When writing about the Northern League, you could start with a list of players who began their career there: people like Bob Paisley (Bishop Auckland) or Brian Clough (Billingham Synthonia) or Chris Waddle (Tow Law Town). You could mention that it's the second-oldest league in the world, behind the Football League. Or you could start with the Northern League's record in national competition: the past five winners of the FA Vase, for example, have all been league members.
But personally, I prefer this:
In 1997, the league needed a sponsor. That summer, in a bar at Wembley, the league chairman got speaking to the manager of an insurance firm. After a ten-minute negotiation, a deal was signed there and then - on the inside flap of a packet of Marlboro. It was never formalised, and, over ten years, it was worth half a million pounds. That, my friends, is rock 'n' roll football.
I know that story well because a) my dad is the (unpaid) chairman in question and b) this summer I helped to write a book marking the Northern League's 125th anniversary. As anecdotes go, you have to admit, it beats 'Sir Alex Ferguson thinks Jordan Henderson runs funny'.
The book is full of stories: the match delayed by armed police because someone thought a spectator's hot dog was a shotgun; the MP who complained about a referee in the House of Commons; the Northumbrian team sponsored by an American who made his billions in frozen food.
But the Northern League isn't just about off-beat 'and finally...' anecdotes. It's seen some pretty serious football, too:
- In 1913, Crook Town - a miners' team from County Durham - toured Spain and beat Barcelona 4-2.
- In 1958, after the Munich disaster, Manchester United signed three Northern League players from Bishop Auckland. One of them, Warren Bradley, went on to play for England.
- In 1978, Blyth Spartans reached the fifth round of the FA Cup, beating Stoke City on the way.
- At least one Northern League team has played at Wembley in five of the seven seasons since it reopened.
And there've been some pretty decent players here, too. As well as Paisley, Clough, and Waddle, Gary Pallister (Billingham Town), Steve Harper (Seaham Red Star), Steve Howard (Tow Law Town) and Danny Graham (Chester le Street) all started their career in the Northern League. Paul Robinson - the former England goalkeeper - once played for Durham City in an injury crisis.
I've watched Northern League football all my life. And yet, while writing the book, I felt like someone on Who Do You Think You Are, discovering a history that was under my nose all along. I learned about the team formed in the bait room of a coal mine (Washington); the club who borrowed 12 pounds and ten shillings from the local social club to get started (Ryton and Crawcrook Albion); the grandfather, father and son who spent decades as secretary of one club (the Fairburns at Tow Law).
Yet, despite being 125 years old, the Northern League isn't an anachronism. Crowds are increasing every year - Spennymoor, who are fifth, have a higher average attendance than almost half the teams in the Conference North - and clubs are building younger, more pro-active fanbases through social media. There's even a Northern League Day, separate from the national non-league day.
With only seven north-east teams playing at a higher level, the Northern League - which has teams from County Durham, Teesside, Tyne and Wear, Northumberland, North Yorkshire and Cumbria - feels like a bona fide regional competition. It's the place where, for the past 125 years, local pride has been won and lost. Buy a book and read all about it. Or better still: go to a game. Most clubs only charge £5 or £6 - some a lot less - and you'll get a warm welcome. But if you don't want to get tapped up for half a million quid, put the Marlboro away...
Owen Amos - follow him on Twitter here
The book is on sale for £5 plus P&P at Amazon. Orders should be placed by Wednesday December 18 to guarantee Christmas delivery:
They're also being sold for £3.99 at all Northern League clubs. For more information on the league, visit northernleague.org.
None of the authors or editors is being paid and any profit will be reinvested into the league.