A freelance writer for fanzines, matchday programmes and the BBC’s Non-League website, Peter Mann champions local football through his Spirit of the North site – which he hopes to turn into a magazine covering all levels of the game from the Conference down to the Wearside League and Northern Alliance – and is also the author of a forthcoming history covering Whitley Bay FC in the decade since it rejoined the Northern League.
The Spirit of the North website’s been up and running since the start of the season. How are things going with the magazine itself?
Although it’s been slow since its launch on the opening day of the non-league season, the website has had reasonable, and increasing, figures, none more so than when there are big FA Cup matches in the region such as Grimsby vs Ashington and Blyth Spartans vs Gateshead. It’s the financial climate which has prevented any publications of the magazine. When the prospect of this venture actually came to fruition last summer after several, late night-night discussions between myself and the Whitby Town historian Neil Thaler, I went as far as attending two months’ worth of business workshops. I knew it would be difficult and would take some time and extra perseverance for it to become reality. At the end of the day all it really boils down to is the financial backing, and getting more interest and acknowledgement from the fans themselves.
Would a published magazine follow more or less the same format as the website as it is now?
Obviously there will be statistics such as results, scorers and tables, but there will also be club and league previews, and reviews and stories, interviews with both players and managers past and present and so on. It will be aimed at the supporters of all ages. The original tagline of the magazine was ‘For the Fans, By the Fans’. I thought of it as a way for supporters to get more involved, to have the fans doing match games they attend, with the majority going onto the website and the best ones each month into the magazine itself. If you’ve already seen the website over the past four to five months, you’ll have seen some of the content and style.
I know you’ve also just finished proofreading your book on the history of Whitley Bay. Any word on when it’s likely to be released?
That’s up to Whitley Bay. Hopefully it’ll be sooner rather than later after the extra time it has taken to complete. I just hope it’ll match up to the standards the club’s become accustomed to in recent years.
The book begins with Whitley Bay’s first season back in the Northern League in 2000. Since then only Durham City and Newcastle Blue Star have taken promotion. Do you think it’s time for clubs like Bay and Spennymoor to start thinking of playing at a higher level?
Promotion from the Northern League to the upper echelons of the non-league pyramid is harder now because of the geographical and financial implications placed on clubs from the north-east. This is evident from the demise of Newcastle Blue Star and the problems that Durham City have had in recent years. The likes of Spennymoor Town, Whitley Bay, Dunston UTS, Newcastle Benfield and Bishop Auckland will no doubt make that move as and when it becomes financially viable. Ideally, one or more of those clubs would take promotion. It’d be good for the region as a whole if it happened.
You mentioned financial viability. Do you think there’s an onus on the FA to provide economic support to clubs?
The simple answer is yes. Non-league isn’t exactly flush with cash and taking promotion will mean more expensive journeys on a more regular basis. Trips to places like Preston, Manchester and the like, especially in midweek and on Bank Holidays, is hard enough even before you factor in the full-time jobs that many players have.
Steve Cuggy made the step up in the summer. What do you think went wrong for him at Blyth?
Knowing both Cuggy and (assistant Gavin) Fell, and especially knowing what good blokes they are professionally and personally, it hurt me seeing some of the online comments that were directed at Cuggy. I doubt even he could answer 100% what went wrong there. It certainly didn’t help that numerous players had left the club over the summer, either just before or on his arrival. He had to bring in new players, including some who were some more accustomed to lower level football. Too many changes over a small period aren’t good for any business, let alone a football team. Add to that injuries, bad results and the mounting pressure from the ‘Green Army’. However, he only had six months or so in charge of Blyth. It’s a cliche but Rome wasn’t built in a day. You only have to look at Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Blyth have high expectations, which is only to be expected with their history. But, without wanting to cause an argument, relegation might be good for them. Given time, they will be alright. I’m sure Cuggy will be too. He will have time to reflect, readjust, and come back into the game. I for one wish him the very best of luck wherever he is.
Overall, how good a year was 2011 for non-league football in the north east?
The obvious highlights of 2011 really come from the success at national level with Darlington winning the FA Trophy and Whitley Bay creating history with their third successive FA Vase win. Both sides fully deserved the plaudits that came their way. On a personal level, two of my best memories came during the first half of the current season. The first came at the charity fundraiser at Birtley Town to support the Japanese team Cobaltore Onagawa – a great day for all concerned and I came away with quite a bit of football memorabilia. The other highlight was attending the Blyth Spartans-Gateshead FA Cup match.
And how about your predictions for 2012? An all-Northern League Vase final? Spennymoor for a third successive title? Gateshead back in the Football League?
Fingers crossed 2012 is already looking like a good year for me personally and professionally. On a footballing level, though, that’s a harder one to call. With Gateshead it will all depend on who they manage to bring in during January (Chandler and Hatch from Darlington?) and keeping hold of Jon Shaw. If they get the next month right, then I can see Bogie getting them promotion. Darlington is impossible to call because of the current situation. Barring late heroics, Blyth Spartans and Whitby Town are more likely candidates for relegation, as sorry as I am to say so. Durham City could make the play offs if they get back to their early season form. As for the Northern League, there are at least six teams in with a realistic chance of winning the championship. If I had to choose one I’d go for West Auckland. Whitley Bay will again win the FA Vase and be promoted as runners-up. In the Second Division then I’d go for either North Shields or Hebburn Town. Oh, and Gateshead for the FA Trophy as well…
For more from Peter, you can follow him on twitter here.