IN the introduction to ‘The Farther Corner’, a book billed as a “sentimental return to North-East football”, Harry Pearson explains how his outlook on the non-league game has changed in the last quarter-of-a-century.

“Twenty-five years ago I would look around a ground – Ironworks Road, Croft Park, Brewery Fields, Kingsway, wherever – and wonder about the elderly fleece-clad folk in the unfashionable hats who leaned gingerly against the crash barriers, warming their hands on Styrofoam cups of turgid soup, wheezing condensation into the coal-scented air,” wrote Pearson. “I had never thought then that over time I would become one of them.”

In fact, Pearson hasn’t just become ‘one of them’ in the years that have passed since the 1995 publication of ‘The Far Corner’, a multi award-winning dribble through the North-East game that is justifiably regarded as one of the best football books ever written, he has evolved into an unashamed champion of the region’s non-league clubs and the communities they help support.

Not, however, that it was meant to turn out that way when he put pen to paper to begin writing the original ‘Far Corner’.

“With the first book, the plan was to chronicle a season of North-East football, and the non-league scene was only going to be a small part of that,” explains Pearson, Teesside-born, but now based in Hexham. “But as soon as I started going to non-league matches regularly, I was captivated by everything about them. The sights, the smells, the characters and yes, the football. It just seemed so much more real and immersive than the so-called bigger games.

“So, by the time I’d finished writing, the vast majority of the book focused on non-league clubs and non-league matches. I remember speaking to my publisher after he’d read it, not knowing that my focus had changed. He said, ‘We like it, Harry. But if we’d known that was what you were going to do at the start, we’d never have commissioned it.”

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Thank goodness they did. ‘The Far Corner’ shone on a light on a world and region that is rarely spotlighted and championed in the mainstream sporting media, and the more Pearson engaged with it, the more it became an integral part of his life.

Over the last two-and-a-half decades, he has become a regular at his favourite Northern League clubs, making friends, even if he doesn’t necessarily know their names, and musing on how football continues to bind communities together and create an identity that is passed down the generations.

He touches on that enduring power in ‘The Farther Corner’, but why, after 25 years, did he feel the time was right to produce a new anthology?

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“I’ve had lots of approaches to do a follow-up over the years,” he says. “But it just never felt like the right moment. I suppose when it was pointed out that it was 25 years on, it seemed like a good time.

“Football has changed so much in the last 25 years. When the first book came out, the Premier League was just starting, the Bosman ruling hadn’t come in, you didn’t have anything like the kind of money at the top end of the game that there is now.

“If you were a child going to a football match back then, your matchday experience was probably the same as your grandfather’s had been. You paid your money to go through the turnstile, stood on a terrace with a leaky roof, and the lavatory facility was basically just a wall.

“Now, at the top level of the game, that experience is totally different. But I suppose I wanted to look lower down and see if football has changed out of recognition there too.”

And has it? “Not really,” Pearson continues. “There have been improvements, definitely. I’ve turned into quite a passionate defender of the standard of football in the Northern League. The players are better, the coaching is better and the pitches are better too. You see some really, really good matches.

“But turn up at Ryton and Crawcrook or Tow Law on a Saturday afternoon, and your experience will still be quite different to if you’re at St James’ Park or the Riverside. You’ll certainly see some quite different characters.”

Those characters, like Pearson, were forced to go without their footballing fix for more than a year as the Covid pandemic forced a complete shutdown of the non-league game.

Normality has gradually returned, and Pearson admits even he has been surprised by just how much enjoyment he has taken from being able to head back to his familiar haunts.

“I’ve been meeting back up with people that were actually a big part of my life, even though I didn’t really know them,” he says. “I was at a game the other day and saw a bloke I’ve probably been seeing at matches for about 25 years. We sat down together to have a pint, and it was probably the first time I’ve properly spoken to him.

“There was another fella, Jimmy, at Dunston. He had to shield for eight months, so just being able to get out of the house and be around people again at a match was a massive thing for him.

“I got speaking to someone at a game the other weekend and asked him if he was pleased to be back at a game again. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘But not as much as my wife is. She’s hated having me under her feet on a Saturday afternoon for the last year’.”

* ‘The Farther Corner’, written by Harry Pearson, is published by Simon & Schuster. The hardback version is available now, priced £16.99.