JAMES Arthur was given a small taste of what life might be like if he wins the X-Factor this weekend when he returned to his native North-East today. Chris Webber followed the singer as he prepared for his hometown gig.

THE last time James Arthur played the Victoria in sleepy Saltburn-by-the-Sea you could count the number of fans on little more than two hands.

But having left his hometown a mere pub singer, he returned home today every inch the rock star.

The 24-year-old has been the stand-out act of this season’s X-Factor, sealing his place in Sunday’s final with a stunning reworking of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit, The Power of Love.

The backing of four of the music business’ fiercest critics already in the bag, he stepped off a chauffeur-ridden Harley Davidson like a conquering hero.

Hundreds had gathered in the cold to await his arrival, but the frozen fingers and feet were worth it when he finally arrived, accompanied by his mentor and former Pussycat Doll, Nicole Scherzinger.

After fighting his way through the crowds, James and his X-Factor entourage, entered the Victoria to be greeted by family and friends.

At the centre of the throng was his mother, Shirley, and she got what many of the young girls - and some older ones - outside would have died for - a hug and a peck on the cheek.

“The last time James played here he had a fiver in his pocket and just 15 people came to watch,” she said.

“Now look.”

James allowed himself a shandy before picking up his acoustic guitar and belting out a couple of numbers - including fittingly Adele’s Hometown Glory.

Outside, the crowds refused to dissipate. They wanted more, chanting his name and playing his songs, while they waited.

Laughter broke out when one older lady shouted out: “He can take as long as he likes so long as he gives me a kiss.”

Not everyone was happy though with the brief glimpse they received.

Lorraine Chapman, of Skelton, had been waiting with Chloe Hill, 20, since 8.20am.

“I thought he would have thanked the crowd, or at least said something,” said Lorraine, pointing to the women and children, some with babes in arms. “All that waiting for 30 seconds.”

It didn’t seem to bother Chloe though.

“I am still glad,” she said. “I have been voting for him.”

What Lorraine did not realise was that James, who did manage a wave from an upstairs window before being whisked away by his ITV minders, had already paid a heartfelt tribute not only to those outside, but to everyone in the North-East who had backed him during the competition.

“It is completely surreal, the amount of support there is here,” he said as he stood in the bar where he used to perform. “When a lot of bands couldn’t do a Friday night slot, they would give me a ring, as I lived down the road, and I would come and play here and one man and his dog would maybe give me a cricket clap.

“It’s incredible, absolutely incredible.”

Of his fans, he said: “I can’t thank them enough for voting. It just shows you that when someone from the North-East does well for themselves everyone gets behind them. We are loyal people and we look after our own. If I could shake every last one of their hands and say thankyou for picking up the phone I would do that.”

Saltburn sated, the circus moved on to Middlesbrough where James played a sell-out gig at Middlesbrough Town Hall.

The crowds were there once more, snaking round the cold and damp streets hours before the concert was due to start.

Now, just one more great performance stands between James Arthur and potential mega stardom.

His mother, however, was in no doubt what the outcome would be.

“He’s going to win it,” she said with that unflinching self-belief only a mother can have. “Look at all these people, all for our boy. He’s going to win it.”

Not one of those who came out to see him in East Cleveland and Teesside yesterday would dare disagree.