Words: Sam Diss
Images: Abacus (Main) & Offside Sports Photography (Other)
If you’ve ever been to a non-league game, you’ll recognise plenty of people in Harry Pearson’s The Far Corner.
Written in the 1993/94 season, the book is a mazy dribble around the coldest part of the country, the North East, exploring mostly amateur football. And despite being set at a particularly bleak time, in the shadows of industrial decimation and mass unemployment, it exudes warmth and good humour and weirdos in fleeces at every corner, told one game at a time over the space of a season, jumping joyously into historical rabbit holes about clubs you’ve never heard of before getting distracted by the dodgy bus routes of freezing Durham and local nutters the writer ducks into parked cars to avoid.
In a recent edition of our newsletter I wrote that “The Far Corner is like Fever Pitch if, instead of a soppy doomed-poet type tramping about the terraces of old Highbury, Fever Pitch was about getting lost on buses to Bishops Auckland or proselytising about the majesty of watching South Shields playing on a bumpy mud heap in a bone-rattling cold snap”. Pearson is a fucking great writer, is what I’m saying; packing more jokes per page than you can count without losing the heart and soul of what makes football so special.
It’s something we can get behind, that balance, and one we aspire to at the magazine, so we thought, why not? There’s no special edition rerelease or convenient anniversary to set it to, but we wanted to talk about arguably the best book ever written about amateur football with the man who brought it into existence.
MUNDIAL: I’m sure I’m not the first person to mention The Far Corner and Fever Pitch in the same breath.
HARRY PEARSON: Funnily enough, no. But if Fever Pitch was never so successful, The Far Corner wouldn’t have ever been published. That’s the simple fact. It created a market for intelligent football books aside from just player biographies.
Using it as a cypher to talk about other stuff.
Yeah, exactly. I remember sending my proposal to publishers, and everyone said no. And then Fever Pitch was republished in paperback, and the people who’d turned it down got back in touch. They were sending letters saying “Oh, we’ve been having another think about your proposal...” A few years ago The Far Corner was adapted as a play by Simon Stallworthy at the Gala Theatre in Durham, and I was portrayed by an actor called David Nellist. I’m still friends with Dave now. I did say to him, though, “Nick Hornby got Colin Firth playing him, and I get you.” Maybe that wasn’t the best introduction.
So, how did your book come about?
I’d moved back to the North East in 1991. Really, it was my next door neighbour John who inspired the book. He reminded me of my granddad. John was this big, hard northern bloke, and he was about 75. He’d been in the Marines, and at one match, when we were at Sunderland, this big skinhead came and stood beside us when they played, ‘We Will Rock You’ over the speakers before the game, and he just started chanting, ‘We will, we will, fuck you’. And John turned to me and said “What a fuckin’ moron.” And I was aghast because John was 75 and still prepared to do something about this skinhead. He was very much Come on, what you gonna do about it? And that was what my granddad was like, and going to matches with John took me back, back to my past watching games with him. That was one of the big inspirations. I still see him now, John, and he must be about ninety. But he’s still as feisty as ever; I wouldn’t back myself against him in a scrap even though I’m about forty years younger. And he’s had about two heart attacks, too. I think if he punched me I wouldn’t be getting up. Anyway, the warmth I felt going to games with him and his son; it really took me back to the when I’d go as a kid with my granddad. He’d know everyone on the way to games at Middlesbrough, my granddad, and my dad worked in steel. And walking down the street with them, they’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of men. You couldn’t get down the street without loads of people coming to say hello.
Must’ve taken fucking ages to get anywhere. What is it that made that part of the country such a hotbed for football players (and fans)?
I guess it did have a lot to do with factories and works teams. Steel and coal, areas with large industries like that—Lancashire and West Yorkshire, as well—many of the people who did those kinds of jobs wanted to show something else of themselves. If you were down in a hole in the ground for ten hours a day, you’re want to show that was more to you than that by playing football or something like that. People took pride in these things. I was talking to an old guy at the football last weekend, and he was telling me he was in a brass band. He first started in one of these brass bands when he was fourteen and down the pit. He played the trumpet. “But in the brass band now, I’m one of the only people in it who hasn’t got a degree. Back then it was all pitmen,” he says, “and some of them could barely read a line from the newspaper, but they could read music.” I guess it’s that sort of thing with football in those areas, wanting to show that they were better than just the job they did all day. But it’s hard getting kids to play football now. I was up doing a thing about cricket in Northumberland, and I met this guy running junior football teams in Ashington, and he’d played for Port Vale as a pro, and he says to me “I’ve had to close the under-14s because they kids wouldn’t play on Saturday afternoons. They wanted to go shopping.” Unless the kids are being driven around by middle-class parents to games, it’s hard to get them going on their own.
As someone who’s not really been to that part of the country much, in reading the book, these towns with these great names—Ashington, Bishop Auckland, Billingham Synthonia—and such pride in their histories, become characters in and of themselves.
I was just saying to someone, actually, that Bishop Auckland, one of the most successful amateur clubs up this way, have just started a museum in the stadium. But I went up and did a talk at a social club Ashington, and three Footballers of the Year were born on the same street: Bobby Charlton, Jack Charlton, and Jimmy Adamson. Literally three doors from each other. And I said that in the talk, mentioning how there was no plaque to commemorate that. People come up to me afterwards and said: “I never even realised that about this town” and they were people from Ashington. Instead of spending money on public artworks, they should spend some money on that, showing something they’re proud of. Ashington has produced dozens and dozens of top-class footballers. And, until recently, football was regarded as this fringe thing that was hugely popular but not very important.
Like TV dramas, I guess. Until The Sopranos people didn’t really think it was a medium to be respected, it was just a dirty little thing people indulged in from time to time.
It was! I remember coming back from a game a while ago, in the late eighties, a game in Portsmouth. And I was having dinner afterwards in London, and I told people I’d been at a football match and people were like “You go to football? Are you a racist? Are you a hooligan?” That’s what people thought of football. It wasn’t celebrated. And it’s led to those guys [at places like Ashington] getting lost and forgotten about.
It gets celebrated a lot more these days.
Well, now there are statues of footballers all over the place. But before that, there were never any of footballers in any town. The Jackie Milburn statue I mention in The Far Corner was there about 1990, and I don’t think there were any before that. There’s a task for you, Sam: go and find that one out.
I’ll have to look into it.
But it’s the same with grounds. When [Middlesbrough’s] Ayresome Park was knocked down, they’d lost the gates, these famous gates. They’re there now, at the Riverside, but for years the club didn’t even know where they were. That was a ground that was there for a century, and someone had just chucked it all away.
Above: A football, on the housing estate where Ayresome Park stood, marks the spot where Pak Doo Ik scored the goal for North Korea against Italy in the 1966 World Cup.
Another part of the book I found fascinating was delving into the rich histories of these amateur clubs many people might not have heard of. I became quietly obsessed with North Shields FC. I’ve never even been there.
There’s definitely been a huge revival in interest in these old clubs. I didn’t know it then, but when I wrote The Far Corner, it was the all-time low for the Northern League. Nearly every game I went to had fewer than a hundred people there. But now, in the Northern League’s top division, there will be very few games without a couple of hundred people there. They’re much better supported now than they were back then.
Is that a response to getting fed up with the big teams in the area?
It’s definitely a response to the lack of success of the big teams in the area. The success of, for example, South Shields, who regularly get 1500 at every game, is directly linked to the failures of Sunderland. The fact that Sunderland and Newcastle have been so disastrously run has definitely encouraged people, too. Then there’s the cost: it’s six pounds to get in the Northern League. Even if you went to see Carlisle United play, you’re looking at nineteen quid to get in the cheapest stand. That’s a big difference. The level of football isn’t quite the same, but it’s still a very good standard in those amateur leagues.
Sunderland’s rocky few years has been bit of a blessing in disguise then for the area.
It definitely has in a way. Interest in the Northern League is definitely higher than it used to be. The fans are a lot younger than they used to be, too, although maybe that’s just because I’ve got older… But no, there are certainly a lot more young men and women going to games whereas before, it was predominantly men in their sixties. These clubs are important to the community in a way that people don’t really get. I was at a game the other day, and a sort of fight started in front of us. This bloke just came straight out the clubhouse and threw out these two lads who were fighting. And you realise that these clubs are run by working class people, supported by and run by working class people, and there’s no police, they just look after it themselves. I found that quite inspiring, really. The working class now are seen [in the media] as these kind of dire people who all voted Leave and have made everything terrible, but there are loads of institutions like that that are run by people for people in these communities without any help from anyone.
What was the immediate reaction following the book coming out?
It’s slightly bizarre but, when I was writing the book, it never occurred to me that if I went to a game with sixty-five people watching it, and I described someone in the crowd or one of the players, that they might read it and recognise themselves. There was this centre forward who was playing at Willington who I said looked like he’d just jumped over the prow of a Viking longship. And then when I was doing a book signing when it came out in Darlington, this guy comes in and says “Can I buy a book? And can you make it out to ‘Ivan ‘the Viking’ Moxon’.” He’d been sitting outside in his car for a while car, too embarrassed to come in, but he loved being mentioned in the book. I guess nobody had ever written about Ivan Moxon before. I only ever had positive things back from the book because, even if I was taking the Mickey out of the fans, it was affectionate. It was never snide or looking down on anyone. People seemed to recognise that.
There’s definitely a warmth to the piss-taking. I think you describe it as that ‘North East’ style of humour where there’s a bit of needle to the jokes.
It’s like your family. You can take the piss and say what you want, but if someone outside the family did it, you’d get upset. It was alright for me to do it because I’m from just outside Middlesbrough. If I say that somewhere is ugly, it’s acknowledged that I’m an expert. Not snobby. I’m from somewhere that’s a byword for ugly.
Might be different if a soft Southerner like me goes up and starts doing it.
I was saying this to Will Buckley [Observer journalist and writer of The Man Who Hated Football] about how there are some towns in the south I consider northern towns. Portsmouth: that’s a northern town. West Ham: that’s a northern football club to me. Those places are the same. We’ve got more in common than if we were from Harrogate or somewhere.
Above: Sunderland fans at the Fulwell End in the last days of Roker Park.
How do you think the book would be different if you wrote it now?
A lot of things have changed. The clubs are better supported, definitely, than they used to be. And they used to be in the Vase, but now they’re in the FA Trophy which means they do better in Cup competitions than they used to. It’s helped this renewed sense of pride in the Northern League now it’s producing successful teams again. And the other thing that’s changed is that, a lot of the way people watch football has changed completely. When I was wrote the book, Sunderland and Middlesbrough moved to new stadiums. The top clubs went all-seater. Before that, the way that I watched football with my granddad was exactly the same as the way he watched it when he first went before the First World War. It was no different. Now, obviously, it’s comfortable, there’s edible food and working toilets. All of those things have changed, but more than that, the distance between clubs and fans have gotten bigger.
Going to those smaller grounds as a fan definitely feels more like a dialogue, rather than the big clubs where they can just be monologuing at you. You feel like your money, and your attendance is directly affecting the club you’re watching. Gates are important at that level. Big Premier League teams aren’t really arsed.
At Newcastle recently, gate receipts were a six or a seventh of their turnover. So yeah, it doesn’t matter if you go or not. If you say “I’m not coming back no more” it’ll make no difference to them. I do say to people: if you’re fed up with how your club is run, if you’re fed up with Newcastle, go and give your money to these clubs, they’re genuinely grateful for your six quid. To me, it seems that people used to love football, but now they love one club. When there’s an international break and Sunderland, Newcastle, and Middlesbrough aren’t playing, the attendances at Northern League football do not rise at all. To me, most of the people who watch those teams are people who don’t really like football. It’s not about the standard of football. When I say to friends “I’m going so-and-so on Saturday, why don’t you come with?” They might go “Oh but it’s the standard of football…” It’s football! It’s all just football. There’s that bit in Pete Davis’ book All Played Out where he talks about walking across Hyde Park with Bobby Robson. And there’s some workmen playing a game of football and Bobby Robson stops and watches it, trailing off in mid-sentence to watch them. It’s just football. Workman in the park or whoever. That’s football. I’d watch any old crap.
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