Zen and the Art of Northern League Football (Billingham Town vs. Consett)

After two and a bit years of Covid-scuppered attempts to make it home to the UK, I finally managed it this week. And where better to reacquaint myself than a quick trip to Billingham (or Billog to the initiated) to see some Northern League football?

After a year of solo matchgoing in Bahrain, it’s lovely to meet up with my old friend Ben for this one. We were due to go to Marske United tonight, but the postponement of that one saw us heading to Billingham, a town which – although founded in 650AD, really developed around the chemical factories of ICI in the 60s. In fact, the town’s other club – Billingham Synthonia – is perhaps the only football team in the world named after an agricultural fertiliser.

I’ve been researching Billingham recently for North East Statues: probably my favourite piece of public art in the region is there. Edward Bainbridge Copnall’s Family Group (seen at the top of this blog) was unveiled by the Queen in 1967, despite being perhaps the clearest example of Socialist Realism in the country. While a man named Edward Bainbridge Copnall is unlikely to be a secret comrade, he’d definitely been cribbing their sculptural notes.

Billingham Town have a snug little ground on the edge of town (an easy walk from the centre) and Bedford Terrace is fairly busy for tonight’s visit of table-toppers Consett. The hosts – in contrast to their high-flying opponents – are winless in five and dancing around the relegation zone. They’ve also just lost their manager, meaning that Graeme Clark (who I presume was the assistant) takes charge. More on him later.

Consett start strongly and take the lead after just 11 minutes. It looks for all the world like this is going to be a mauling with the visitors seemingly a class above, but Billingham slowly gain a foothold and before long they’re dictating the play, with their humongous centre-back providing a calming presence. A sustained period of pressure eventually sees Connor Rennison drill an excellent low shot through the crowd to make it 1-1 just before half time.

One thing I’ve missed over the last 9 years in Japan, Bahrain and Hungary is the ability to understand the witty bon mots delivered by likely lads in the crowd. There’s something uniquely footbally about someone calling the ref a “ginger get”, followed 5 minutes of spirited bickering about whether he’s actually just strawberry blonde.

Graeme Clark, or is it?

Perhaps Billingham’s success tonight stems from the inquisitive temporary manager Graeme Clark, whose management style comes in the form of a barrage of rhetorical questions. “Can you deliver?”, he shouts to a bemused winger. “Do you want it?”, he asks of a leaping defender. While this kind of thing would send me into an instant existential crisis, it seems to resonate with the home players, who’ve clearly achieved a zen-like focus borne of constant truth-seeking. “Can I deliver?”, thinks the winger. “What is delivering? Is it even possible in such a polarised and problematical world?”, followed by a cross that doesn’t beat the first man.

Nonetheless, Billingham grab the draw. And a very creditable one at that.

Billingham Town 1-1 Consett

The clubhouse is cosy little place and the staff were lovely and didn’t even mock Ben too much about his Guiness and blackcurrent (he’s had Covid and beer tastes like soil apparently). Overall, a perfect reintroduction to non-league football. Back home to Boro next, followed by Marske United and anything else that comes my way.

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