Whilst the England squad boarded a plan for Kosovo, I was on a replacement bus service to Kettering. For many fans, international weekends are a source of irritation and boredom. But not for me. Yet another routine qualifier was exchanged for a relegation dogfight on a quagmire. Non-league Blyth Spartans were in town, and I was thrilled at the opportunity to be thereâ€¦
“The most famous non-league football team in the world”
If Iâ€™m lucky, I see Spartans half-a-dozen times per season. Iâ€™ll be upfront with you: Iâ€™ve been a Leeds United obsessive since boyhood. But the non-league Northumberland club wooed me in adulthood, and at one point saved me from deserting football altogether. And itâ€™s precisely days like this one which allowed my love to blossom.
Regardless of the competition, Blyth are always the northernmost team by some distance. Kings Lynn Townâ€™s inclusion in the Conference North would mean a 460-mile round-trip in a couple of weeks. Itâ€™s not always that bad, of course. But it does mean that Spartansâ€™ away following is uniquely healthy at this level.
They were once dubbed â€˜the most famous non-league football team in the worldâ€™ by former FA secretary Ted Croker. A concoction of side-burned FA Cup giant-killers, coal-mining families relocating, and epic Football Manager careers all bolster their support.
The simple joy of the non-league pre-match
And so, to matchday. The gritty romantic escapism of non-league football which swept me off my feet nearly a decade ago. The days out with distant acquaintances who treat you like a brother when you join them on the terrace. An instant bond with a grassroots community, whilst my boyhood club was run by a convicted Italian fraudster.
Green and white scarf, a warming bottle of ale, and a hasty text to confirm the pub. Thatâ€™s all that I needed. I arrive at The Three Cocks and there are no bouncers on the door. No police vans parked outside and no signs saying, â€œHOME FANS ONLYâ€. I enter to find half-a-dozen fellow Spartans, who make up half of the pubâ€™s patrons.
A slap on the back from Kev, a pint of hand-pulled from Adam, and a couple of rounds of skittles before we bundle into a taxi. Funny how taxi drivers are baffled that thereâ€™s football on, but then always know the route to the stadium.
Congregating from afar at Latimer Park
After grumbling about the Â£15 ticket price, we congregate in the clubhouse. I scan the room for familiar faces. Again, at least half of the punters are Spartans, but there are a couple of hundred in already. Our lives may have changed drastically since we last spoke, but footballing chatter is paramount to personal updates.
This is local pride, family connections and Against Modern Football, rolled into one. Curious day-trippers and lifelong devotees. Neutral non-league ground-hoppers and volunteer officials. Iâ€™m not sure how many of the Spartans faithful are one club fans. Stood around me, there are Magpies, Mackems and Wolves. But irrespective of that, this is a footballing family that made me feel alive again.
Pathetic as it sounds, it made me feel wanted as a fan. Made me feel like my support made a difference, and that I had a tangible connection beyond my bank balance. It gave me faith in a collective spirit: humble ambition and northern grit. Itâ€™s far from chasing glory on the grass: itâ€™s about genuinely believing in what the football clubâ€™s about.
That said, seeing them seal the NPL Premier title at a sun-kissed Croft Park was a highlight of my life. The overnight MegaBus from London to Newcastle was worth every minute. And their latest FA Cup spree in 2015 was another highlight. The injury-time winner at Hartlepool United live on TV which led to global fame once more, and the 2-0 half-time lead against Birmingham City in the 3rd Round. Moments that Iâ€™ll never forget.
A dream start for the visitors
Today, however, was unlikely to provide such joy. As I alluded to earlier, this was what youâ€™d call a â€œsix-pointerâ€, even though it was mid-November. The pitch was boggy at best and the purists wouldâ€™ve been wincing. We knew that Spartans desperately needed a win. Former Newcastle star Lee Clarke had assembled a threadbare squad on a pittance and was struggling.
On 26 minutes, another former Magpie set our afternoon alight. Callum Roberts cut in from the right and slotted the ball through the eye of a needle. 11 minutes later, former Celtic U17 player Ryan Hutchinson volleyed in at the back post. And on the stroke of half-time, a left-foot screamer from Roberts found the top corner and had us in dreamland. So far, so good.
3-0 in front with our proverbial feet up and barely containing our giddiness. Our ability to pay with contactless and drink on the terraces amounted to the holy grail of non-league refreshment. The pints may pour themselves in Spursâ€™ new stadium, but youâ€™ve to down them in minutes.
A goal-fest on a quagmire
We switched ends, another joy of non-league, as the floodlights sprung to life. Unfortunately for us, on the hour mark, so did the hosts. Our â€˜keeper began by tepidly parrying a corner, before demonstrating the leaping ability of a garden gnome. If that sounds harsh, watch the highlights on YouTube. Eight minutes later, a near-post flick-on found its way to our back post with our â€˜keeper entirely stranded.
But the Poppies had barely finished celebrating when Roberts sealed his hat-trick. Dribbling from the edge of our D to their six-yard box, his first shot hit a wall of defenders. Seconds later, his deft and delicate chip floated gloriously into the back of the net. Kevâ€™s pint ended-up in the penalty area but the steward was too busy glaring. Again, watch it on YouTube!
At 2-4, the game was anybodyâ€™s. There were 810 supporters in the stadium, most of whom had been dormant until now. Four minutes after Robertsâ€™ wondergoal, Lindon Meikle found himself entirely unmarked in our six-yard box and slotted home. Momentum continued to build until the inevitable happened in the final minute.
When Tre Mitford bundled the ball into an empty net, I counted seven players who were closer to the goal-line than our â€˜keeper. Eight goals, two points shared, and nobodyâ€™s problems solved. For the home side, relief masquerading as delirium. For us visitors, eye-rolled resignation.
All smiles in the aftermath
As we trudged through the turnstiles, we wished each other well. Darkness had descended on Kettering and the equaliser had elongated our journeys. But even with that sucker-punch, weâ€™d had a blinding day. The belly laughs and the lightning quips gently re-emerged. And at the time, I had no idea that itâ€™d be my final Spartans match of the season.
With my arm around Adam and a hearty handshake from John, I promised Iâ€™d be at the York game. My belly was warm from an afternoon of chatter, and hand-pulled ale, and a nasty cheeseburger. My worldâ€™s been a bit of a washing machine since my first game at Grantham in 2012. But these fans have been a cherished constant. That is, until COVID-19 chaos saw the York game postponed.
Non-league contrast with my boyhood club
My next game was at Elland Road in December. A seventh successive victory saw Leeds go top of the Championship. 35,200 were in attendance and the floodlit pitch was pristine. A rousing rendition of â€˜Marching on Togetherâ€™ and a renewed belief that this would be our year. Unbeatable at its best, no doubt.
And yes, our beloved â€˜Bielsa-ballâ€™ has had a huge impact. But itâ€™s far more than just his enthralling tactics and table-topping performances thatâ€™ve contributed overall. Itâ€™s belonging, and belief, and purpose, and unity. For 16 years, our Premier League pursuit has been an excruciating existential void. And from Ken Bates to GFH to Massimo Cellino, supporting Leeds felt more like a stretch in Armley prison.
The fact that our long-awaited promotion might be in an empty stadium is sickening. But at the same time, National League clubs like Blyth Spartans and other non-league clubs are in severe danger of never returning. And as weâ€™re left to contemplate what post-pandemic football might look like, itâ€™s Spartans that have my attention.
No future without the Spartans
A goal-fest on a Kettering quagmire might not be every fanâ€™s idea of enjoyment. Away days at Ramsbottom United or Frickley Athletic might not leap out from your fixture lists. But following Blyth Spartans around the northern nether regions made me fall back in love with football. And if theyâ€™re not part of the post-pandemic picture, any parties with The Whites will be devastatingly dampened.