Perched on tiers nine and ten of the English football league pyramid, the uninitiated might think of the Northern League as just a step up from park football. Yes, there are some thunderous tackling and cow-patch playing surfaces, but there’s also an unusually rich crop of talented footballers playing at this level. You’ll also find a surprising amount of professionalism, passion (on and off the pitch), a warm welcome, amazing history and even the odd millionaire backer. Life’s never dull in the Northern League.
Living in Newcastle, I’m pretty close to three Northern League clubs – Heaton Stannington, Newcastle Benfield and university side Team Northumbria – so there’s no excuse not to take in a game. As a Newcastle United supporter kick-off times are often at the mercy of TV rights holders, so a Saturday 3pm game is a rare treat, which is the time I arrange to meet Ian Cusack at Heaton Stannington. He edits the clubs’ programme and travels all over the region watching Northern League football, having ‘retired’ from supporting Newcastle United in 2009. Perhaps predictably ‘The Stann’ game I arrange to meet him at falls foul of the weather (sides can lose up to ten games a season because of it) but I catch up with Ian anyway to find out why he prefers the Northern League over the most watched league in the world.
‘It was the moaning and ignorance of people watching Newcastle,’ says Ian, who went to his first game at St James’ Park in 1973. ‘People who watch the professional game are spoilt. They watch all these wonderful players but don’t appreciate the quality of the opposition. They can’t give any credit to brilliant play from players like Rooney or Suarez.’ Not renewing his £500-a-year season ticket is a decision he doesn’t regret for one second. But he’s not bitter either, admitting he’d love nothing more than for Newcastle to win a trophy (he was five when they won their last major honour). He’s also come to terms with the fact that, if it ever happens, he won’t be there to see it. ‘Heaton Stann are where my soul is at for football now.’ Heaton Stann and the Northern League itself.
‘It hasn’t lasted 125 years by accident. It’s lasted 125 years because it’s a brilliant place to be. The quality of football can be brilliant or it can be absolutely banal but some of the grounds are the most atmospheric you can go to.’ Ian recalls a game he went to before Christmas. Whitley Bay were at home to Spennymoor and with Heaton Stannington not playing that particular Saturday he headed for Hillheads. ‘There were 600 in there, Whitley Bay won 1-0 with a goal five minutes from time, and when they scored it was just fabulous to hear that roar.’ It’s more than just the atmosphere at Hillheads Ian can recommend. ‘I’m a coffee drinker and they’ve got Douwe Egberts at Whitley Bay. With tea and bovril, you can’t do anything wrong, but some of the coffee that’s served in Northern League football is absolutely deplorable, but then again it’s working class football.’
When it was formed on 25th March 1889, the Northern League was professional. Today it is one of the oldest football leagues in the world, second only to the Football League which is older by a year. Charles Samuel Craven was the man who started it and his modern day counterpart is Mike Amos, a retired journalist, who has been Chairman of the league since 1996. It’s a completely unpaid position (Mike won’t even claim expenses) and one he dedicates around 50 hours a week to. He’s one of many volunteers without whom the league simply wouldn’t have existed much longer.
Recognising the significance of the anniversary a number of plans are in place to celebrate, including a special exhibition at the National Football Museum in Manchester. Mike’s also edited Northern Conquest, an absorbing book that tracks each and every season and looks at some of the league’s famous characters and landmark events. It’s 125 pages long yet will only set you back the same as a Premier League match programme. It’s an absorbing read, in fact the only thing that’s missing is a picture of its founder, Charles Craven, but thanks to the wonders of the internet they’ve traced Craven’s family members in Hong Kong and Berkshire. ‘They didn’t know he’d formed a league,’ explains Mike. ‘We’ve found his grave in East Grinstead and we’re having a rededication service there on 21st March, to which his grandson is coming from Hong Kong. There’s a lunch and church service on 23rd March followed by an anniversary match between an FA and Northern League XI at Bishop Auckland on 25th March, 125 years to the day after the league was formed.’
Charles has a lot to be proud of. Today the Northern League consists of 45 teams playing across two divisions, from Alnwick to Northallerton and across to Cumbria, but when it kicked off on 7th September 1889 there were just 10 teams. Among them were Middlesbrough, Darlington, Newcastle West End and Newcastle East End, the latter two joining to become Newcastle United in 1892. It’s a reminder that the seeds of North East football culture were sown in the Northern League. In its first decade Sunderland joined too, along with Sheffield United. From 1906 to 1974 the league became nominally amateur with players not allowed to receive remuneration (in theory). ‘Shamateurs we call them,’ says Mike, who like most people associated with the league, knows for a fact money still exchanged hands despite the sanction. ‘In that sense nothing has changed, clubs with the most money are more likely to win.’
An indication of the shamateurism was plainly obvious in the quality of football. For a while there wasn’t much to choose between the Northern League and the Football League. An example of the Northern League’s quality came in 1909 when millionaire philanthropist Sir Thomas Lipton organised a football tournament in Turin for the best teams in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Great Britain. The FA refused to send a team. No one is sure what happened next (there’s a theory that one of Lipton’s employees was a Northern League referee) but West Auckland Town were nominated to represent Great Britain. The team, made up mostly of miners, won. Two years later they returned and won it again, this time beating Swiss side Red Star in the semi-finals before thrashing none other than Juventus 6-1 in the final. With the first FIFA World Cup not taking place until 1930 the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy is often referred to as The First World Cup. As back-to-back winners West Auckland were allowed to keep the trophy but in 1994 it was stolen from a working men’s club in the village and never found.
By the 1950s FA Amateur Cup finals were being played in front of crowds of 90,000 at Wembley Stadium and Northern League clubs were dominating. When the FA officially abolished amateur status in 1974 Bishop Auckland had won the Amateur Cup a record ten times while Crook Town had lifted it on five occasions. Many Northern League players of the time could have played at the highest professional level but many chose not to, perhaps because the maximum wage for footballers at the time was stuck at £20 a week. Thankfully the Amateur Cup hasn’t been stolen, though it is in a fragile state. It made a return to the North East in January as part of the league’s anniversary in what is likely to be its last ever journey out of a trophy cabinet. It was met at Crook Town’s Millfield ground by a squad of Northern League legends, including 89-year-old Jack Snowdon who was between the posts for Willington when they beat Bishop Auckland 4-0 in the all-Northern League final in front of Wembley’s twin towers in 1950.
The 1950s and 1960s were a golden era for the Northern League, with games regularly attracting gates of up to 7,000, while tens of thousands would line the streets to welcome victorious Amateur Cup teams back to the region. Today, despite the fact gates have been going up every year for the past nine seasons, the average Northern League attendance is around 170. ‘In the 1950s there was no sport on television,’ explains Mike. ‘Men didn’t go to the shops. These days women say, “You’re going to the shops”, and men have to go! Plus there wasn’t all the hype surrounding the Premier League.’
That said there’s every reason to believe the Northern League is going through a second golden era. The FA Vase replaced the Amateur Cup in 1974 and was won for the past five seasons by Northern League sides. Whitley Bay lifted it three years on the trot from 2009, thumping Wroxham 6-1 in 2010 with striker Paul Chow finding the net after just 20 seconds – a new Wembley record. There was even an all-Northern League final between Dunston UTS and West Auckland Town in 2012 which Dunston won 2-0, and at the time of writing there are five Northern League sides in the last 16 of this year’s competition.
This can’t be a coincidence. How have Northern League sides managed to dominate a national competition so much? Former professional and current Newcastle Benfield player Stuart Elliott explains. ‘The standard of the Northern League is far better that the southern version. There are only two North East clubs between the Football League and the Northern League: Gateshead and Blyth Spartans. If you play in the Northern League and pick up say £150 a week and someone says, “Come and play at Blyth for £175 a week”, with Blyth you’ve got to play at places like King’s Lynn. The following Tuesday you’ve got to leave work early because you’ve got to get down to Leicestershire. The next week you’ve got to go to Birmingham. Why would players want to travel down there when they can work on a Saturday morning, get an extra £60 to £70 from that, then play in the Northern League and make more money than they would at Blyth. People don’t want to do the travelling. There’s quite a lot of players in the Northern League who could play at a higher level.’
Stuart tells me that many of the better players in the Northern League have been offered the chance to play for Blyth two tiers higher but have turned it down because of the reasons he mentions. A bubble has been formed which means the quality of football is higher at this level than maybe it should be. Whether or not this is a good thing for the future of North East football is up for debate. ‘It’s detrimental in one respect,’ says Stuart, ‘but it means that the level of football is better than what it would be in equivalent leagues around the country.’
Like the players, clubs are similarly reluctant to set up the ladder too, fearing the extra travel will leave them broke. Darlington took the jump this season but found that their gates dropped. One club who will certainly take promotion, should they top Northern League Division One as many expect them to, is Cumbrian side Celtic Nation (pronounced ‘Keltic’). They’re backed by Glaswegian entrepreneur Frank Lynch who has reportedly given the club £1.2 million to spend over four years with the brief to get into the Conference. Frank, former owner of the Glasgow Apollo, now lives in America having made millions there through a high-end car wash service, Cactus Car Wash, where customers can enjoy free gourmet coffee and wifi while their wheels are washed. Formally called Gillford Park, Frank changed the team’s name ahead of the 2012/13 season on the basis they play close to the Scottish border and there are hundreds of Irish families in Carlisle. If the name change didn’t raise enough eyebrows, the team also play in green and white hoops, and fans have begun trickling down from the Scottish capital to watch games fueling conspiracy theories that the club is a trojan horse for the famous Glasgow Celtic’s path into English football.
High-profile signings include former Republic of Ireland defender Peter Murphy, who last season was playing six leagues higher for Carlisle United in League One. Stuart has it on good authority that Celtic Nation are paying certain players up to £1,000 a week to play. ‘How can you justify that when they’ve only just started getting crowds of 150? Football doesn’t work like that, you can’t sustain it.’ Stuart should know, as he was captain of Bedlington Terriers when the club received a call from an American billionaire in 2010. He’d traced his ancestry back to Bedlington and wanted to invest in the team. His name was Bob Rich – it had to be a wind up. The Terriers did some research. It turned out Bob was CEO of Rich Products Corporation, a frozen food supplier based in Buffalo, and was ranked 190 in the Forbes list of richest Americans with a net worth of £1.8 billion. ‘He’s got 2,000 frozen products in 112 countries,’ explains Stuart. ‘If you’ve ever eaten anything in Burger King or McDonalds you’ve eaten one of his products.’
The Terriers adopted a ‘believe it when we see it policy’ but within weeks Mr Rich had flown one of his learjets to Newcastle and travelled to Bedlington. ‘He just turned up at a game. We couldn’t believe it. About three months after that it was his 70th birthday and he could have gone anywhere in the world but he flew back to Newcastle so he could come and watch us at Whitley Bay on a Tuesday night. It was pissing down with rain. We lost the game.’ Bob bought the title Lord Bedlington, sponsored the shirts, relaid the pitch and whisked the team on an all-expenses pre-season tour to Buffalo. But rather than give the club a blank cheque book to buy players, he sent a marketing expert from Rich Products Corporation to help the Terriers engage more with the community and increase their commercial revenue. After three months of work a plan was produced but Stuart doesn’t think it ever saw the light of day. He still keeps in touch with the ‘once proud Lord Bubba,’ who wired his last load of sponsorship money to Bedlington this season, and assures me Lord Bubba still keeps an eye on the Terriers’ scores from across the Atlantic. ‘He emailed me last week asking about the club. We still speak about half a dozen times a year.’
Stuart now plays for Newcastle Benfield, having represented almost 30 clubs in an 18-year career. ‘In the higher leagues you go in the bar afterwards and it’s players only. In the Northern League you all go in the bar together. The fan who was giving you grief during the game will come up and say, “You did alright today.” You’re in amongst everyone, that’s how clubs survive. Fans have a bit of banter with the players and maybe that fan will bring his mate or his son next week. You can go to a Northern League game for a fiver, have a couple of pints, a bit of banter with people, watch some decent football and feel part of it because people actually appreciate you coming through the gate. The chairman says, “Hello mate, good to see you again.” You go to St James’ Park and with all due respect, no one knows you because there’s so many people. You’re just another punter paying money. You feel, at times, you’re not cared about.’
Speaking with Ian, Mike and Stuart, it’s clear the Northern League is, and has been, a big part of their lives. It’s been a big part of North East life too. Its contribution to the community over the past 125 years has been immeasurable and never stronger than it is today. Most Northern League clubs run youth and women’s teams at the heart of their communities, each with dozens of volunteers helping without any thought of reward. For better or worse the region is a schlep from the rest of the country which has meant a concentration of talent remaining here. No one is saying don’t support Newcastle or Sunderland or Middlesbrough, but when they’re not at home check the Northern League fixture list and go to a game. There’s no guaranteeing the quality of coffee but you can be assured of a warm welcome.
The Northern League XI v FA XI 125th Anniversary match takes place on Tuesday 25th March at Heritage Park, Bishop Auckland, kick off 7.30pm www.northernleague.org
Northern Conquest: 125 years of the Northern League 1889-2014 is available to buy on Amazon and at all Northern League grounds, with all profits going to the league