and I have no doubt it goes on at professional level too but is less audible due to the noise from the crowd. I think the initiatives that the Northern League have in places are good for the game and for trying to attract and retain new fans. Guisborough Town made two tanoy announcements during their game against Newton Aycliffe advising that bad language wouldn’t be tolerated from players, officials and spectators and both times the announcement drew a round of applause from the crowd.
I know you’re a big Newcastle fan. For Premier League supporters who’ve never been to a Northern League game, how do you think the experience compares?
It is a world away from Premier League football, but not necessarily in a bad way. At a Northern League game you are able to pay in, get a beer and some food for around a tenner. It is great being able to stand at a match and even walk around. However, the biggest difference is the friendliness in the Northern League. You have to be very antisocial not to end up in conversation with a fan, official or even player or referee. The players are real people with real jobs who you can relate to, not isolated multimillionaires who have no grasp of reality.