It is unlikely that even their most devoted supporters would describe Workington Reds and their Borough Park ground as “impossibly exotic”. Yet that phrase leaps from the back cover of a book which captures the charm and meaning of non-league football, including some old and beloved Cumbrian grounds, during the strange, surreal time of Covid-19.

The truth is that these places – Workington, Kendal Town’s Parkside Road, Carlisle City’s Gillford Park – held a certain appeal to Daniel Gray long before he wrote about them in The Silence of the Stands.

Doing so in the unsettling days of the pandemic, when football existed on a seemingly permanent precipice, merely focused the mind on the joys of these gritty venues, and the towns and cities where they are situated.

Gray’s book, his latest travelogue on our nation’s football culture and social history, captures what it was like to be there when the game and all its comforting rituals were jolted by Covid.

He visited Borough Park in October 2020, a few months after the first lockdown and a few weeks ahead of the second. Football at certain levels was, in that curious interim, allowed to resume with limited supporter numbers.

It was right at the core of the time of Covid anxiety, its rules and restrictions, when Gray hopped on a train to west Cumbria and wrote about what he saw and heard. Doing so was a particular treat when the game higher up remained shuttered off to the public.

In his chapter on Reds’ NPL West encounter with Mossley, Gray also writes about the involvement of Bill Shankly in Workington’s history. This gradually blends into reams of perceptive prose on the match day itself.

Times and Star: The Workington v Mossley game in October 2020 took place between lockdowns, as limited numbers of fans were allowed back into lower and non-league groundsThe Workington v Mossley game in October 2020 took place between lockdowns, as limited numbers of fans were allowed back into lower and non-league grounds (Image: Daniel Gray)

The result is a deft and detailed snapshot of a club at a disquieting but also rewarding time.

“Workington was somewhere I’d wanted to go for many years,” says Gray, “having seen pictures of the ground, the parts that have been there for so long, and knowing they might not be playing there forever.

“It was high on my list before Covid, and as soon as there was a possible fixture between lockdowns, I was straight onto it.”

Gray, before his trek to Workington, researched the town’s history and dwelt on Shankly, who took his aura to the west Cumbrian club and town from 1954-5. “Workington had that draw to me,” he adds. “It’s a club my dad would always talk about as a Football League club long after they ceased to be one. It had great historic appeal. And, being born on Teesside, all post-industrial places appeal to me too.

“I feel we have a lot in common through what’s happened in our towns. And I wanted to look up the Shankly story. When I was in Workington, I loved walking around the town, thinking, ‘Shankly walked from here, from home to the ground then back, every lunchtime’.”

As Gray traced Shankly’s steps, he cast his eye over a place he describes as a “furrowed and dogged town”. “I felt it would be that way, and that’s how it appeared on the walk from the station,” he says. “There are beautiful buildings, as well as the sense it’s had better days, but nobody can lie about that regarding many places.

“Its soul is still strong. You pick certain things up just from standing around the market in a bustling little town. People can describe it as remote, but it’s not remote to those who live there. And places like Workington – and other places Shankly went to, like Grimsby – have their own strong identity.

“Workington has been through so much with the closure of the industries, but it definitely retains its character.”

Times and Star: Gray retraced Bill Shankly's steps before attending Borough Park for Workington v MossleyGray retraced Bill Shankly's steps before attending Borough Park for Workington v Mossley (Image: Daniel Gray)

Gray says he loved seeing both Borough Park and its rugby league neighbour, Derwent Park, as his train cranked into Workington. A non-driver, he also prefers the richness of overheard conversation and the way the mind and eye can wander in a rail carriage.

As he made his furtive, socially-distanced steps to the home of the Reds, he saw and felt what he had hoped. “The big thing that strikes you first is that shade of red on the ground. All the footballing reds I’ve seen in my life, I felt this was a unique one – so strong, just pulling you towards it.

“People had missed those walks to the game, following people, going in the same direction, when the lockdown came. I got that goosebumps moment going towards Workington. And it’s a proper ground. One thing that sticks in my mind from that day is going up those little abandoned steps opposite the ground, looking down on it and thinking, ‘Yeah, this is a football place. It’s got charisma even when it’s empty’. You imagine it in the Shankly heyday, bustling with thousands of people.”

Bustling amongst people was forbidden during Covid. Did attending games such as Reds v Mossley make the non-league game feel more poignant than usual, given the wider climate?

“Definitely,” says Gray. “There was that first [Covid] period when there weren’t even any games on livestreams or anything, and, in your bleakest moments you thought, ‘Is it ever coming back? Is anything?’

“What that meant was that any feeling you used to have was enhanced when you went back and got near it again after Covid. It was exactly how you expected it, yet very different too. Football grounds had marks on the ground, the tea bar queues were separated. On one hand you’re looking at footballers running around and thinking, ‘Yeah, this is still the game’, and on the other, the PA systems were giving reminders about not going near groups of people.”

Times and Star: Gray says he got that goosebumps moment walking to Borough Park after a period of behind-closed-doors footballGray says he got that goosebumps moment walking to Borough Park after a period of behind-closed-doors football (Image: Daniel Gray)

Gray relished the simple pleasure of watching games again, in those old grounds, allowing his sentiments to temporarily block out the weird boundaries of the pandemic. Other than a 1,000-capped attendance at his own club, Middlesbrough, all his English adventures in The Silence of the Stands occurred in non-league.

At Workington, he wallowed in the customs of watching, applauding, enjoying, inhaling the game. In the match against Mossley – a 2-0 home victory – he admired the left-sided abilities of Reds’ Liam Brockbank, and the free-kick devilment of David Symington.

“They played some lovely football that day,” Gray adds. “It made me start thinking about what sets someone who makes it at the top of the game from someone at this level. Certain bits of skill were as good as any I’d seen. You start having philosophical thoughts…is it luck? Attitude?

“Above all though, things like that [Symington] free-kick from distance, into the sun…those moments where a football ground sounds and looks brilliant…it sounded normal at that point. And we were all after normality. Those bits on the pitch gave us that.”

Such moments were, in 2020, fleeting, given that a winter lockdown was looming, while for Danny Grainger’s Reds, a promotion challenge was, for the second consecutive season, forcibly curtailed. Gray’s writing focuses on the precarious magic found in going to these places – the people, the heritage – rather than the frustrating arithmetic of results.

“When I’m writing, I always try to look for the best,” he adds. “I was very much motivated by that whole thing of ‘Crap Towns’ [the early-noughties publishing phenomenon that mocked the quirks of many British places]. I’m the opposite to that. I want to go somewhere that someone else has written off and try to find the best of it, even if that means trawling into the past.

Times and Star: Gray also visited Kendal Town for his book during the 2020/21 seasonGray also visited Kendal Town for his book during the 2020/21 season (Image: Daniel Gray)

“Undoubtedly, Covid heightened problems in many of these places that were already there. But I do see resilience everywhere – in the market stalls, initiatives to get town centres going again, bookshops, little gems you find.”

Gray also attended Kendal Town versus Tadcaster Albion – the latter a club for whom he played in his youth – and this chapter offers a sweet juxtaposition of hardened semi-professional football played in such a beautiful setting, underscored by that disturbingly familiar Covid worry.

He also dropped in at Carlisle City. “I’d long seen [Gillford Park] from the train – which is a big thing of mine, seeing grounds from the train – and I thought, ‘That’s a good little set-up’. I got more lost than I’ve ever been in my life getting there, but what I found was a nice, tight little well-run ground – the feel of a well-run and well-loved club.

“Again, they are resilient people, who live with a bigger neighbour [Carlisle United]. I loved the Railway Club next door, too. One of the great strengths of non-league clubs is the social clubs next door, and thinking about that day summons things you’ve almost forgotten about – we couldn’t get served at the bar, the bar woman had to bring the drinks over and give us the change back. So we’re still breathing over each other, handling the same money…”

Times and Star: Gray said Carlisle City had the feel of a well-run and well-loved club when he visitedGray said Carlisle City had the feel of a well-run and well-loved club when he visited (Image: Daniel Gray)

Gray laughs at one of Covid’s many absurdities, and then warms back to the subject of these places as a refuge from football’s more tarnished side; the relentlessness of the Premier League, the moral quandaries of the Qatar World Cup.

“Selfishly, there’s more to write about in non-league,” he says. “Architecturally it’s more interesting. The shapes and sizes of the players, the style of football, hearing what people are saying.

“But for anyone who has grown disillusioned with football, I also believe you can just go down a couple of divisions and find the heart of the game again. Those games I went to, a lot were put on by volunteers, who were bending to every rule put in their way to try and get football on. That’s the heart of the game, isn’t it? It’s the very opposite of much of what we’ve seen in Qatar, really.”

Gray enjoys terracing as a traditional, more ‘active’ way of watching the game, and he indulges my meandering praise of Brunton Park’s Paddock. “As a writer,” he adds, “you can physically move around and observe people and the ground from different angles when you’re on a terrace. If you’re stuck in your seat with your notepad on your knee, you’re not really finding much out.

“As a spectator, it’s the natural way to watch football too. The word ‘participation’ comes to mind more easily when you’re standing, as opposed to sitting. We also know how to do it safely now, and I hope these terraces are all preserved. It just feels better. It’s more natural to be standing against a crush barrier, thinking about the game and your life…”

Gray also visited Jarrow, Lancaster City, Southport, Cowdenbeath, Raith Rovers, Rothbury and Billingham Synthonia in his amusing and poignant book, which offers a lens through which we can reflect on the most peculiar of times in our national and sporting history.

“It’s funny – I’ve written a whole book about it, yet it feels like it didn’t happen, almost,” he says of 2020/21’s football in Covidland, when the stands were sometimes silent, sometimes not. “So much of it is surreal. Two years ago, people in England were just out of one lockdown but worried about the next, and about a new mutant variant.

“I’m very glad I wrote it all down. It’s almost a feeling of disbelief, looking back.”

Gray supplements his gratitude at being able to write about football’s Covid story with the fervent hope that “may we never, ever go there again”. Another feeling it heightened was admiration at the way our clubs – like Workington, like Kendal, like Carlisle City, like so many more – somehow survived that time of bitter challenge.

Times and Star: Author Daniel Gray, right, and his book The Silence of the Stands, which charts the 2020/21 season when football was beset by Covid-19 restrictionsAuthor Daniel Gray, right, and his book The Silence of the Stands, which charts the 2020/21 season when football was beset by Covid-19 restrictions (Image: Daniel Gray / Clare Massey)

“It’s always a worry when you hear about non-league finances, and it was especially worrying then,” he says. “It really does say something that these clubs, these labours of love – and they are that, wherever you go – are still there.

“They are really important for towns, especially towns over cities, towns like Workington that have had their industrial hearts ripped out. They’re a focal point, and something to take pride in, when lots of other things have disappeared.

“They showed their resilience in that time, and I think they always will. We’ll never quite understand how these clubs survive, but thank God they do.”

* The Silence of the Stands is published by Bloomsbury, priced £12.99.