A retro football experience
Far from Premier League glamour, the non-league game has a very different feel
Four years ago, when ‘lockdown’ was merely an adaptation of the notorious catenaccio tactic beloved of Italian defenders for decades, the football season was getting underway just now. On July 30, I was off to Shildon to see the curtain-raiser for the Northern League season. Shildon, defending champion and league cup winner, took on Marske United, runner-up in both competitions, for the Cleator Cup. League action would resume the following weekend.
It was also the 50th anniversary of England’s World Cup win. That, in itself, was evidence of how times had changed. The first day of the season had moved forward far enough to overlap with the climax of the 1965/66 campaign. As a child, the idea of seeing pre-season friendlies before the school holidays started was absurd; the start of the new season on August bank holiday weekend was the consolation for the imminent return to school. Without it, we’d have needed to invent different heroes to emulate on the playground.
If the schedule was modern, much of the rest of the trip to Shildon was firmly retro. Non-league football often feels like a kind of heritage version of the beautiful game. There’s no rush to modernise arenas, so everywhere has its own unique quirks. Tucked away among terraced houses, Shildon’s ‘pagoda’ stand is distinctive, even if this was its last season in regular use. Opposite, a new covered terrace hinted at the future.
It’s a place for local heroes, where kick-offs never move for TV. The heyday of the game at this level is be long past, the prospect of five-figure crowds for clashes between the pride of County Durham’s pit villages banished to the same sepia-tinted memories as the collieries themselves. But much of the spirit lives on; a ‘robust’ tackle stirs the crowd in the way a piece of skill rarely can, the referee is wrong even when he (or, nowadays, she) happens to be right and there’s no room for technology to clarify the matter. Perhaps it’s not surprising that there’s a big crossover between fans of the non-league game and lovers of steam railways. Shildon, on this weekend, attracted both, with the Flying Scotsman the star attraction at the Locomotion Rail Museum across town, next to a stretch of the oldest line in the world.
The football, meanwhile, feels out of character. It’s a glorious sunny day in a league noted for its wild weather. The pitch resembles a bowling green, not the boggy pudding of a wet midwinter.
Showcase games like this can be a bit of a phoney war, but this one crackles with intent from the kick-off. Marske, eager to prove a point, start fast and go ahead thanks to a goal from solidly-built centre forward Jamie Owens. Shildon, rocked, recover as half-time approaches with two quick goals from Mickey Rae to turn the game around. He goes on to grab a hat-trick as the hosts dominate after the interval and ease to a 4-1 win. Half a century after Bobby Moore hoisted the Jules Rimet Trophy at Wembley, another Moore, Daniel, lifts a less prestigious prize in Shildon.
The strident ‘Against Modern Football’ movement, that loose alliance united in a multi-lingual cry of rage in the face of the ever-increasing commercialisation and homogenisation of the sport, would doubtless approve. This feels like football as it is meant to be, played on a ground that satisfies any traditionalist. But Dean Street is far from a museum piece, and not just because the heavily tattooed players of the 21st century present a different take on personal grooming from the clean-cut heroes of Wembley '66. This opening game of the new season is a far cry from trips to Dean Street two decades earlier. Back then, the club was decidedly middle-of-the-road, plodding along unadventurously in midtable. There was little sense that it was part of a wider community, and little apparent effort to engage with the next generation of football players and fans in a town that was still suffering the after-effects of the loss of its railway works in 1984. It took 20 years and the reopening of the site as the Locomotion museum to bring that piece of Shildon’s past back to life, and reinvigorate the community.
By 2016, a once run-down ground looks spick and span, with ambitious plans to build a new stand in place of the covered terrace on the Brown Street side. After staving off the threat of collapse, following the abrupt departure of the former chairman, the Railwaymen also rallied on the pitch. The club grew – youth teams from under-7s up to u23s arrived, bringing the club into the prestigious FA Youth Cup. Pride in the team also grew, with a supporters’ club established in 2009, responsible for those banners, as well as transport to away games. Maybe there’s something in this modern football lark after all.
This game was the start of the 2016/17 Northern League season. During the campaign I visited all 44 of the clubs that competed, producing a book about my travels around my native region following local football after two decades of living away. ‘Ancients & Mariners’ is still available as an E-book, and can be purchased here.
Earlier, I wrote about this game on my blog, Groundhoppers. That featured more photos, many of which can be found here.