When Julio Arca became, as Harry Pearson put it, “the only U20 World Cup winning captain ever to score against Stokesley”, it was far from the first contact between overseas footballers and stalwarts of the Northern League. In August, Fabian Otte, ex-starting goalkeeper for New Zealand's Western Suburbs and formerly of Bayer Leverkusen U23s, turned out for Bedlington Terriers against Whitley Bay, while recent years have seen, among others, Laurent Sanson move from France to Newcastle Benfield, Mateusz Halambiec go from Morpeth Town to the Polish second division, ex-AS Roma junior Matteo Faiola play for Roofing and Bishop Auckland, and Tow Law field Gustavo Silva, the league's first jogador do Brasil. “He knows all about the weather,” Lawyers secretary Steve Moralee promised. “He's trained here in the snow wearing shorts.”
The movement hasn't always been one way. While West Auckland's Lipton Cup exploits are well documented, Bishop Auckland toured Belgium for the first time in the year that West made their inaugural journey to Turin and made it as far afield as Hungary as early as 1912. Jack Greenwell's Barcelona hosted Crook the following season and employed a second ex-Northern League man when Harold 'Collie' Stamper – a 1912 Olympian and FA Amateur Cup winner – joined as a coach from Stockton. Stamper went on to Genoa; Greenwell, more famously, played 88 times for Barca, managed Espanyol and Valencia to league championships and guided Peru to a Copa America title in 1939. “The Peruvians were well served by their English manager, who out-thought Uruguay tactically in the final match,” wrote Andreas Campomar in his magisterial history of the Latin American game.
The Northern League's first foreign-born player was Arthur Wharton. “His father was half-Scottish, his mother was related to the Ghanaian royal family,” wrote the Northern Echo of a pioneer whose career achievements included an FA Cup semi-final and a world record time for the 100-metre sprint. Now recognised as the world's first black professional footballer, the goalkeeper won a Cleveland Challenge Cup with Darlington, was signed by Preston North End and later understudied William 'Fatty' Foulkes at Sheffield United. A less celebrated figure, Billy Charnock was born in Serphukov, 62 miles south of Moscow, to a family of textile factory owners who orginally came from Leek. In addition to playing for Bishop Auckland, Charnock also captained Russia in their first international victory, a 3-0 win over Norway in 1913.
As clubs continued to look outwards – Crook toured Norway in 1962 and lost by a single goal to the Indian national team 14 years later - Northern League imports have arrived from places as seemingly implausible as Atletico Madrid, who supplied Stokesley SC with Asenjo Bravo in 2012, and Japan. "In 1991-92 Durham City registered Yoshinobu Uchida, though the sole surviving reference in print or online merely reveals he was 'from Tokyo, a student at Durham University' ” I wrote in a programme column last year which also referenced the curious case of Yosuke Suzuki's time at Whitley Bay. In 2008, Owen Amos had a piece in When Saturday Comes on Brandon United's BJ Heijmans, “who, by a series of happy accidents, found his home in deepest County Durham”. Amos caught up with Heijmans at a training session: “We play the Dutch way, from the back. We have conceded 63 goals this season, and 50 were from individual mistakes. But we are young, and that will improve.” Among the onlookers that “cold Thursday night” was the Argentine Gus Di Lella, recently sacked as manager by Horden Colliery Welfare. Di Lella is now coaching at Seaham Red Star, who've also recently had a Bulgarian and a New Zealander on their books. Bedlington, of course, have close ties with the USA through president and Buffalo Bisons owner Bob Rich, while Durham City are owned by Olivier Bernard, once of Lyon, Newcastle United and the Champions League.
So next time someone writes disparagingly about the Northern League's insularity and isolationism, remember Heijmans and Wharton, Crook Town playing to 100,000 people in Calcutta, Suzuki, Uchida and the nomadic Jack Greenwell, born in Peases West in 1884 and buried, by way of Italy, Spain, Turkey and Peru, in a Bogota grave that is forever south-west Durham.
As the rain swept on from York, Roofing's game with West Allotment Celtic was called off with most of the club's volunteer matchday staff midway through a 12-mile charity walk. "Some good stories, anyway," messaged the club's media manager and goalkeeper coach. "Bird shat on me, the secretary slipped on dog shit and we spent 30 minutes in a bus stop sorting out the postponement." The full programme, plus insert, will be on sale for £1.50 at the re-arranged fixture, or via email for whatever you want to pay.