Why should Newcastle fans care about the Northern League?  Well, if it hadn’t been for the world’s second oldest football league, there might not have been a club worth forming in December 1892.  Newcastle East End had turned professional in 1889, the year both Newcastle clubs took part in the inaugural Northern League season.  Four years later, the newly-christened Newcastle United joined Sheffield United and three-time champions Middlesbrough Ironopolis in Division Two of the Football League.  

If you think that was the end of Newcastle United’s involvement in Northern League football, then you’d be wrong. Stan Seymour, ‘Mr Newcastle United’, was packed off to Shildon – then of the now-defunct North Eastern League but now very much a part of its Northern rival – as a young player and told to “come back when you grow up”. He did – winning an FA Cup and title medal as a player before managing the team to further Wembley triumphs in 1951 and 1952. Frank Clark made over 450 appearances and won a Second Division Championship and a Fairs Cup winners’ medal after joining from Crook Town in 1962. Sixteen years later, Alan Shoulder went from night shift worker at Hetton Colliery to Newcastle centre forward.  In 1980, a gangly midfielder by the name of Chris Waddle left Tow Law Town and a sausage factory job in Pelaw in exchange for £1,000. More recently, Steve Harper was spotted while playing for Seaham Red Star.
Steve Harper
Doesn’t happen nowadays? Tell that to Michael Richardson, an eighteen year old who was working as an electrician and turning out for Walker Central – a Northern Alliance club with aspirations of stepping up to the Northern League – this time last year. “A really good prospect,” Alan Pardew calls him.  “It’s all right having the attitude, but you have to have the ability, and Michael has it,” agrees Peter Beardsley.

The idea of Northern League Day had been gestating  since September 4th 2010 when, along with fifty-odd others and George Caulkin of The Times, I took advantage of a free Premier League weekend to see Birtley Town beat Northallerton 2-0 on the afternoon of the first ever Non-League Day.  “It’s the first time Birtley’s ever had any fans,” one of the Gateshead team’s players said as he walked off at half-time.

It wasn’t my first Northern League game.  As a young kid, one of the highlights of every summer was watching a Newcastle XI play at Hebburn Town, just down the road from where I used to live. A few seasons ago I saw South Shields, with ex-mackem Craig Russell a portly figure at left back.  This year, I started at Horden in July and took in my twenty-first ground of the season on a foggy night at Seaham. In between I’ve seen some dreadful games and some wonderful ones, watched Johnny Godsmark at Ashington, Lee Kerr – who once partnered Albert Luque up front in a reserve team managed by Lee Clark - and Dean Critchlow, an FA Youth Cup semi-finalist along with Andy Carroll and Fraser Forster.  I’ve had pints of beer for under £2 at West Auckland Town, winners of the first World Cup when they beat Juventus 6-1 and listened to Graham Fenton swear his way through almost the whole of the second half at North Shields, and rediscovered the simple joys of Bovril laced with pepper. Most of all, I’ve had a laugh.

Some people claim that non-league football is the ultimate antidote to the Premier League, a return to how things used to be.  I know all the players names, they say, and we all meet in the pub right after the game.  And maybe that happens.  Other people – those who’ve never been to a game outside the top two divisions – think it’s all kick and rush, and one man and his dog, and freezing your bollocks off by the side of a muddy, divot-strewn pitch straight out of Hereford ’71.  Maybe that happens too.  But Northern League Day isn’t about either of those things.  As football writer Iain Macintosh put it in his piece for the site, “It’s about paying a decent price to see a decent game. It’s about being able to have a decent pint at half-time. It’s about being able to stand up. More than anything, it’s about supporting a team who represent your local community, even if it’s only for one day”.

This Saturday sees the Coach Lane Clasico between West Allotment Celtic – fighting desperately to stay in the First Division – and Newcastle Benfield, who still retain hope of pipping Spennymoor to the title.  Whickham play Washington at 11.30 am, giving you enough time to see two games in a day, and the perfect excuse to get out of doing the shopping.  Ahead of their third Wembley final in three years, Whitley Bay host Ashington in a Tyne & Wear – South Northumberland derby.  Ryton, who won their fourth point of the season at the weekend, are at home to Billingham Synthonia.  Other than Whickham, kick off in the games is 3pm.

Northern League Day is about the fun you can have with your mates, standing on a football touchline, watching two teams giving their all.  It costs £4, a fiver at the most.  Take a tenner and treat yourself to two drinks. 

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