'Debt piled up. I was a 50-year-old single parent bringing up a teenage girl'

Harry Pearson on writing ‘The Farther Corner’.

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘The Farther Corner’ by Harry Pearson.

This far corner of England had always seemed separate, now it felt increasingly abandoned. Disillusioned, the population of the region’s most blighted areas turned increasingly rightwards.

The Labour Party remained blithely complacent to the shift. When an Irish journalist I know asked the head of Sunderland Council (Labour-controlled since 1972) what he was doing to address the rise of UKIP he replied airily, ‘People are angry, but they’ll calm down.’

As Peter Mandelson had reputedly once remarked, Labour did not need to worry about the working class because they had nowhere else to go. But now they did. UKIP was like some shitty political version of homeopathy – nothing they said had any basis in fact, but just by listening they made people feel a little better. And when the referendum came, the poorest parts of the North East voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. Perhaps if their own lives were ruined, there was some solace in taking everyone else into oblivion with them.

The North East had changed, football had changed and my life had changed, too. When I moved back here and wrote The Far Corner, I was living in a rented cottage in Northumberland and had no regular income. 25 years later, I found myself in exactly the same position. The years that followed 2010 didn’t quite go the way I planned. A 25-year relationship ended when my partner ran off with one of my friends, I had to sell the house I’d lived in for 20 years and stopped writing a column for the Guardian after 17.

Income streams slowed to a dribble. Debt piled up. I was a 50-year-old single parent bringing up a teenage girl. I had to learn a new set of life skills. Up until that point, like most men, I couldn’t even pronounce ‘menstruation’; now I found myself in supermarkets making price comparisons on branded sanitary towels.

I looked after my daughter as everything else turned to mulch and I didn’t mind, because I thought that if she was all right, then nothing else mattered. Sometimes at night I’d walk over the bridge across the Tyne opposite my house and it seemed like she was the only thing anchoring me to the ground, that without her I’d float away into the darkness. And then she went off to university and the house was empty.

When things had fallen apart, I’d gone to my first Northern League game in many years. Out in the old coalfields. Hoping to relocate something in the wreckage, or find a place to hide. The surface was rutted mud, the players so vulnerable-looking that whenever the ball struck their pale thighs with a sound like an angry chef slapping an oven-ready chicken you felt the urge to call social services. And when the Tannoy announced that the sponsor had selected the big number six as the home side’s man of the match, the bloke behind me bellowed, ‘How can there be a man of the match when they’ve all been cack?’

It was a poor reward for his team’s heroism. Though I’d have to say that the big number six would not have been my choice either. He was a singular figure who combined the lumpy torso of a grizzly bear with the slender, awkward legs of a young camel. I could only recall him touching the ball once. He had collected a hopeful through pass and humped it directly into touch and then, when one of his own midfielders protested, pointed to his right eye and barked: ‘Anticipate, Dazza, son. Anticipate.’

My man of the match would have been the bloke behind me. He had bottle-top glasses, an elaborate macramé bonnet of lank grey hair and a shiny baseball jacket in a shade of blue so electric it might have powered the floodlights.

The bloke behind me had played a blinder. All afternoon he’d been subtly prodding and probing from his position near the left touchline. It had begun in the first minute when he noticed that the linesman nearest us bore a passing resemblance to Aled Jones and signalled it by singing ‘Walking in the Air’ in a high-pitched whine every time the official was called into action. And it burst thrillingly into life with the lightning turn and finish on the half-hour mark that produced: ‘Jesus Christ, referee, if you fell in a barrel of tits you’d come out sucking your thumb.’

With five minutes to go, the opposition broke away and the linesman failed to signal an obvious offside. ‘Stop pissing about with that snowman and wave your bloody flag, you squeaky Welsh twat,’ the bloke behind me cried.

The onrushing forward collected the pass, rounded the keeper and popped the ball in the net. It was too much for the man in a camel-hair car coat who had been standing at an oblique angle to play for the entire match. He stalked off, pausing only to howl indignantly: ‘The pitch is shite. The ground is shite and you lot are a fucking disgrace.’

As he walked away, the bloke behind me yelled after him in the nasal-posh accent of a train customer service announcement: ‘Thank you for choosing the Welfare Ground. We hope to welcome you again soon.’

And after that he and the rest of the spectators fell silent. A cold wind was blowing from the North Sea but I felt a warm tingle rising in my chest. It was a small sign of restored hope. From that day on I went to a game every week, whether I wanted to or not.

One Wednesday night a friend from London phoned. He asked what I’d been doing. ‘I went to a Northern League game last Friday night, a Northern League game on Saturday, another one on Bank Holiday Monday and a fourth on Tuesday evening,’ I said.

My friend whistled. ‘Boy, you really like the Northern League,’ he said.

‘Nah,’ I replied. ‘It’s just the best place to meet women.’

Which was by no means true. Paul Gascoigne once said that a football pitch was the only place it felt safe. I had a similar feeling about non-League grounds.

The Saturday my daughter left for London, I went to watch Jarrow Roofing play Burscough in the FA Cup second qualifying round. Roofing’s ground was next to the old pithead workings of Boldon Colliery, now a country park of sorts, scrubby woodland and muddy paths, the hedgerows decorated with discarded plastic bags blowing from the new-build estates to the west.

The ground looked like it was assembled from old doors and scrap metal. The tea-bar was in a shipping container. The lady who served you also did the announcements, breaking off from reading out the teams to hand over a hot dog.

‘My daughter went off to university today, so if I start weeping into my tea that’ll be why,’ I told my friends.

And they responded as I knew they would by starting to talk about Bobby Mimms and which manager you’d least like to use the toilet before you if you were staying in a caravan (Sam Allardyce was the most popular choice, or the least). There are more ways to show kindness and concern than hugging.

Jarrow took an early lead, then got a second. Burscough were from higher up the league pyramid. They were stronger and fitter. They hit back and were leading 4-2 at half time. I bumped into a fan I knew. He was with his father, a retired pitman in his 80s who came from Boldon. He shook his head at the way the game had turned.

‘At 2-0 up we were crooning,’ he said.

I went back to football for that stability, warmth and companionship. To get back in touch with the familiar, to find part of me that seemed to have got lost, to remember a time when I was unambiguously happy.

Gradually I found it, in the washing flapping on lines at Crook while snow swirled around the Millfield Ground, and a trip to the clubhouse was interrupted by a man in camo pants shouting, ‘How, Harry! You’ll likely not remember me, but we had a bit of a chat in the Wembley toilets, Tow Law v Tiverton in 1998.’

Or the bloke on the train between Sunderland and Hartlepool (the Durham Riviera Express) saying, ‘Las Vegas? Man, it’s just like Seaham seafront with more sand.’

Or the world’s slowest sending-off, at Benfield with the ref yelling like he was driving cattle.

Or a young Penrith forward who’d scored a fantastic goal coming off the field at Sam Smith’s Park to be greeted by the question: ‘Eee, when did you get your braces took off, pet?’

My life has changed since I moved back to the North East. I had found a home and then I had lost it and then gradually I found my way back to it again. And slowly life got better. Football was no longer the only sanctuary I could find, but still I never saw the floodlights of some distant ground twinkling in the northern darkness without feeling a tingle of gratitude and moisture forming in my eyes.

25 years ago I would look around a ground – Ironworks Road, Croft Park, Brewery Fields, Kingsway, wherever – and wonder about the elderly fleece-clad folk in the unfashionable hats who leaned gingerly against the crash barriers, warming their hands on Styrofoam cups of turgid soup, wheezing condensation into the coal-scented air, chuckling throatily when the youthfulness of the match official prompted the bloke behind them to yell, ‘Give it up, referee, and concentrate on your paper round.’

I speculated on the circumstances that had brought them here, the drift of their lives, the joy, the love and the loneliness. I had never thought then that over time I would become one of them.

‘The Farther Corner’ by Harry Pearson is published by Simon & Schuster UK. More info here.

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