The Grand Central service to Kings Cross departs from an underground Metro platform in Sunderland. A portrait of Marilyn Monroe smiles from the doorways, Cluedo and Chess boards are printed on table tops and there's even free wi-fi if you can ever get it to connect (I couldn't in either direction). Two Mackem girls on a London weekender swig back lemonade and white wine - "Eeeh, it's 14% this, y'kna!" - as we clatter through the Billy Elliot towns of the East Durham coal belt: brownfield, red brick, plastic litter. Northallerton is the third stop, an hour down the line and the thirtieth leg of the Northern League Tour James Williams began in August last year. "Not a good start," he texts as he enters the Station Hotel to find the landlord dressed in red and white stripes and a Sunderland pennant hanging from the bar. Romanby's Golden Lion is just across the train tracks, a log-effect fire and Copper Dragon beers accompanying a window view of the village green, while the Regency Stadium itself is a few minutes further down Ainderby Road, past a Co-op food store, a war memorial and a pitch now belonging to Northallerton Juniors FC. A sign outside the turnstile promises 'Open Tonight: Food', wooden picnic tables are dotted along the side terracing, and the remnants of a wedding party watch kick-off from the clubhouse bar. "Can you get the team to sign my programme?" asks the bride.
Nobody contests the equaliser, Dan Clayton carrying the ball unchallenged through midfield before picking his spot as confidently as Marron. The gusting wind helps beat Birtley backwards and sends us in the direction of the clubhouse window, where, pints in hand, we watch the away side make the first of three strikes on the crossbar and Colin Anderson give Northallerton a thoroughly merited half-time lead. The black and whites shade most of the second half, too, Birtley's attacks finding nothing but the woodwork or, more commonly, Craig Winter's head. With the giant defender exuding calm like his father does controversy the home side don't seem in much danger of relinquishing their lead until Marron crosses for Dan Hepplewhite to nod in a leveller with just two minutes left of the ninety. "How much longer, referee?" a Northallerton fan shouts across the pitch. Long enough for a James Allsopp free-kick to find the corner of the net after two stepovers and three minutes of time added on. "Defeat from the jaws of victory" is the headline on a Northallerton forum; Birtley, undefeated since November 26th, are threatening to become promotion candidates themselves.
Date: January 21st 2012