HUST: Thanks for agreeing to speak to us, Harry. The Far Corner comes up regularly on many football fans favourite book lists, and most writers seem to be keen to cash in on a hit, why did it take 25 years to get round to The Farther Corner?
Harry: Partly because The Far Corner did so well. I was asked by publishers to do it but they’d say, “Perhaps this time focusing a bit more on Newcastle rather than clubs nobody had heard of that only have 25 fans”. They completely missed the point really but I did get asked a lot. I also hummed and hahed because people really liked it so you feel you want to write something good for them. As I’ve got older I’ve realised that people are actually spending money on your books, they’ve earned it by working hard and they deserve a decent read. I suppose I was nervous about spoiling the first one.
HUST: What finally changed your mind?
Harry: So much had changed with football, when I wrote The Far Corner I didn’t know that we were right on the cusp of the Premier League, Sky money and foreign players arriving in numbers so football changed completely in the next three or four years. In ‘94 going to Ayresome Park or the Victoria Ground was pretty much the same as it was for our grandparents. Looking at the Riverside Stadium compared to Ayresome Park, my grandad wouldn’t have recognised that at all -buying a ticket in advance, having a particular seat, never mind flushing toilets!
So that’s one reason but then a lot of things in my own life changed as well and football became more important to me because of my social circumstances. I basically became single again at the age of 50 and football became this really nice social outlet. Partly because, although I know loads of people at Northern League, I don’t know anything at all about their circumstances and they don’t know anything about mine, it all works on a level of talking about football and the surrounding little things. That’s an important thing, under the lockdown I think people miss talking to people they know well enough to chat with but not well enough to be too concerned about each other. At football you don’t ask whoever you’re stood next to whether they’ve got a girlfriend or how they’re feeling, why would you ask them that when there’s an offside to discuss? They’d think you were weird.
HUST: The Farther Corner reads like it was written by a lover of football rather than a Boro fan who happens to go to some other clubs. Is that a fair comment?
Harry: Yes, certainly in the sense that although Boro are, and probably always will be, the first result I look for I do think of myself as a Northern League fan now. A lot of the people I go to football with regularly are ex Sunderland or Newcastle fans who feel a similar way, disenfranchised by the way football has changed. People often ask who I support in the Northern League and I like Dunston and Benfield to do well, maybe Crawcrook too, but I think the Northern League is a collective thing. There are some one club fanatics but, generally, if an NL club get to the FA Vase final everybody connected to the league is pleased. If Sunderland got to the FA Cup Final I think it fair to say a majority of followers of the other North East clubs wouldn’t be cheering them on!
When I was younger if somebody told me they liked football but didn’t support any particular team I always thought there was something the matter with them. Now I’ve become that person.
HUST: What’s the appeal of the Northern League as opposed to the National League?
Harry: The atmosphere is different. One of the things I like about Pools is the rage of the crowd. I mention the Save Pools Day match in the book. With about fifteen minutes to go this woman behind us just stood up and went completely mad, swearing away about what a disgrace the team were. And then this other woman in front of me said, “Eeh Sandra, you’ve been that quiet I didn’t know you were here.” It was like the Pools fans had guests and were on good behaviour because that level of rage is actually normal. The commitment of fans at league and National League level is greater.
At Northern League things are more fraternal, it’s a kinder atmosphere which I’ve come to value.
HUST: Did the swearing ban make a difference?
Harry: Kind of. There’s still a lot of players swearing at themselves if you know what I mean. The ban isn’t too strictly enforced but things have calmed down. When I wrote The Far Corner it was full on.
HUST: If you were pushed to recommend a ground as a kind of sampler for the Northern League which would it be?
Harry: Crook Town, the Millfield Ground. They had a bit of money at one time and you can still see that this was an important place, the capacity is huge. Most of it would involve standing on grass banks but there is still a big grandstand. When you sit in it you’re looking out across terraced houses with their washing out and then the hills behind them. Tow Law’s Ironworks Road is fantastic as well, strange murals and the sheer, deep coldness. If you stand on the right side of the pitch you can’t see anything at all except the North Pennines. I took a photo of a goalkeeper there who’d wandered up the pitch a bit and it just looks like a man lost in a freezing, barren wilderness who happens to be in a football kit.
Willington as well, and Ashington, and Esh Winning – I could go on. Any of the old traditional grounds really, Shildon’s good too. They’re all better than the new multi-purpose grounds like the one at Bishop Aukland. A lot of them are newer clubs as well. Economically, Durham is so deprived and although everybody sees football as something that thrives in poorer areas it actually needs money as well. In the last few years the bigger Northern League teams have been in Morpeth and Marske, more middle class suburban places. You can see the same thing in the Football League where there are far more teams from the south east and the area round Manchester. Where there’s money you find successful football teams.
HUST: Do think the North East is still producing a lot of good footballers?
Harry: I think the scale it used to was incredible. Jimmy Adamson and Jackie and Bobby Charlton were all born in the same street in Ashington. That’s three PFA players of the year within a few doors of each other! Colin Bell from Hesleden wasn’t he, or Horden? Stan Anderson who was captain of Newcastle and was from Horden saw him playing as a schoolboy and phoned Joe Harvey and said, “I’ve just seen this brilliant kid, you have to sign him.” Harvey checked his name and said that they’d already seen him and he wasn’t right for Newcastle. Managers as well though, Bob Paisley and Harry Potts were both from Houghton-Le-Spring, Potts won the League with Burnley and Paisley did quite well too. They were from the same street but neither of them ever managed in the North East.
Doesn’t seem the same now, certainly the England team doesn’t reflect it anymore. Middlesbrough’s academy seems to be doing quite well, there were a couple of players in the England U17s who won the World Cup. There are still players coming through but the structures have changed and that’s had a big impact.
HUST: One thing that stood out in the book was your claim that you’ve never been to boring Pools match. That came as a surprise are you standing by it?
Harry: Absolutely! To be fair, when I was getting down from Hexham quite regularly it did coincide with what you could call the glory years but even since then something always happens. I went to that match when Pools got thrashed 5-0 by Sheffield Wednesday and Mellor, who they’d got from Liverpool was fantastic. Not ideal viewing for a Pools fans but not boring. The cup match against Blyth is another example, I brought a German mate with me and he just loved it, the commitment and the atmosphere. I also went to the match when they avoided relegation under Ronnie Moore and it was unbelievable.
HUST: Didn’t you come to the match when Boydy destroyed Sheffield Wednesday in the rain?
Harry: That hat trick was just brilliant. I put a chunk in The Farther Corner about that but I’d written about it before and the publisher said, “Hang on, this has already appeared in The Blizzard and The Guardian republished it, it’s on their website.” I said, “Yes but Boyd was fantastic, it was a great match and we nearly died on the A19, nobody will mind reading it again!” It didn’t get past them though…
HUST: That Pools team was superb wasn’t it?
Harry: Yes, great team, Boyd was regularly brilliant, Humphreys was terrific and the Australian bloke up front as well, Joel Porter, was very good. To be honest when I think about players I’ve watched live over the last couple of decades, with the exception of Juninho, Boydy gave me more pleasure than anybody. He was like a throwback to the seventies, the Frank Worthington of his day. And I say that with all due respect, as a kid I really liked Frank Worthington.
So, yes, I can’t think of a genuinely bad match I’ve seen at Pools. I mean I want Pools to win when I watch them, more so if I’m with a Pools supporting friend, but I’m essentially a neutral so I can appreciate a good match that they lose more than a fan can. I like Carlisle to win too when I go there but sometimes things do get dull. Actually, I’ve seen a couple of great Pools matches there as well, that one where Pools came back to win 4-3 from 3-0 down. And another midweek one where it was unbelievably cold, the beer at half time was nearly frozen and the stadium announcer played Sex On The Beach. There you go, always have a good time watching Pools.
HUST: Could we sponsor you to go more often?
Harry: Certainly. It would keep me away from Brunton Park where I’ve seen some shit games! Plus, they don’t get properly angry, they just grumble. Like a low mumbling of dissatisfaction. I took my German mate there and the linesman missed an offside and he said, “At Victoria Park they would have gone berserk about that! Somebody would have screamed until a steward took him away, remember that man at the Blyth match.” It was about a throw in that had been given the wrong way after about fifteen minutes and this bloke just abused the official at every opportunity for the rest of the match. That’s either disproportionate or a sign of real commitment.
HUST: Nice that he appreciates our capacity for anger but that Blyth match did see a volcano of rage about events at the club explode.
Harry: Yes, things were dreadful for Pools at that point but I particularly enjoyed the abusing of Alan Shearer. He was doing an interview on the pitch at half time and had to abandon it because viewers could have heard the uncomplimentary chants. I particularly approved of that. I think it might come from supporting Boro, you hear the same thing there – it’s like a boiling rage that comes from life in general but gets expressed at football.
HUST: On more positive channels for fans feelings – what do you think of Supporters Trusts?
Harry: They’re a good thing. I mean at the highest level they’re not an option – how much would Liverpool fans have to raise to buy their club? But at other levels they can be vital. I know some of the people at Darlington and they’ve built the club back up on their own. There’s quite a few clubs have been saved and rebuilt by trusts, Chester are one aren’t they? Following Northern League the clubs aren’t fan owned but they’re run by committees that are basically fans. Top level football has become disconnected from its audience which is what put me off it really. It doesn’t have any relationship with the community it serves, it doesn’t even recognise that community anymore. I suppose Trusts are taking things back to what was a Victorian ideal – that football clubs should contribute to the communities they’re based in. It’s what the FA was supposed to oversee but they seem to have lost the plot.
I’d wish any trust well, I mean good luck with it at Pools. The problem is that for a trust to take over a club it generally has to hit rock bottom as we saw at Darlington, Exeter and Chester. Much as I enjoy the Northern League you don’t want to Pools to end up there.
HUST: No, that’s why most people involved with HUST see it as a way to secure supporter representation while hoping that the stepping in to avoid oblivion option is never needed. Trusts can also help to guard against predatory owners when an owner moves on. We know a bit about them!
Harry: I think all Middlesbrough supporters would say that the best thing for a football club is a benign dictatorship – a really wealthy owner who is also nice and pumps the cash in as required. They had that with Steve Gibson, although he seems to have gone weirdly right wing recently, but that’s just luck. It could have just as easily been Mike Ashley or whoever owns Sunderland now. You need some stability and a degree of democracy and supporter representation can do that.
HUST: Hopefully we’ll be able to achieve that, although Raj Singh turned down a recent offer of investment.
Harry: That’s the bizarre thing about people who own clubs, why not just take the money? The guy at Bury showed he’d rather destroy the whole thing than take a pragmatic decision and share control in exchange for cash. Surely that’s what a business person would do isn’t it?
The crucial thing about trusts is that they’re a collective. My Dad used to help to negotiate pay rates in the steel industry and he once told me that good steel erectors got paid more than the managers. He didn’t see that as odd, he just said the steel erectors had a strong union. As individual fans you’ve got no power but as a united collective you’re always stronger. You can see it at Newcastle where they’ve got about fifty different fans groups, people must just enjoy running them! If they had a single collective of 25,000 fans they could achieve something. It isn’t easy to do but it’s the only way forward.
It’s no use appealing to most club owners’ better natures and asking respectfully to be considered, you have to show that you can either harm or help them. Even if you can’t buy shares, if you have a properly constituted body that can legitimately speak for big group of fans you can influence a club.
The problem is it is hard to make a collective of football fans, even though they support the same club they have different agendas. Another problem is that most of the football media, radio phone ins, newspapers, TV, they all want to avoid talking about ownership or blaming people who run clubs. Owners have become more aggressive in how they respond to criticism and that’s quelled it. Local papers don’t have the staff to investigate anything anymore and mostly rely on being fed football stories by media departments so they’re dependent. The better ones at least used to try and speak for fans but now they don’t exist or are too scared to argue with anyone powerful. You could say people have an outlet on message boards and social media groups and so on but they’re just really individuals shouting into the ether. I think supporters trusts have become more important than ever because of that fragmentation and the decline of the local print media. They’re not journalists anymore, they won’t question the owners of clubs, they’ll just point a finger at the referee or rate players. So, if supporters have nobody else representing them, they have to represent themselves and do it in a united way.
HUST: To finish with a question based on The Farther Corner: You mention that your personal life took a turn for the better after a first date seeing The Sugar Hill Gang. Would you recommend old school hip hop for dating and are there any dance moves you’d suggest for those of us in our fifties?
Harry: I would! It was a very funny evening. There were lots of ageing hip hop fans there and there was a bloke in front of us who I could tell was starting to do that thing where you make a swing with your hands and then jump through it. I kept thinking he can’t do that at his age, he’s going to land on his face and break his nose. I kept watching and he kept lining it up but then some force within him stopped him. Probably for the best. The other thing is don’t attempt the worm at The Riverside in Newcastle, if you did it on that floor I’m not sure what you’d get but you’d certainly catch something. Overall, I’d say hip hop is fine for a date but as far as dancing goes stick to gentle rhythmic nodding.
Our thanks goes to Ed Parkinson for interviewing on behalf of HUST and the brilliant write up.