Saturday 22 August 2020

Football to the Left of Me Cricket to the Right Here I Am: Stuck in the Middle at Percy Main for the Return of Spectators to Our National Game

The previous day's heavy winds have died down and at times the sun is peeking out of the clouds on what is a fairly warm day. I don't know if these are perfect conditions for football but you could definitely do a lot worse and besides this is a special day where even a heavy downpour would not have dampened the spirits of those involved. Twenty two men are kicking a ball about on what is a perfectly maintained grass surface with for the first time in months spectators in attendance. This is a picturesque setting for it too. You are surrounded by greenery on three sides with trees along one side of the pitch and a large hedge at one end separating the ground from a charming cricket pitch. Today the cricket ground is complete with players in their whites dotted around the pitch partaking in a local league match. Cricket is a majestic sport, I adore cricket, but my other sporting love football is finally back and that is what I have come to see.

Yes, today is the day that spectators are allowed back into football grounds. The powers that be have decided clubs at step three and below in the non-league pyramid are allowed to admit fans again, albeit in massively reduced numbers. A welcome return after many months away when the COVID-19 virus put a stop to large gatherings. 15% of the minimum required capacity for the level you play at is what the clubs are allowed in and this will rise to 30% in September. Why it is not based on individual ground capacities I don't know but there you go. For a step six club like Heaton Stannington, for example, this means 15% of 1000 or 150 to be precise. Today they are away, however, and their hosts Percy Main Amateurs play at what is essentially step seven where seemingly the same numbers are allowed in. I myself am in attendance too as the first weekend of football with spectators back in attendance finally gets underway. 

Steps one to six of non-league football are officially known as the National League System (NLS) whilst anything below step six is classed as grassroots football. From what I understand grassroots football does not come under the jurisdiction of the FA and leagues are run by the various county football associations around the country. Also, unlike in the NLS above, grassroots clubs do not enter FA competitions such as the FA Cup or the FA Vase competition that clubs directly above them also enter. Facilities in grassroots football are often more basic too. Other than the mandatory changing rooms there are usually some sort of refreshments available for spectators and maybe a toilet block but little else. The small seated grandstands mandatory in the leagues above are often non existent and those refreshments served often do not extend to a full clubhouse bar. Many grounds do not have floodlights either and in the winter this can mean kick-offs earlier than the traditional 3 o'clock. Nonetheless, this is the beating heart of football in England. Towns, villages, and neighbourhoods all over this great land host clubs ran by volunteers who tirelessly keep these pillars of the local community afloat for no financial gain with players playing for love and not for money. Whilst I believe players even at step six might in some cases get a small match fee or part-time wage I very much doubt those in the grassroots game do, and as for Percy Main Amateurs well the clue is in the name!

Percy Main Amateurs FC are based in Percy Main which is an area of North Tyneside sat between North Shields and Wallsend. Just a few minutes walk from a nearby Metro rail station I arrive at their Purvis Park ground a good hour before kick-off unsure how many will be in attendance. There is little attention paid to my arrival but eventually, I find someone so I can pay my entrance fee which twitter stated was £2 with higher donations welcome. I doubt they regularly record attendances at this level but once the game is well underway I count 69 spectators. A large number of those are Heaton Stannington followers including my good friend Imran Mohammed who is there to meet me when I arrive. He will be my company for the afternoon. Based in a suburb of Newcastle Upon Tyne, Heaton Stan or 'The Stan' as they are often referred to play in the EBAC Northern League Division Two. Their supporters are known as the Stan Army and usually number between 150-250 at home games. These are more than healthy numbers for the level they play at. Grassroots club Percy Main, meanwhile, play in the Northern Football Alliance which is under the jurisdiction of the Northumberland FA and although they are a name I've been aware of for many many years this is actually my first ever visit to their humble abode. The club has been in existence for over 100 years and as part of a slightly more illustrious past reached the quarter finals of the old FA Amateur Cup in 1930.

Times have been tough for clubs like Percy Main with COVID-19 stopping what little income streams they had and I do wonder how many of these clubs around the country may with little or no fanfare have disbanded due to the current financial strains. Clubs like Percy Main probably generate barely enough income to cover costs at the best of times so what little money they do make today from the serving hatch inside selling tea, coffee, cans of beer, and hot dogs is no doubt greatly received. Also welcome will be any money made from the bookcase full of donated football books sat opposite. It is a £2 per book suggested minimum donation and my haul includes Malcolm MacDonald's autobiography and a book entitled 'Jack and Bobby' about those two famous footballing brothers from up the road in Ashington. I give generously.

Financial worries seemingly stretch as far as to the loss of footballs with one official agitatedly enquiring about an unaccounted for ball when during the warm-ups many end up on the cricket pitch behind. The hedge at the cricket pitch end leaves enough space either side for you to step down into the cricket ground and before kick-off we get to witness a few sixes from one of the batsmen. Later when taking a few photographs I end up back in the cricket ground and bump into work colleague and Whitley Bay FC (step five) supporter Ian. Although I know Ian is a big cricket fan having spotted him at more high profile cricket surroundings in the past I did not realise he was a Percy Main CC follower.

Being able to attend a football match again after so long feels like a big deal but although I am very much enjoying my tranquil surroundings and the experience of a new ground the match itself, a rather low key pre-season friendly, feels pretty underwhelming. The hosts are 3-0 up at the break with Imran and the rest of the Stan Army anything but pleased with the performance of their side. A rather short half-time break with the players sat on the pitch is followed by a much better performance from the Stan in the second-half. The visitors only manage to pull one goal back, however, and the game ends in a 3-1 win for Percy Main Amateurs.

With the match over it's time to head home and I must say that despite all these supposed COVID related restrictions in place today's experience has seemed no different to normal. Social distancing has seemingly not been high on the agenda amongst most spectators today but having said that the lack of care from fans does not really bother me and I am just happy to have been at a football match on this glorious day. Besides, today's scenes have been nowhere near as extreme as, for example, those we have seen around the nation on some of our seafronts in recent times which have, in particular, seemed dangerously crowded.

It is great Grassroots clubs such as Percy Main Amateurs can have supporters in their grounds again. As suggested earlier, without that support they may well before long fold and, after all, these clubs are a massively important part of football in our country. They are important not just to the amateur players who run around the pitch for 90 minutes or the fans that attend but also important to the local communities they serve. Whilst these clubs run senior sides that give an outlet for those adults who never made the grade when it comes to the professional game many of them also offer opportunities to local children by running youth sides for various age groups. Albeit currently there does not seem to be much of a junior set up Percy Main, elsewhere these youth sides offer the chance for children to play sport and get some valuable exercise when they could instead be at home watching television or playing video games. Many of these clubs could also be helping produce the talent of the future too!

With spectators now allowed back, it is vitally important that we continue to support our local grassroots and non-league football clubs as to lose them would be a terrible shame and I for one would certainly miss days like today. This is football in its purest form and long may it continue!