A first time for everything – Night matches

There's nothing quite like the floodlights, reminisces Jeffrey Prest

It wasn’t the normal route to night-time football. There were no alluring floodlights visible above the rooftops; no hordes funnelling expectantly past my window. No, it was down to the Airey brothers, excused the last ten minutes of our Scout meeting every Wednesday so they wouldn’t miss Spennymoor Utd’s kick-off. I grew to envy them. The idea that the heroes I occasionally watched on Saturday afternoons were reconvening in the midst of a working week had the exotic flavour of stolen pleasure. The Aireys had sold me.

Spennymoor Utd by moonlight came at the perfect time in my life. Puberty was driving its wedge into my peer-group, dividing us into geeks or good-timers. To those of us for whom the Love Train had been delayed by points failure, sport was our only alternative means of embracing imminent manhood.

If I had neither the nerve nor charisma to prop up a bar with some sixth-form siren, quaffing tequila slammers till dawn, then I would prove myself by watching Northern League football on windswept nights even King Lear might have turned his back on. Spennymoor Utd became my foreign legion – I went there to forget.

Less than an hour after I passed through the turnstiles that first evening, to see emerald turf against a jet sky, I knew that far more had changed than just the brightness control. Night-time heightens the senses as much as it deadens the toes. Every stimulus that distracts you from the awareness that your clothing is horribly mismatched with the ambient temperature is pounced upon.The pies smelt better, the Bovril like nectar and even the Capstan Full Strength vapours coming from the bloke behind took on a soothing quality.

People, too, had changed. Same faces but different mood. Shorn of the Saturday afternoon commitments that tied them to reality, personalities were being unleashed all around me.They hadn’t got the kids with them, they hadn’t got the in-laws coming round for Saturday tea, they hadn’t got shopping to help out with afterwards. The night was theirs, all theirs.

As half-time and the witching hour approached, I was conscious of the swearing becoming more sumptuous and experimental than anything I’d heard at weekends, while observation and anecdote took on a bawdiness that fleshed out the bones of the biology O-level syllabus at a furious rate.

That vague memories of the game itself recall a second-half clogging match would hardly be untypical of midweek fare. The free spirits emboldened by darkness weren’t confined to the crowd. Sometimes it was as though the floodlights had trespassed upon some nocturnal spirit, the way football’s gremlins emerged in night games. Bust-ups, cock-ups, burst balls, ripped shorts – they all came out at night.

Our only brush with the law, indeed, arose beneath a full moon, in a Northern League Cup replay. If the night had a thousand eyes, it wasn’t sharing any of them with the referee, and Spennymoor passions became so aroused a policeman and policewoman were summoned from nearby Durham Road. Touched by this tribute to a menace we never knew we possessed, we gave them an ovation all the way down the touchline and then proffered ample advice as to how their evening together might progress once the shift ended.

About a year after my first sortie into this twilight zone, I followed the Aireys’ example and left Scouting for good. We could pinpoint a non-league ground by night in a town of 30,000 people. We could endure sub-zero temperatures for up to two hours, during which time we would heavily interact with our community. We could sing, our sign language was crystal-clear and even in the great outdoors we knew how to rustle up pies and Bovril.

We honestly felt there was nothing more Baden-Powell could teach us.

From WSC 133 March 1998. What was happening this month