In the waning days of March, as the first lockdown restrictions were lifted, I was pleased by the surprising sight of young people playing football on the artificial turf adjacent to Stockton Sixth Form College
The pitch, at the crossroads on the corner of Bishopton Road West, is the home of Stockton Town, the local Northern League side who like the rest of sport had been plunged into suspended animation. The gleeful kickabout was a sign of life.
This was a journey I’d made countless times on bleak, dark nights during this freezing and unbearably long winter, taking a moment to observe the darkened floodlights as I made my way between support bubbles. During that slog, the idea of normality returning seemed incredibly distant, but here it was, a first incremental step heralding the arrival of spring.
The moment marked one calendar year since spectators had last descended unrestrained upon the ground to watch Stockton Town cruelly denied an historic moment of glory. With the lockdown, the Northern League was curtailed. The Anchors were 13 points clear at the summit with eight games remaining and fast closing on a near certain promotion to the Northern Premier League as champions.
March 2020 was a time of previously unthinkable upheaval; the scale and extent of the shut-down of normal life was collectively devastating. Stockton’s fans, players and staff were far from alone in having a cherished passion stripped away practically overnight, but the FA’s decision to cancel the Northern League season with results (initially) expunged and promotion and relegation aborted was a further body blow to a community already reeling.
Heart-felt protests by 66 non-league clubs below the National League who suffered the same fate, and the intervention of our local MPs, did nothing to alter the cruel outcome. It was a bitter blow.
Upwardly mobile Stockton have been defined by ambition since stepping up from junior football in the early 2010s. They have racked up successive promotions and valiantly reached the final of the FA Vase at Wembley in 2018, falling just short. The premature ending of the 2019-20 campaign halted this trajectory suddenly amid darkening financial clouds gathering over community clubs throughout England’s vast, immensely proud football pyramid.
To compound the misery, the 2020-21 season in the Northern League was a brief false-start, coming to a second dead halt at the start of November with h Stockton in second place after 12 matches. There is light at the end of this tunnel for the club though.
The FA are planning a radical restructure of the pyramid, adding a division to the tier above the Northern League as part of a widespread reshuffle. Using a system of points per game from the combined curtailed seasons, clubs identified as promotion candidates have been invited to apply for this. The Anchors are one of the Northern League’s three primary candidates and have already announced their intention to accept promotion if offered.
It isn’t how fans dream of achieving promotion. It won’t be celebrated with an open-top bus parade. But it was deserved and is a just reward for years of hard work at a progressive club that has quickly put down strong roots in its local community.
The fact that barely any season ticket holders requested a refund to their 2020-21 season tickets speaks volumes of the buoyant spirit, loyalty and commitment of the crowd at a club on the up. On this evidence the fanbase have weathered the storm and will return as enthused as ever to continue on the journey onwards and upwards. A long-elusive reward feels tantalisingly in reach after an incredibly turbulent period.
Of course, the impact of Covid upon the Northern League within Teesside is far from limited to Stockton Town. Alongside them, Division One houses proud local sides Thornaby, Guisborough Town and Billingham Town while Division Two holds Redcar Athletic and Billingham Synthonia. The pandemic pain continues here, but also the potential for imminent resolution.
Redcar were in strong contention for promotion in second spot when proceedings were quashed in 2020, with Synthonia not far behind in fourth. In the FA pyramid reshuffle, Redcar will be considered for promotion as a primary candidate, with Synthonia also in line in the event that other contenders do not wish to be promoted or cannot meet the ground criteria.
In Division One, Guisborough’s positions at close of play were seventh and 16th (out of 20 teams), putting them in mid-table. Thornaby, newly-promoted in 2019-20, teetered in 18th that season in a closely-fought basement battle and the truncated 2020-21 tilt saw the club up in the top half at the closedown after 11 games.
But other clubs have swung more wildly in the headwinds of chaos. Billingham Town were promoted to Division One alongside Thornaby in 2019 and were in a respectable mid-table position when the first lockdown struck. In stark contrast, they were ominously rooted at the foot of the division in November, with one win and 12 defeats, in the second aborted season.
Preparing for competition in such an unsteady climate after a truncated season of infamy which will be cemented in Northern League folklore makes fair judgement of a club’s record impossible, at either end of the table.
It shows how precarious life can be for the country’s smaller but still utterly vital football clubs. Professional, established and historic clubs like Macclesfield Town and Bury have slipped out of existence with next to no coverage and outrage.
That all of the Tees region’s Northern League clubs continue to operate ahead of the anticipated 2021-22 season, one now expected to look much different to any previous year under the FA’s auspices, should perhaps in itself be cause for happiness.
After the initial throes of the pandemic, football was welcomed back to TV screens ravenously, with excited fanfare among clubs, rights holders, pundits and fans alike. The return of the Bundesliga was a pivotal moment of the quiet revolution in football broadcasting, as blanket coverage became a norm. The Premier League followed the same model when it returned in June 2020, with every match available on TV in some form, and selected games even shown by the BBC for the first time during the Sky epoch,
Those heady days of top-level football being acclaimed as our saviour at a moment of national and international crisis have long passed. Social media is now awash with criticism of England’s elite competition and the standard of entertainment provided, as increasingly tentative tactical stalemates, largely free of jeopardy at either end of the table, are played in sanitised, empty stadiums.
That has made fans more conscious than ever of their status as consumers, atomised by the previously unimaginable realities
of lockdown life. This has been no substitute for the real thing, just as Zoom calls were a temporarily exciting novelty but rapidly proved to be a tepid and mocking simulacra of nights in a pub or friend’s house.
All of this is to say nothing of the doomed plans for a European Super League which pervaded national consciousness so rudely recently, a top-down coup by the parties already wielding the supreme power and wealth of the beautiful game across Europe, motivated chiefly by a horrible, contradictory brew of avarice and kamikaze finances.
It scarcely needs be stated how otherworldly this ugly posturing seems next to our local grassroots clubs and the enthusiasm and dedication of Northern League fans. It seems obvious also that the appetite for standing pitchside at 3PM on a Saturday and being able to hear the crunch of a firm challenge, the barked instructions of a coach and the punchline of a brilliant chant will never have
been as high as when society reopens fully.
Fans crave the authenticity and intimacy that competitions like the Northern League provide now oversaturated broadcasting has stripped much of top level football of its lustre. I crave it.
I can’t wait to be on the other side of those bushes at the corner of Bishopton Road West.