Forget international week – take a non-league trip down memory lane

Stephen Halliday in action for Ashbrooke Belford House
Stephen Halliday in action for Ashbrooke Belford House
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International weekends don’t normally affect life in the National Conference.

We don’t tend to have too many postponements due to international call-ups. Although we did have one player away representing his country. Robbie McDaid, who is on loan from Leeds United, played for the Northern Ireland Under 21’s against Scotland on Tuesday but that is pretty rare.

Non-league football does actually have it’s own national team in the form of England C, an under-23 side made up of the best players outside of the top four leagues.

To be honest with you though, I’m not sure what purpose it actually serves. Of course it’s nice to be recognised by your country but it isn’t a part of the more natural path of progression towards full the international team that the under 21’s and B teams give.

I don’t want to be too disparaging about it, but to me it does smack of when managers of kids football teams give out trophies to kids for simply trying hard. We diminish real achievement by dilution. Not everyone can win and that’s what makes it so special.

It probably does sound harsh but the way I look at it is that it’s a team of the best players who aren’t quite good enough. If I was to be selected I’d feel it was somewhat of a backhanded compliment. I just don’t see the point. If they’re going to have an England C team it should be made up of “genuine” non-league players who aren’t full-time.

Many clubs in the National League are professionals anyway so in the old fashioned sense of the term, this isn’t an amateur side, as was the premise for the side in the first place.

There are players who do go on to better things. The most notable of those involved in recent years is Burnley’s Andre Gray who played for the C side whilst he was at Luton Town. After failing to make the grade at Shrewsbury, he rebuilt his career via Tamworth, Hinckley United and The Hatters and after a successful spell at Brentford, is continuing to spearhead Burnley’s return to the Premier League after he moved there for a reported £6million. If you’re tired of the whole Jamie Vardy fairytale headlines, hopefully next season could provide us with another example to point to.

Fortunately for me, we played away to Tranmere on Friday as it was the live game on BT Sport, which gave us an extra day between that game and the traditional Easter Monday fixture and also gave us the novelty of a football free Saturday. Kind of, anyway.

I took the chance to come back to Sunderland to visit family and after a quick text from a mate, I decided to go and watch some proper football at Silksworth Colliery Welfare. Three of my mates, Ken Taylor, Paul Robertson and ex-Hartlepool and Carlisle United striker Stephen “Buddy” Halliday were playing for Belford House, a team who I’d watched my dad play for as a kid.

The weather on Saturday seemed apt. It was blowing a gale and threatening to rain any second. Probably not the place my daughter wanted to spend her Saturday afternoon with her dad but it’s character building stuff this; watching grown men chase after a ball in a swirling hurricane of a wind.

Over the years I’ve not had the chance to watch much of my mates play, I’ve not had the chance to see them full stop so I couldn’t turn the chance down now and I’m glad I did. If there’s one regret I’ve got in my life it’s that I was so focused on my career that I missed out on much of what went on back home. It made me realise how much I’d missed them all.

Myself, along with all of the lads I grew up with are 40 this year and I was as excited to see the three of them play as any player in the Premier League I’ve ever seen. Keen to see if the grey of their hair had come from the lead in their boots but in Ken’s case it’s made him better. He was never very quick anyway.

As if the script was written just for me, minutes after I turned up, late as usual, the ball dropped to Ken just outside the six-yard box and he coolly lifted the ball over the advancing keeper and into the net. It had the nonchalance mix of Berbatov and Cantona rolled into one. Not that I was surprised by Ken’s deft touch, I’d seen that done before.

When playing in the Southmoor School team at Houghton Kepier, Ken scored one of the finest own goals past me that you’re ever likely to see. In the days before the back pass was outlawed, a cross came to the back post and Ken calmly brought the ball down and passed it back to me, only for the ball to slip though my legs as I bent down to pick it up.

At that precise moment, all I could hear was my dad laughing on the sidelines. I mean, it was funny and I’d have been laughing too if I was watching someone else do it but I didn’t speak to him for a week after that.

I’d always held a bit of a grudge against my dad about that but I now see it was a great lesson for me. I did exactly the same thing during my first appearance on Sky Sports when I was playing against Wolves for Darlington in the FA Cup. You’d think that professional humiliation doesn’t come greater than that but that mistake at Houghton still burns more than any defeat or error I’ve subsequently made higher at higher levels. Just goes to show Rod Stewart was right. The first cut really is the deepest.

Life takes us away from what we’d ideally spend our time doing and Facebook isn’t a substitute for real friendship and in that respect it’s good to see some things never change. Apart from the grey hair and the waistlines, that is.