Originally written for The Red Final Issue 140, October 2020
16th of February, Gelredome, Arnhem. Storm Dennis is seriously blowing a fucking hoolie, I had just viewed a cracking ninety minutes of fitba where the hosts Vitesse put Heerenveen to the sword 4-2. This rounding off a quadruple header of Dutchball, following visits to De Grafschaap, DHSC and Fortuna Sittard in the previous two days. With a month in Africa pending a couple of days after returning from the Netherlands, my fitba viewing was to be hindered for the time being. Nobody would have ever guessed how hindered it was actually to turn out to be with the storm that was brewing around the globe. A storm that put Dennis into total insignificance.
I left for Angola when corona was just in its infancy, I returned four weeks later to predictions of doomsday, politicians flapping, the overuse of phrases such as “unprecedented” and “new normal”, the irresponsible fear mongering media and not a sheet of bog roll on the shelves. What also happened a week prior to my return, fitba was canned for the foreseeable.
Thirteen brilliant lockdown weeks with my son later I finally got to return to work after being barred from entering Angola by completely closed borders(yes it does actually happen when governments care, believe it or not). This led to ending up stuck there for a marathon seventeen weeks. Worryingly though, I returned after all that time to a place where there had been little progress made when other countries including China (the originators) and European epicentres Switzerland and Italy were heading back toward elements of normality. Both sides of the border were churning out major contradictions and as good as guessing what to advise. The aforementioned China was back to normality in five months with no restrictions left enforced. Scotland at the six month mark were being informed by Holyrood to mask up if you go for a slash in a pub. At six and half months banned indoor booze. At seven months there were to be more regulations enforced, it was to be big news. What was it? Mask up when walking in communal areas at work. We are so far behind it is truly fucking frightening. That goes for both sides of the border. The handling has been utterly shambolic. I spend half my life in the Third World and I can categorically state the it is being dealt with better there. In fact across the majority of Africa it is being dealt with better, with a couple of exceptions. I have seen it first-hand, enforcement of strict rules and no wishy washy pish there .But I’m going off on a tangent. Back on to fitba matters, one difference between Holyrood and London , barring the supping of indoor pints. Live football is easily obtainable in England. While in Scotland, parents cannot even watch their kids and players are changing in the car park.
With me never being one to stare adversity in the face, and maybe unsurprisingly due to my past “groundhopping” exploits , I ended up in England……. a lot. Three thousand miles worth of a lot. One league set up is a hop skip and a jump over the border and it was that association I was to cross the border six times in three weeks to visit six clubs with some hailing from towns I didn’t even know existed. That set up? The second oldest league in the world.
Founded in 1889, The Northern Football League is made up of forty four teams mostly from the North East of England with the exception of Penrith and Carlisle City who are more to the west. Ashington are the most northern, Northallerton southern and numerous sides reside in the east, with at a guess, Redcar Athletic being furthest across towards the North Sea. It’s a league full of mining and marine themed badges due to local industries. Many clubs are old school and are named AFC rather than FC which is a sign of the competitions age. (However there is only one real AFC.) There are two divisions, the First Division and Second Division, which are the ninth and tenth tiers of the countries pyramid. I can’t say I knew much about it prior to October barring a bit of chat from Teessiders at work and reading the book “Ancients and Mariners” by Andy Potts. But by the time I was leaving for work again on October 27th, it has a new fully fledged father and son fan combo. It truly is a fantastic place to watch fitba. It is a remarkable hidden gem that I wish I had started visiting years ago . My new found love if it is so high I would put it up there with the Highland League in terms of my admiration for it. One of the best leagues going for sure. At this point people may think this statement is hyperbole, but let me elaborate…
Two hundred and twenty six days after Arnhem I was in County Durham finally paying my dues to a fitba club again. £5 to be precise. That “lady Godiva” was handed over to the fine friendly lady and gentleman at the gate of Division Two side Easington Colliery who were taking on the previously mentioned Redcar Athletic. These people who after finding out I had travelled from Aberdeenshire thought I was mental, even more so after realising I was driving the two hundred and ninety miles back up the road straight after. As I walked into the Welfare Ground I was met with the awesome North Sea view the ground provides. The lights of Hartlepool glow in the distance and funnily enough, Redcar is visible in behind that. The ground itself was tidy and would not have looked out of place in the HFL. The expenditure of £5 entry, £2.80 pint and £2.80 chips and gravy and coffee was highly appealing. I also got some welcoming chat from some Redcar fans who were friendly and talked me through a lot about the league set up. I was even invited down their way and to give them a shout when I did. I was also searched out by the Colliers twitter page charge hand so he could welcome me to the club. A nice touch. I was already finding myself liking the place and I had not even seen a ball kicked. The game itself was to a decent standard with the ball constantly on the deck with some neat passages of play throughout the ninety. It finished 4-1 to the Colliers but on another day it could have been 5-5 or more if the finishing was more clinical. My NL viewing career was off to a flier. Well worth getting in my house a 02.13 after the game.
After telling the wee man I had been to a game, he was demanding he gets back to football. Inevitably, two days later we were back on the trail. This time we were heading down the M74 instead of the A1,destination Gilford Park home of Carlisle City. A ground that should be noted is allowed three hundred punters and sits thirteen miles from Gretna 2008s Raydale where zero fans can watch their team. (Which in truth is not far off their average attendance anyway). The journey was wet and wild. An ark would have been a better mode of transport. Games all across the Northern League were dropping fast due to waterlogging. But we were not deterred this despite receiving a message from the club warning that there was a high likelihood the game would come a cropper. A cropper it did not become and we made it through the monsoon. With enough time to spare a pre-game John Smiths was had in the adjacent social club. In here I couldn’t help hearing various Scottish accents. This suggesting that other likeminded souls have the same idea as myself to get their fitba kicks down south. I was even told by another punter “good to see other dandies in here” due to Wee Mans tourie. (To be noted I also spoke to and Arab and his loon, an Annan fan and a R*****s fan, throughout the day, socially distanced of course). Thankfully Gilford Park is largely covered and Wee Man chose the behind goal stand to park ourselves out of the rain. From here we were treated to a game of two halves. City raced into a deserved 3-0 lead in the first half. Second half Birtley Town ran proceedings with the half almost fully being played in ten Carlisle half but they couldn’t find the killer touch. 3-0 it ended but it was a lot closer than the score suggested. Away from the football I met committee member Ged who was kind enough to give Wee Man a club shirt and a ball for nothing after hearing the distance we had travelled. A brilliant gesture from a very likable old geezer. As I blog all my games throughout a season, Birtley Town read the post on this match and have invited us down for a game and promised to see us good. A kindness I will take up one day. But more importantly another statement of what this league is about.
A week later we were down the A68 to a town ,which like Easington Colliery I knew nothing of. I was back in County Durham in Tow Law, for a visit to Ironworks Road where Chris Waddell’s first team Tow Law Town were facing local rivals Willington. After another cheap clubhouse John Smiths and a fine welcome from the clubs, club Twitter man Stephen gave us the low down on the club, its history, its rivals and more. We were given a pin badge each from the club as a sign if appreciation for visiting the Lawyers. Again a gesture that shows what kind of place we were dealing with. A great start, made even better when we got into Ironworks Road. You have seen Fort Williams fabulous Claggan Park with its Nevis Range views or Dumbartons , (Insert Current sponsor here) Stadium and its great surroundings of the River Leven and The Rock and Castle, well let me tell you Tow Law is up there. It’s a stunning venue. To start, it’s a good set up with a stand, covered enclosure and a terrace. We stood on the terrace and were faced with incredible sight of the Wear Dales. The altitude of the ground, which makes it the highest naturally grown pitch in England and second highest ground overall makes it the closest to the clouds team Wee Man and myself have visited.(Buxton’s Silverlands is the highest but is a laid pitch). It really is worth a visit and I will recommend it to anyone from now on. County Durhams exquisite countryside as far as the eye can see and it will most likely be the highest ground you will ever set foot in, get down, you will not be dissapointed. The game was alright too with both teams determined to earn the local bragging rights. The home side earned them and sent their local rivals away with a 1-0 defeat.
Hebburn Town and the First Division were calling, both for the first time, for a top of the table clash with Stockton Town. Unfortunately the rain wiped out a high percentage of Northern League games including this fixture. Even more unfortunate for Wee Man and me we were over the border by the time it was officially off. Step up the Northern League good will and twitter in a joint effort to not disappoint the travelling duo. Consett , another town in Durham and another I was to find myself in (I would be as well get a holiday home). A steel town back in the day that also was rich in coal and lead. A town which in amongst the furnaces and mines formed Consent AFC in 1899,(as Consent Celtic, fucking gads min). Coincidentally the club are the opponents of Hebburn in the upcoming FA Vase final postponed from last season . They were forever be a club I will have a wee soft spot for after their exceptional good will. Sold out of their 150 Corona capacity for their First Division match against Bishop Auckland, they took the time to contact me after being made aware of the circumstances by another twitter user (@footyindurham) and offer their services and give us two of the “returns” that would allow us to get a game. The fourth game and a another superb gesture and what was really an olive branch that will not be forgotten. The weather may have been horrific in County Durham, but we witnessed the best team to date. Consent were untouchable and destroyed Bishop Auckland 5-1 in a match that was as one-sided as we will ever see. It could have been a lot worse for the visitors too with a host of chances being missed by Consett. The Steelmen were great to watch and especially forward, Ali Alshabeeb. It may not have been first pick of games but it was some brilliant viewing at times. Great club and I wish them all the best.Four games quickly turned into five and Wee Man and myself ended up in old pit town Crawcrook in the Metropolitan Borough of Gateshead. Back to the second division for us as we were to watch a league game between Ryton and Crawcrook Albion v Crook Town. We had arrived early, so early that the gates of Kingsley Park had just opened. As we were leaving the car to walk around the town to burn time, we were shouted by someone in the social club. “Are you the folks from Aberdeen”. This led to us being invited unto the clubhouse for a drink and the football on the TV prior to opening(Finland v ROI was the match which, for the record had a healthy crowd of seven thousand). The drinks were bought for us and we got a table in front of the telly. In here word spread we had travelled so far and were travelling back after. Everyone wanted a distanced chat. Only at Cumnock and Sauchie have I felt so welcome. I didn’t really manage to see the second half of Finland’s win for blethering to locals. The game was the first away win we had seen. The better team in Crook Town deservedly took the points with a comfortable 5-2 victory. After we returned to Oldmeldrum in the early hours I did my blog piece. When I woke and completed all my morning Dad duties I checked how the report went down . Turns out a few of the Crook Town boys had taken a gander and had a good laugh at it(I can be quite tongue and cheek at times). This led to another invite to a club and one that on our travels always seems to be top of the list of grounds to visit when chatting to other punters. (With Willingtons Hall Lane as an equally common suggestion). Boxing day is pencilled in for a visit to the Millfield to see the Black and Ambers.The final game of this latest hitch at home was actually a rescheduled effort. My fourth trip to County Durham to Esh Winnings West Terrace was supposed to be two weeks prior but was rained off. This place is another ground that gets the “you should go there” treatment. Unfortunately I did West Terrace a bit of a disservice. This was because darkness was coming in quick and when we turned up in the car park we didn’t really get the full Esh Winning experience that we had seen in photos prior to the visit. But in true to Northern League form we were met by great people, Adam the guy I had been in contact with welcomed us to the club and had a chat and talked through how Corona had effected the club. When we went out for kick off I couldn’t help but be enamoured with then West Terrace set up. It was quirky. A stand with a roof pointing up at an angle which I have never seen in almost two hundred grounds. The opposite side was old bus shelters for enclosures and it is in pitch darkness. Even the floodlights don’t light up the spooky woodlands around it. A quality compact wee ground and a great addition to the list. Visitors Chester-le-Street took the points via four avoidable goals from an Esh Winning point of view. Defensive errors galore and a 4-2 win from CLS which in another day could have been a defeat. I always say, you don’t need multi million pound players to make entertaining fitba. This was again proof. A great game to watch. Tough tackling, errors, two red cards and six goals. What’s not to like.That is just a brief insight into the last three weeks. But there is a lot more to it. There is the fact the north of England is a beautiful neck of the woods to visit. Being so close to our wonderful country it’s no surprise. There were the points of interest too. We were at Hadrian’s Wall and The Beamish Museum which are both well worth a visit. There was our chipper from the last coal powered frier in the UK from Fields Fish and Chips in Est Winning. There was also my first ever experience of the A68.What a fantastic roads that is aesthetically and physically. The views can be jaw dropping and some of the wee towns are captivating. But there are the peaks and troughs along the road too. It’s almost like a roller coaster at times. Serious inclines for miles and brilliant fun which keeps a six year old well amused. But the one thing that is hugely apparent is, these clubs are more than happy to welcome interlopers from foreign lands. They are also extremely respectful when you put in the effort to visit them. You really are welcomed with open arms. It’s a lot like the Highland League which I have declared my love for in the past. This is fitba that still has a heart and soul. Clubs that are big parts of their communities. It’s a set up I really wish I was watching before it was forced upon me, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. If you are missing the live fitba, or you think fan free fitba on the telly is site, give a club a shout and they will reserve a space for you. But they will treat you like one of their own, committee, fans and groundhoppers alike.*
In all honesty the draconian measures forced upon Scottish football by the government may have grated me somewhat, but really Sturgeon and co have done me a huge favour. Yes the mileage went up and the average round trip was nine to ten hours but I met some of the most genial and hospitable people I have had the pleasure of ever meeting at the fitba. Fitba where the standard was also higher than expected ,played in some magnificent and picturesque wee grounds. I may not have been heading to the closer and less time consuming EOSFL or Junior games but after six games, twenty-eight goals, three thousand miles and an uncountable number of good people, I am hooked and so is the wee dude. I really have loved every minute. Roll on my return from work in December where the likes of Penrith, Crook Town, Heaton Stanington Birtley Town and Redcar Athletic maybe a couple more await, the Northern Football League has new fan boys. Forty four teams? Sounds like a challenge. Six down.
*After writing this piece, England has declared full lockdown is imminent which is a shame as the NFL will shut down as its not classed under the “Elite” banner. Hopefully it is back up and running for my return in December**
**If not, expect a blog about sneaking around lower league Scottish fitba grounds illicitly taking in games