HAYLEY THOMPSON freely admits she does not know a lot about football. As the owner and founder of home-cleaning company Maid in North Yorkshire, however, Northallerton Town’s recently-appointed commercial manager knows a fair bit about dealing with germs.

So, when the call went out for a hand sanitisation expert ahead of Northallerton’s return to action on Tuesday night – a role that is already up there with manager in terms of importance in the current sporting world – there was only going to be one candidate.

“Use the hand gel, give your hands a good wash, and leave your details on that clipboard for the Track and Trace.” It’s certainly not the usual welcome that greets you when you walk through the turnstiles at a football ground. Less ‘Come and have a go if think you’re hard enough’, more a case of ‘Come and find a space if you can prove your hands are clean’.

The Northern Echo:

Northallerton Town vs Billingham Town in the Extra Preliminary Round of the FA Cup. The first stop on the road to Wembley, but more importantly, the first tentative step along the route back to normality after almost six months of coronavirus-induced chaos.

Unlike in football’s professional leagues, where crowds will continue to be banned until at least the start of October, England’s non-league clubs have been permitted to allow fans to return. It’s all strictly controlled, with a maximum attendance at this stage of 300 and social-distancing plans in place to keeps groups of spectators apart, but it’s a start. It’s a first glimpse of grassroots football beginning to wake from its enforced slumber, and for clubs like Northallerton, who tend to exist on a hand-to-mouth basis, it’s a potential lifeline.

“It’s been tough,” explained Northallerton’s treasurer, David Mottershead, resplendent in a green hi-vis vest while performing a myriad of duties that stretched from helping a couple of supporters on mobility scooters to enter the ground to shaking a bucket to sell tickets for the half-time 50-50 draw. “We’re a small, community club, and it’s been hard to survive.

“We got a £10,000 loan from the Government, which helped, and we’ve obviously not been playing games since March so that kept some of the costs down. But it’s amazing how much money you’ve still got to find even though you’re effectively shut down.

“We don’t own our ground, we rent it, so the rent money was still going out. You’ve still got your utilities – electric, water, waste – which you’ve got to keep up with. And then because we didn’t really know when we’d be coming back, we’ve had to spent a fair bit just on cutting the grass and looking after the pitch. It all adds up.

“The bar reopened a few weeks ago, and that’s helped. But the biggest thing for us is getting the games back on – and being able to have people paying to come through the gate. It’s okay for the Premier League teams, but if we’d had to play behind-closed-doors, it would have crippled us. We would have had to say no.”

Thankfully, it hasn’t come to that. There were 194 fans at Northallerton’s tree-lined Calvert Stadium on Tuesday night – “A decent crowd,” said Mottershead. “Although we’d expect that. This is the FA Cup you know” – with adults paying £6 to get in. Perhaps more importantly, from a commercial point of view, the bar and food kiosk were doing a roaring trade.

“The bar is open,” boomed out a message on the PA system before kick-off. “But remember that Government regulations mean you have to be seated at a table and you cannot bring your glasses outside while the game is taking place. So you’re either going to have to stay in there or come out and watch the game.” Decisions, decisions.

Most opted for the outdoor option, including a fair-sized contingent sporting blue replica Billingham Town shirts. Social distancing might be in place – and for the most part, was pretty well adhered to – but on the non-league scene at least, supporter segregation remains unnecessary.

The Northern Echo:

It turned out to be a good night to be a Billingham fan, with the away side racing into a three-goal lead before half-time. “God knows what they’ve been doing in the last six months,” grumbled one elderly home supporter from the open vantage point in front of the bar. “But it’s certainly not been working on their defending.”

Billingham’s number seven, a sprightly forward called Gee Baltazar who only signed for the club this summer, was the star of the show, scoring twice and generally running the Northallerton defence ragged. His first goal saw him gallop clear before slotting a neat finish past the home goalkeeper, sparking a celebration that saw him run to embrace a group of four visiting fans behind the goal. Let’s hope they used Hayley’s hand sanitiser afterwards.

With their side cruising at 2-0 up, the Billingham fans decided to break into song, shattering another of the Government’s golden rules about coronavirus infection. “Tell me ma, me ma, we won’t be home for tea, we’re going to Wembley, tell me ma, me ma.” You had to admire their optimism, if not their laxity over airborne infection.

On the whole though, the night felt extremely safe. If you wanted to stay well away from people, you could. An attendance of a couple of hundred is hardly going to cause a crush in a four-sided football ground. The game was competitive and enjoyable, and with the towering floodlights creating an ethereal glow as darkness descended, above all else, it just felt good to be back.

Football has changed, sport has changed, life has changed. But not necessarily forever, and certainly not out of all recognition. It’s comforting to know you can still wander up to a football ground, hand over £6 and watch a game unfold. Just make sure you wash your hands on the way in.