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Fans launch Northern League Day (Sat 9th April)

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Inspired by the success of last year’s Non-League Day a group of fans in the North-East have launched their very own version. Northern League Day will take place at English football’s traditional kick-off time of 3pm on Saturday 9th April 2011.

Northern League Day aims to encourage as many fans as possible in the North-East to turn out and see their local non-league side. Northern League Divisions One and Two are part of the ninth and 10th levels of the English football pyramid and act as a feeder to the Northern Premier League (which itself sits under the Conference North and South).

The Northern League was formed in 1889 making it the world’s second oldest league, after the Football League itself. The Northern League Division One is also home to West Auckland who, in 1909, won the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy – sometimes referred to as the first World Cup. They even defended their crown in the 1911 tournament, astonishingly enough, beating Juventus 6-1 in the final.

In more recent times the league has produced or seen such players as Bob Paisley, Brian Clough, Gary Pallister, Chris Waddle, John Anderson, Frank Clark, and current Newcastle United keeper Steve Harper. Bishop Auckland became the most famous non-league side in the country in the 50s with three FA Amateur Cups while Whitley Bay are the current FA Vase holders having won the competition in 2002, 2009, and 2010.

Despite the Northern League’s long and proud history it is a world away from the glitz and glamour of the Premier League. This means it’s also a world away from the commercial benefits of £40 plus ticket prices and huge TV contracts. In a stuttering economy traditional revenue streams for smaller clubs can stagnate, if not dry up altogether.

The garage next door can no longer advertise its wares on pitch side boards and you can forget about sponsorship from the local newspaper – they’re struggling to keep their own heads above water. The further down the pyramid you drop, the more every clubhouse pint sold, or admission fee paid, matters.

2010’s Non-League Day, the parent to Northern League Day, was itself a great success. The BBC reported that many clubs enjoyed a significant increase in crowd numbers with some enjoying their highest gates of the season. The media bought into it too, as well as support from the Football Supporters’ Federation, Non-League Day received coverage from the BBC, Guardian, Times, Sunday Mirror, When Saturday Comes, and many more.

But what was the idea behind Northern League Day? What can fans, many of whom will be more used to the home comforts of the Premier League, expect? The FSF spoke to Michael Hudson, the brains behind the idea, to find out:

What sparked the idea off? Come on – sell it to us!

The idea of Northern League Day had been gestating since 4th September 2010 when, along with fifty-odd others and George Caulkin of The Times, I took advantage of a free Premier League weekend to see Birtley Town beat Northallerton 2-0 on Non-League Day. “It’s the first time we’ve ever had any fans,” I remember one of Birtley’s players joking as he walked off at half-time.

It wasn’t my first Northern League game – as a young kid, one of the highlights of every summer was watching a Newcastle XI play at Hebburn Town. I started out at Horden in July and took in my 21st ground of the season on a foggy night at Seaham this week. In between I’ve witnessed some awful games and some brilliant ones. I’ve seen Martin Smith, an ex-England U21 international, play against Lee Kerr, who once partnered Albert Luque for Newcastle Reserves. I’ve found pints of beer for under £2.

Most of all, I’ve had a laugh – and if there’s one big reason behind Northern League Day explaining why I woke up one morning, wrote a welcome post on a website, and started pestering everyone I knew to help me out – that’s it.

What ticket prices and crowds can people expect?

The most you’ll pay is £6 at Spennymoor Town. The rest of the First Division charges a fiver at the most, dropping to £4 in Division Two. Everywhere’s half-price for concessions and a few clubs let U16s in for free.  The biggest crowd will be at Whitley Bay, where you’ll probably get around 500-600 people. At a few of the Division Two grounds you’re looking at a tenth of that. Wherever you go, though, your support will be appreciated.

What players can you expect to see – any ex-pros?

Jonny Godsmark – who was at Newcastle until the summer – will be up against Lee Kerr in the Whitley Bay v Ashington game. Spennymoor have half a team of ex-Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Newcastle players including Stephen Capper, who captained the Republic of Ireland in FIFA World Youth Championships, and Anthony Peacock, who won the FA Youth Cup with Boro. Two ex-Leicester City players, Trevor Benjamin and Graham Fenton, will be shouting instructions from the touchline at Morpeth v North Shields. Consett’s Jonjo Dickman captained Sunderland’s reserve team, and Jamie McClen, who played for Newcastle under Ruud Gullit and Bobby Robson, will be in midfield for Hebburn at Thornaby.

How should people let you know what clubs they’ve been to see and how do you measure the initiative’s success?

Hopefully, we’ll be filming around some of the grounds, and Michael Martin from the Newcastle fanzine True Faith is organising some people to take flags to West Allotment in particular. If people want to get in touch with photos, they can email us through the Northern League Day website. How would I measure it as a success?  If just one person enjoys it enough to go back with a couple of mates, that would do for me.

Northern League Day takes place on a day when Newcastle don’t play and Middlesbrough are away, so many of their fans could still get along. However, Sunderland are at home – how can Mackems get involved?

They already are. Simon Walsh from Roker Report has written a piece for the site and two other Sunderland fans have contributed articles too. A Love Supreme agreed to publish the Northern League ground guides we’ve been producing, which have previews of the matches, information on how to get to the grounds and nearby pubs and tourist attractions.

Is this something that you could see working across the country and how can people do it themselves? Do you foresee a Spartan South Midlands League Day or North West Counties League Day?

I certainly hope so. I’d really like to see Northern League Day become an annual event and there has already been talk of doing something similar for the Northern Alliance or Wearside Leagues. Probably the best advice I could give is not to think you have to wait for clubs or official bodies to start organising things. You’ll be surprised how much goodwill there is out there from ordinary fans. Get on Twitter and you’ll soon have plenty of help.

We hear everyone’s meeting for a beer after – what’s the crack there?

I’ve arranged a Socrates Football Bloggers meet before and after the Ryton game – the first that’s been held anywhere north of London.  We’ll doubtless end up somewhere in Ouseburn. Definitely the Free Trade, if only for the view.

Thanks for your time and good luck with Northern League Day.

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