Non league day is fast approaching and editorÂ MARK GODFREYÂ explains why he is supporting the event by making a return to watching his local club.
Itâ€™s been a while.
I was never die-hard supporter of the non-league game; more of a casual acquaintance. Living almost 200 miles from my first love, Everton, itâ€™s neither practical nor financially sustainable to follow them home or away on a weekly basis.
Increasingly, as friends have drifted away from the regular match-going routine due to the acquisition of jobs, girlfriends, wives and children (not necessarily in that order), I myself have gradually become a lapsed spectator; not just at Goodison Park but at my local club, Blyth Spartans.
Iâ€™ve become one of those people that â€˜realâ€™ football fans despise â€“ or at least mock; the fan that sits at home watching Soccer Saturday on their TV and a hooky internet stream of a Premier League game on their laptop. I can sense some of you imploring me to undertake a period of self-flagellation for daring to admit to such a heinous crime.
It wasnâ€™t always this way though.
Back in my younger days, I would travel â€“ with other north east based Toffees – to the majority of Everton home matches and a few away fixtures every year. We were all significantly poorer then but our other commitments were negligible.
As the years passed and our merry bunch dwindled in numbers, frequenting the trans-Pennine motorway network became an all-too time consuming and expensive ritual; often for little reward (one season, I witnessed six consecutive 0-0 draws at Goodison).
Generally speaking, these all-day jaunts involved me driving the seven hour round trip precluding me from partaking in the match day drinking â€“ how I could have done with good sessions on the ale during the 0-0 era I mentioned in the last paragraph. So, although I loved going to the game and loved Everton no matter what dross they served up on the pitch, I always felt that I wasnâ€™t having quite the same experience as the rest of the lads.
Fast forward a few years and I was urged, by one of my best friends, to join him more often at Croft Park â€“ the home of Blyth Spartans. I had little excuse not to go. I was now watching Everton from afar, no responsibility other than to myself, plenty of disposable cash and a ground that was literally 15 minutes-walk from home.
Iâ€™d been an on-off supporter of Spartans ever since I moved to the town at the age of 11. Not a â€˜fanâ€™ in the strictest interpretation of the term and most definitely not the die-hard my mate Kev had become since jibbing Newcastle United off in their mid-nineties heyday when he found the entertaining football and manufactured atmosphere sufficiently against his tastes to give up his season ticket.
There were several benefits to being a regular visitor to Croft Park; not least the Â£9 entrance fee and the ability to stand wherever the fuck you like rather than buying a ticket for the seat lottery at a Premier League ground where you could be sitting next to some intolerably loathsome creature whose sole intention is to spoil your day and the day of everybody around and about you.
Throw in a clubhouse just outside the entrance gate with Sky Sports and a reasonably priced set of ales â€“ which could be consumed before, during and after the match itself without the need for designated driver related abstinence.
There was even a fat Robbie Williams lookalike on the burger van, dispensing cheeky grins with the molten-hot Bovril for 80 pence a pop.
And the football wasnâ€™t bad either, particularly the 2005/06 season when Blyth romped to the Unibond Premier League title with a lung-bursting finish that snowballed beyond all comprehension. My liver took a pounding that season, let me tell you.
What that season did give though was a restored faith and enjoyment in football and more specifically the ritual of the matchday experience â€“ even if it was a million figurative miles from the top tier days out Iâ€™d turned my back on.
I continued to frequent non-league football for two or three more years until other things put greater demands my time. And Spartans were never really my team anyway â€“ you only ever have one love in football despite the many casual dalliances you may encounter along the way.
In more recent times, as I mentioned earlier, Iâ€™ve become an armchair Evertonian; an internet consumer at 3pm most Saturdays. Hate me if you will, but sadly, for football at all levels, weâ€™re a rapidly increasing group. Iâ€™ve castigated myself for joining the herd, albeit on the comfortable leather couch in my warm, cosy living room with its big patio window looking out at the pissing wet Northumbrian conditions Iâ€™ve opted to avoid.
But this season, Iâ€™ve decided to make a change and lend some occasional vocal and financial support to my local non-league club. Well actually, the credit for this must be shared between my conscience and Everton.
Until Christmas at least, the Blues are in Thursday night Europa League action on six occasions, forcing them to play their Premier League games on a Sunday, thus freeing up plenty of Saturday afternoons where I have little excuse but to stick a scarf and big coat on and take the short walk to Croft Park for some â€˜real lifeâ€™ football; with the swearing, iffy pies, cheap Guinness, stewards who look like they should be on a government register for undesirables, wannabe-revolutionist sixth-formers who think pyro is cool, obscure homemade banners, 80â€™s soft-rock music on the tannoy, oh, and not forgetting the game itself.
So come 2.55pm on Saturday 6th September, youâ€™ll see me, and hopefully plenty of others in the queue for the turnstiles at the Kingsway End as Blyth Spartans take on Buxton in the Evostik Premier Division. The difference this year is that Iâ€™ll be back on a more regular basis.
Iâ€™m reminded of the theme tune from the old kids TV show â€˜Why Donâ€™t Youâ€™
â€œWhy don’t you, switch off your TV set, and do something less boring instead!â€
To get involved with Non-League Day and to find out where your local club is, visit http://www.nonleagueday.co.uk/map.htmlÂ for more details