Friday, 28 November 2008

Passionate People, Passionate Places

I am off to Newcastle. Off to the North East of England whose regional image campaign a few years ago declared that this corner of our nation is bursting at the seams with "Passionate People, Passionate Places". I have never been to Newcastle and I feel rather ashamed to admit that I have only ever been to the North East once, and that was last season on my FA Cup trail when I visited Teesside for the Middlesbrough v Cardiff City Quarter-Final tie. My brother has just moved there, so we have a family orientated trip up the East Coast line which will start at the crack of dawn tomorrow.

I regret to say that I am unlikely to get the opportunity to dip my toe into the ocean of non League football that the region has to offer. Family breaks away are great, especially when visiting a new place. But this kind of trip always comes burdened with awkward, uncomfortable thoughts that dart in and out of the mind. The sort of thoughts that jostle for attention and create a heady and uneasy mix. These sort of thoughts: 'too good an opportunity to miss' and 'maybe I could pop out for a couple of hours' jumbled up with 'my life would not be worth living' and 'that'll be me sleeping on the sofa tonight then'. A couple of days, away with wife and child, will be dedicated family time. Time that does not allow for an afternoon stood on a terrace bank, sheltered against the elements, admiring dug-outs or floodlight pylons. The old escape routine of "I'm just popping out for a pint of milk dear" is quite frankly a disaster waiting to happen. Has anyone ever used that and got away with it?

I'm struggling to convince myself that this will not unduly concern me on this weekend away. When I started this FA Vase journey a few months back, I felt that the chance of me visiting the North East for a game was high. Don't ask me why; nothing based on fact or logic, another one of those lower abdomen feelings that probably owes more to a dodgy Chicken Jalfrezi rather than one's own stomach actually being able to predict what's going to happen. Gut feelings are great, but are only quoted when that one-in-a-million chance is realised and a huge bucket of hindsight is at hand. But yes, I had a gut feeling that I would end up in the North East for an FA Vase game this season.

I used the past tense there though. I am gradually realising that this is an unlikely likelihood. I guess my original train of thought was fuelled by the unquestionable fact that football teams from the North East have, historically, fared well in the FA Vase and, more strikingly, in its predecessor competition, the FA Amateur Cup.

Teams from the North East who have excelled in the FA Vase include Bedlington Terriers, Guisborough Town, Newcastle Blue Star, Tow Law Town and Whitley Bay. But it is in the FA Amateur Cup where the reputation of a strong and vibrant non League football scene in the region was surely founded. Teams from the North East have won the competition a remarkable 21 times in 71 seasons, and this being a national competition mind. That's an almost 30% success rate. Bishop Auckland led the way with 10 wins. Roll off the tongue some of the other North East winners and they are recognisable names in the football world, even to those fans who barely look lower than the foot of the Premiership; Crook Town, North Shields, Stockton and West Auckland to name a few.

But doubts about whether the North East will call me for a Vase game this season are creeping in through the side door. Looking at the list of teams that remain in the competition, the representation from the region is not as large as I would have predicted. Still in there are Spennymoor Town, Marske United, Shildon, Whitley Bay, and Dunston Federation. Not many really; other recognisable names such as Billingham Synthonia, Chester-le-Street Town, Consett and Sunderland Nissan have already fallen by the wayside.

So I'm not as hopeful as I was at the start of the season. After the Third Round Proper, the competition opens up into the national rounds which means I could end up in any part of the country. Deep down, I really do want a trip to the North East but in reality I see that possibility stumbling clumsily over the distant horizon. This weekend's journey there may be the last for some time. If you listen carefully, you can hear a golden opportunity ringing that side door bell. Trouble is, I won't be able to answer it. As we travel on the train tomorrow I will be telling my wife about the passionate places that await us, and the passionate people occupying those places, but at the same time trying desperately hard not to include the words "Morpeth Town versus Ashington" in the same sentence. It won't be easy.

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