NORMALLY, if you are a football coach who recommends the release of a player who goes on to win 60 caps for their country, you spend the rest of your career regretting the fact you got things wrong.

Just under two decades ago, John Carver made exactly that decision, with exactly those consequences. But rather than rueing what might have been, Newcastle United’s academy coach can reflect on the fact that his judgement was spot on.

Toby Flood is one of the best rugby players the North-East has ever produced. But by his own admission, he was never much of a footballer.

Plucked from the junior ranks at Alnwick Town, Flood spent two years playing for the academy teams at both Sunderland and Newcastle. He was awarded a place at the latter’s School of Excellence, only for Carver to end his footballing dreams at the age of 11. At the time, it felt crushing. Now, it feels like the ‘Sliding Doors’ moment that changed his life for the better.

“I saw John at the golf club the other day and we had a laugh about it,” said Flood. “I didn’t think he’d recognise me, but he came over and said, ‘I told you I’d made the right decision’.

“I loved playing football, but you could tell with some lads, it was their life. It probably wasn’t that with me. I’d go home and do a whole host of different things. It wasn’t the be all and end all for me, but with some kids, you could tell it absolutely was. Some of the kids were desperate to succeed – for me, it was more a bit of fun.

“You can’t predict the future, but in reality, I don’t think I would have been a professional footballer because there were kids better than me. I loved it, but I probably didn’t want it as much at the time as I did when I became 16 and there was a chance of me making it with rugby.

“When I got taken up by the Falcons’ academy at 17 or 18, I realised that if I was going to go at it, I had to go at it hard. I did my degree and stuff, but it was the chance of a lifetime so you went and really buried yourself into that. That was probably never going to happen at football.”

Tomorrow, though, Flood’s sporting life will come full circle. For the second year in a row, Newcastle Falcons are switching one of their home games to St James’ Park, and for the second year in a row, Flood will be standing at fly-half directing proceedings.

He was a pivotal performer in last year’s victory over Northampton Saints, and with Falcons currently rooted to the foot of the Premiership table with six games to play, the need for a repeat performance against Sale Sharks could hardly be more acute.

More of that in a moment though. First, what is it like for a proud Geordie – Flood was born in Surrey, but moved to the North-East before he was two – to play at the home of Newcastle United?

“If you grow up around here, then St James’ Park is a massive thing to you,” he said. “I was ball boy at St James’ a few times. It was pretty cool. I think I did a couple of games here, which was amazing as a young kid. I remember getting Shaka Hislop’s goalie gloves at the end of one game, it was fun.

“I played last year, which was great. I loved it. For a lot of us, it was a boyhood dream. All rugby players fancy themselves as footballers. We all think we can do it. We play football as a warm-up before our team run game, and everybody still thinks they’re brilliant. Then the ball gets introduced to the game and everyone soon realises how bad we are. It was a dream to do it, a massive occasion.”

The fact it is being repeated, with more than 30,000 tickets having already been sold, underlines rugby’s growing foothold in a region that is supposed to be obsessed with the round ball, to the preclusion of any other sporting love.

Falcons have worked assiduously to carve out a place in the North-East’s sporting landscape, and while there have been ups and downs along the way, rugby’s profile within the region has never been higher.

The successful hosting of matches at the 2015 Rugby World Cup helped, tomorrow’s game will provide another boost, and Newcastle’s status as a ‘rugby city’ will be enhanced even further when the two biggest matches in the European club game – the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals – are staged at St James’ in May.

“The finals will be fantastic,” said Flood. “I got offered a ticket, but it’s my brother-in-law’s wedding, which is slightly frustrating. I just think the city is going to be fantastic for those two days. It’s unique in the sense that you can pile into the town afterwards. It’s just the best thing. I know people who are coming for the Friday and Saturday, and they’re not going to be able to talk on the Sunday.”

To maintain the forward momentum though, it is imperative Falcons retain their Premiership status. At the start of the month, that looked an unlikely scenario, but back-to-back wins over Worcester and Wasps have lifted Dean Richards’ side to within three points of safety.

Win tomorrow, and depending on how Worcester perform at Bristol, Falcons could clamber off the foot of the table for the first time this season. Psychologically, that would be massive, and while last year’s sojourn to St James’ could be enjoyed as an occasion, the league table dictates this weekend’s game has a rather different feel.

“The connotations are probably bigger this time around,” admitted Flood, whose two spells as a Newcastle player have been split by successful periods with Leicester and Toulouse. “We have to accept the result will probably have a bigger consequence than was the case last year. Last year, it might have impacted on finishing sixth instead of fourth, but it wouldn’t have been the biggest issue if we’d lost. This year, it’s much more important we win the game.

“I don’t want to be a part of things that go wrong. I don’t want to have my name attached to what could potentially happen at the end of the year. That’s not a selfish thing, it’s just not wanting to be responsible for something that would be so negative for the club and region.

“All of us have that responsibility. I remember watching Sunderland Til I Die on Netflix, and Chris Coleman was talking about being relegated, and he said, ‘It never leaves you’. For a guy who’s done so much in management, it says a lot that he was still talking about that moment. You realise the gravity of it all. I’ve loved being back at the club, but we know where we are. None of us want to let anyone down.”