ian cusack talks us through the joy of non-league football

ian cusack is a writer from Tyneside. He edits the Newcastle United fanzine “The Popular Side” and the programme for Newcastle Benfield FC. He blogs about football, music & politics at http://payaso-de-mierda.blogspot.co.uk/ and has a literary blog at http://gilipollez.wordpress.com/

Newcastle United are my professional football team. Being born and brought up on Tyneside, a love for the Magpies was in my blood from birth I suppose, though the first time I got to see them was aged 8 and a bit on January 1st 1973; a 2-2 draw with Leicester City in the only game played in England that day, as New Year’s Day wasn’t a Public Holiday until 1974. I remember nothing of the game and, with no cameras present; I’ve never seen any footage of it. However, from those early years of blind adoration, I still have programmes, ticket stubs (for big games only; most of the time you paid on the gate) and newspaper cuttings. This collection of memorabilia stops abruptly in autumn 1983, when I headed off to university. I disappeared to County Derry on the day Peter Beardsley signed and returned, via wanderings to London and Leeds, in summer 1988 when Paul Gascoigne was sold. As an act of idiotic blind faith, I ignored the departure of the team’s best player and lashed out on a season ticket, then proceeded to watch from the comfort of R41 in the newly built Milburn Stand as we were relegated during the following season. That didn’t really matter to me; I was 25, solvent and able to travel up and down the country attending games, which we generally lost. Watching NUFC was almost automatic, as was adding a second season ticket for my dad when he retired in 1994 and a third for my son when he was old enough in 2003. This pattern continued until summer 2009; Newcastle were relegated then, but my dad’s death on 1st August (the day after Bobby Robson passed) and my son’s decision to concentrate on playing rugby on Saturdays rather than watching football, meant I stopped going to St James’ Park. It was a blessed relief. These days, I couldn’t envisage attending St James Park on a regular basis (though I’m always up for a spare ticket), as despite having a good job, I simply couldn’t afford £600 per year for a season ticket.

From around 1995 onwards, I’ve actively disliked professional football to the extent that now I view not only the players, the media camp followers, the corporate lickarses but the unthinking, bovine mass of supporters, mainly those fucking idiots in replica shirts on bar stools and sofas who refer to unimaginably rich sportsmen with the same kind of fake intimacy (“delighted to see Frank playing for City” or “Stevie G deserved to win just one title” – FUCK OFF) that Royalists reserve for the parasitic Windsor clan, with a kind of mocking contempt I find impossible to disguise. This may be seen as disingenuous as I edit a Newcastle United fanzine, The Popular Side (@PopularSideZine), but I take inspiration from Richard Ingrams who, when appointed TV critic of The Oldie didn’t possess a television. I don’t need to see it to know it is immoral.

popular side

If almost everything that is wrong with society today can be traced to the era of evil ushered in when Britain became a Police State under that bastard Thatcher in May 1979, then a similar charge can be pressed against The Premier League and Sky TV, for their collective rewriting of the social history of a game that began among the mid Victorian bourgeoisie, but was soon claimed as the rightful property of the industrial working classes from the late 19th Century onwards. Football did not begin in 1992; it began to lose credibility at that point. Being honest, from a personal point of view, the 1992/1993 season when Newcastle stormed to the Division 1 title and the 1993/1994 campaign when we finished third on our debut in the Premier League were great; football fairytales in fact. The problem came the season after when the media circus, expectations of fans, sheer amount of money involved and inflated rhetoric of all concerned with the game meant it all began to mean too much. Victories were overly celebrated, defeats sparked a period of mourning and draws were ruthlessly analysed to find greater significance than the bland stalemate deserved. I could no longer take the hyperbole associated with the professional game seriously. The best thing for me was the number of free Saturdays because of games being shifted to Sky TV.

I’ve always played football, back then on a Sunday morning for The Blue Bell in the Tyneside Sunday League and now for Wallsend Winstons in the North East Over 40s League (we won the double last yeaharry pearsonsr; read about it here http://payaso-de-mierda.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/oldplay.html), but I’d never really followed the amateur Saturday game. Then, I read the best book about football ever; The Far Corner by Harry Pearson, which is a loving history of the game in the north east, which mostly focusses on The Northern League, an amateur competition that has been in continuous existence since 1889. On reading this fabulous book, the scales fell from my eyes and I spent every spare Saturday touring the north east, from Northallerton in the south to Alnwick in the north and across to Penrith in the west, visiting all the clubs. It was a joy to see players giving their all for £10 a match and to experience the integral nature of teams to their local communities. Admittedly the crowds weren’t large (“like Church, there’s few here and most over 60,” as Harry observed), the games often brutal and the weather generally appalling, but I fell in love with it, floating like a peripatetic groundhopper but developing a strong affection for my local side Benfield of Northern League Division 1.

In 2009, when I retired from Newcastle United, I was 45; I knew that the older I got, the quieter I needed my pubs of choice to be, the smaller the gigs I attended and the more intimate my football experience. I decided, having been persuaded to get involved by my mate Norman who was their secretary, to throw in my lot with Percy Main Amateurs of the Northern Alliance Division 1; a team who were 8 straight promotions from the football league and play at Purvis Park in North Shields. It was a dream season; we won the divisional cup, got promoted and I wrote a book about it called Village Voice (which you can have for £2 via PayPal to iancusack@blueyonder.co.uk).

 village voice

The great thing about non-league, which may also be a weakness to obsessives, is that the game is the thing; losses are borne philosophically and victories accepted gracefully. Also, sometimNewcastle-Benfield-programme-cover-Sept-2014es bonds with clubs can loosen. On the committee at Percy Main, there were half a dozen of us and it was hard graft keeping the place in good order, which didn’t play to my strengths. After about 4 years, I realised I’m no odd job man and more of a wordsmith, so when Benfield asked me to edit their programme, I changed allegiances, as I was honoured to accept the challenge from a club I’d followed since learning of the rich heritage of the grassroots game, and find myself immersed in the task of producing a quality memento of a game, that costs £1 but is only printed in quantities of 50; that doesn’t matter, as what I want to do is to give spectators a decent keepsake from their visit to Sam Smith’s Park.

On Saturday 31st January 2015, I saw my 31st successive Saturday afternoon game of the 2014/2015 season. After a wintery blast on the Friday night had decimated the local fixture list, with Benfield’s trip to Dunston falling by the wayside, I was still able to attend West Allotment Celtic 2 Billingham Synthonia 1. Admission was £5 and hot drinks 60p, so regardless of the quality, we did not feel deceived or defrauded by the whole experience. The game was fairly terrible, with both sides in the bottom 5 of Northern League Division 1, the day was perishing and the crowd was 100 maximum, but it was a great afternoon in the company of several mates, all of whom had jacked in tickets at St James Park, sickened by the hype, the greed and the excess of the professional game. We hardly mentioned Newcastle’s earlier 3-0 win at Hull, talking instead of Benfield 4 Durham city 1 the week previous and the upcoming North Shields v Phoenix Sports FA Vase tie.

The wonderful, obscure 1960s itinerant folk singer Anne Briggs, whose voice is the equal if not superior to Sandy Denny’s, talks of how her experiences and travels across Scotland and Ireland with traditional musicians were the greatest education she had in her life and how the existence of The Beatles and The rolling Stones was something she was aware of, but utterly detached from; that’s as good a metaphor for my love of non-league football as I can imagine. If the Premier League is the bearded DJ hipster in pointy shoes squeezing sounds out of a laptop in an exposed brick craft ale bar, then non-league football is the fella with the Arran sweater playing the mandolin at a folk club in CAMRA’s pub of the year. It may not be pretty, it certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I bet you our version of “Blackwaterside” is more authentic than his.

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