Mark Carruthers: Football in its purest form is back and, at last, so are the people that hold it close to their heart
Rarely has the clink and clunk of a mechanism sounded so sweet.
A reminder of how things were, what we have been missing and all the things we have taken for granted but never will again.
It was one small part of a wide-ranging attack of the senses that was so gratefully received.
The sound of the click, clunk as it turns to open up to another little piece of normality.
This was the welcome sight of supporters making their way through a turnstile for the first time in almost 18 months.
The smell of burgers, pies and hot dogs piercing the air, the feel of the cool pint glass and the sharp taste of its contents that signal the start of matchdays for many.
It was all there.
It was there at Newcastle Blue Star, at Dunston UTS, Blyth Spartans, Hebburn Town, Spennymoor Town and at North Shields.
Five different venues over two weeks at clubs competing in four different leagues, but the familiar matchday sounds, smells and sights were all there after such a long absence.
From one of the North East’s most ambitious Northern Alliance clubs to two of the region’s best non-league grounds, via two FA Vase winners where the reception is always as warm as the recent weather.
These are clubs with different targets, different aspirations, different budgets – but they have all been linked by one common factor since preparations for the 2021/22 season began last month.
For almost 18 months, I have witnessed games that have been held behind closed doors or with limited attendances.
I’ve sat at the likes of the International Stadium, Croft Park, Brewery Field, 1st Cloud Arena, Belle View, the Green Energy Sports Ground and even Wembley Stadium and seen the senses deprived of their usual fill.
The only noises coming from the echoey thud of foot on ball, the piercing shrill of the referee’s whistle or boisterous instructions from coach to player relayed on to team-mate.
Surrounding the pitch was the haunting sight of rows of empty seats and stands being a constant reminder that the world we have lived in as football supporters has been far from the norm.
The feel, touch and taste of any ‘normal’ matchday all conspicuous by their absence.
I am very fortunate in my position as a football writer to have attended fixtures where supporters have been limited to watching on live streams or from behind their television screens – and it is not a privilege that I have taken lightly, nor was it one that I ever taken for granted.
The buzz of matchday slowly seeped away the minute I walked out of South Shields’ home game against FC United of Manchester alongside over 3,200 others knowing it was highly likely supporters would not return for the foreseeable future.
That pre-lockdown (version one) took place in March 2020, and it was only in the last fortnight that supporters have returned in fair numbers.
The distance between supporters and clubs – or the authorities that run them - at the top end of the game has been widened over years – but this enforced (social) distancing between non-league club’s and their followers threatened the core of the game at our level.
I do not mind admitting that visiting Newcastle Blue Star’s new look ground for their friendly against West Auckland Town and witnessing supporters of both clubs making their way to the ground in great numbers was an emotional experience.
Seeing parents and children, friends and families walking to the ground, discussing nothing other than how good it was to be back and the monumental changes at the clubs warmed the soul on a balmy Tyneside evening.
A week later I ventured to Dunston UTS and saw another two clubs that have been overhauled in recent years.
The hosts and National League North rivals Gateshead put on a fine show in front of an appreciative crowd at a stadium that has been transformed since Dunston’s time as a Northern League club.
I saw the Heed rekindle their relationship with Hebburn Town as two clubs that have formed a bond in adversity met in front of supporters that know just how important that connection has been.
In the baking Northumberland heat at Croft Park at the weekend, Blyth Spartans supporters returned, along with hope, expectation, and belief.
A 3-0 home defeat against Altrincham in February 2020 was the last time the Green Army ventured to their historic home with all those aspects sadly missing.
However, after a transformative summer where Michael Nelson has overhauled his squad with the return of several former favourites, there was a genuine buzz around Croft Park that was missing even before lockdown was imposed.
At Brewery Field, where a Football League standard ground has quietly crept up on us all, the sun blazed down on an immaculate pitch and the Spennymoor Town faithful cherished their second home friendly of the summer.
The familiar oohs and ahhs and throaty roars during a surprisingly competitive friendly against Hartlepool United filled something inside that has been sorely missed.
Smiles on faces in all parts of the ground were a welcome sight.
And at North Shields, where Spartans were the visitors on a warm North Tyneside evening, the Ultras were in fine voice and the drinks were flowing as another Northern League ground opened up once again ahead of a season that promises much for the Robins.
There were still constant reminders of the events of the last 18 months with hand santiser applied, face masks being worn in certain places around the ground and people ‘checking in’ on their smart phones.
But we are now closer than ever to a return to the matchday we all know, love and cherish – and we should never take anything for granted.
Football in its purest form is back and, at last, so are the people that hold it close to their heart.