Mark Carruthers: Moment, match, manager and player of the year in my 2021 non-league awards
The contrast between my first and final game of a quite frankly bizarre 2021 could not be more stark.
Back in January, with Covid-19 still holding the non-league game on its knees, I was one of the fortunate few to take in Gateshead’s 1-0 home win against Guiseley.
With supporters forced to watch on a stream, the thud of foot and head on ball and all-too-clear instructions from the sidelines provided a haunting soundtrack to a game that was far from conventional.
A late Macaulay Langstaff goal was enough to give the points to Mike Williamson’s side in what would be their final competitive game of the 2020/21 season.
Just two weeks later, the campaign was brought to a premature end as the authorities decided the risk of the spread of Covid-19 was becoming too prominent.
Weeks and months passed by before hopes were raised that a return to some sort of normality would arrive during the summer.
Supporters returned during pre-season fixtures, yet then-Northern League rivals Consett and Hebburn Town were inexplicably forced to play their much-delayed FA Vase Final behind closed doors at Wembley.
But now, despite the latest variant of Covid still posing a threat, supporters are back in numbers and they can not and will not be taken for granted.
My work for the festive period was rounded off with a visit to Croft Park on Tuesday as Blyth Spartans faced North East rivals Spennymoor Town in the National League North.
It was a match that promised much and over-delivered with an intoxicating mix of committed players, genuine quality and some outstanding finishing.
But the biggest thing I will take away from a 3-1 win for Spartans was the noise of the crowd and the atmosphere that provided as much to the game as anything that occurred on the pitch.
Managers on both sides referenced the noise made by both sets of supporters in their post-match analysis of a non-stop 90 minutes of football.
Each goal, every tackle, every clever piece of play brought a lusty roar and it took me back to that chilly January day at the International Stadium where noise and passion in the stands were so badly missed.
Supporters at the top level of the game continue to be taken for granted with last-minute postponements - no matter how necessary they are - causing financial and emotional heartache for fans looking for an escape from the unpredictability of the pandemic.
Quite often, unlike at the top level of the game, non-league supporters play key voluntary roles with their clubs and they have come to the fore over the last 18 months.
With 2022 now just hours away, and uncertainty still lingering over the latest moves by an at best unpredictable government, supporters need clarity on what lies next.
Football - for all of its negatives - does provide an emotional outlet, a place to socialise and get behind a common cause.
The game and the supporters that have been missed need each other - and you suspect the bond will only be further enhanced over the coming months and years when we finally move on from a difficult period in our lives.
Reflecting on a turbulent 2021 can often lead you to forgetting some on-field action did take place - so I thought I’d hand out - not literally - some unofficial awards from the last 12 months.
Player of the Year - Adam Boyes (Marske United)
It seems remarkable that Adam Boyes will head into 2022 with as many goals in one half-season as some strikers score in three or four.
The first half of the year saw Marske United out of action with Covid bringing a premature end of the Northern Premier League season.
But Boyes had made up for lost time by plundering his way to 36 goals in just 29 appearances in all competitions so far this season.
A half-century is surely not out of the question for the Seasiders frontman as he looks to lead his side to a historic promotion.
Manager of the Year - Mike Williamson (Gateshead)
Gateshead have enjoyed a remarkable 2021 and have suffered just four defeats in all competitions during the year.
One of those came with a fine performance in an FA Cup second round tie against League Two club Charlton Athletic in front of the ITV cameras earlier this month.
The Heed head into 2022 looking to stretch a run of seven consecutive wins in the league and enhance their bid for promotion into non-league’s top tier.
The new year promises much for Mike Williamson, Ian Watson, Louis Storey and everyone at the International Stadium.
Match of the Year - Hartlepool United 1-1 Torquay United (National League promotion final)
I never felt comfortable watching Hartlepool United in non-league football because they never felt like a club that should ply their trade at that level.
Thankfully, their four-season stay in the National League came to an end in remarkable circumstances at Ashton Gate this year.
An eventful game, a late equaliser from Torquay United keeper Lucas Covolan and a dramatic penalty shoot-out all played a part in a day that will live long in the memory for Pools supporters.
Now please, in the nicest possible way, never return to non-league again!
Moment of the Year - Consett v Hebburn Town (FA Vase Final)
Without doubt, this would have been my match of the year if supporters had been at Wembley to witness an absolute classic between two attack-minded sides.
Despite their absence, seeing Consett and Hebburn Town put on a fantastic advert for the North East non-league game will live in my memory for a long time to come.
The Hornets were worthy winners on the day but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Consett get their own Wembley win by the time the current season comes to a close.