April 10 2021: royal prerogative

The nearest that the late and lamented Duke of Edinburgh got to the Northern League may have been in October 1963, whe he visited ICI Billingham after parking his helicopter in the Synthonia centre circle.

His Royal Highness may thus have become the most eminent personage to tread that hallowed ground though Mr Brian Clough, himself briefly a Synner, might have contested the claim.

In truth the Northern League seems seldom to have rubbed shoulders with royalty – not what you might term Premier League royalty, anyway – not unless you count the occasion of the FA’s 150th anniversary banquet in 2013 when I found myself sharing the repast with the Duke of Cambridge and Mr Sepp Blatter.

Bro Blatter, it should be explained, wasn’t actually royalty. He just behaved like he was.

Prince William and the Northern League chairman, it must also be stressed, were by some distance at different directions from the salt. It is also highly likely that the prince was meant to be there, the Association’s president after all, whereas I was almost certanly the subject of the most glorious case of mistaken identity.

It’s very likely that the league also tried to persuade a member of the royal family to attend the centenary celebrations in 1989, but they must collectively have been washing their hair that day.

The Duke of Edinburgh spent just 50 minutes at ICI, a splendidly nostalgic video of the occasion kindly forwarded by blog reader Martin Birtle. Clearly it caused much excitement, route and rafters thronged, the constabulary anxious to show off their new-fangled walkie-talkies.

The entourage proceeded down Ammonia Avenue and Nitrates Avenue – it did, honestly – before dropping the Duke at the pressure steam reforming plant.

The prince who once said of himself that he’d never been noticeably reticent on subjects about which he knew nothing chatted to dozens, engaged easily, gave every impression not just of interest but of enthusiasm, like there was nowhere on earth he’d rather be.

I’d always thought him a good egg. That 15-minute video confirmed it. Then he was back to the Central Avanue stadium, never so crowded since Bill McQuarrie was banging them in, and – bless him – was up and away.

*Today’s Northern Echo carries a photograph of both the Queen and the Duke visiting Shildon in 1960. For the life of me I can’t remember it, nor do I recall being invited, not even in a case of mistaken identity. What were they doing on home ground? Mr Murphy?

*Even in the first golden age, when the Northern League seemed almost to have a season ticket to the FA Amateur Cup final at Wembley, there was precious little indication that the royal box was living up to its designation.

At the 1950 final between Bishop Auckland and Willington the chief guest was the Earl of Athlone – wasn’t that a radio station? – while the Bishops and Crook Town in 1954 were presented to the Lord Mayor of London. Field Marshal Montgomery did the honours in 1955; Sir Stanley Rous also figured on occasion.

It wasn’t until Crook’s reappearance, however, that royalty – third division royalty, but no matter – came along, too. The Duke of Gloucester presented the cup in 1959 while in 1964 the job fell to the Hon Angus Ogilvy, he who (memory suggests) had married Princess Alexandra.

Northern League clubs have many times thereafter contested the FA Vase final, though with none more exalted in the royal box than Mr R H G Kelly. They missed a very good lunch.

*Yesterday’s blog wondered if readership were strictly men only. Janice Bray emailed almost immediately to claim otherwise, but may yet be unique.

It’s coincidental that Janice should also have been a colleague at the Durham County Careers Service of Janet Murrell, whose death at 88 we’d also noted yesterday.

Janet, ever-appreciated, was in the habit during my Northern Echo days of returning whence they’d originated some of the more egregious typos and other solecisms.

Almost inevitably, Andy Lister – “quite committedly male” – counted six typos in yesterday’s blog. “Perhaps you should establish a purely honorary award for typo of the week,” Andy suggests.

You could call it, he adds, a Janet.

April 9 2021: the women’s team

Fully 16 years after it appeared in print, a nice lady rings to thank me for a story on her grandfather, one of those enthusiasts who died on the football field.

It had been given her, framed, at a family funeral earlier in the day. “I can’t think why I didn’t see it at the time,” she says and, perhaps less surprisingly, isn’t a blog reader, either.

Grass Routes followers are an ecletic lot, scattered around the world, their feedback always much welcomed. One of the things they appear to have in common is that none is female.

Among a great many readers who’ve become correspondents down the years, I can’t recall a single woman. Is the blog really to be men only?

*The column in question, February 21 2005, followed a wonderfully nostalgic evening in Richmond with Marjorie Baxter, then 81, a lady steeped in football.

Joe Robinson, her uncle, was a Willington lad – “belonged Willington,” said Marjorie, as Co Durham folk do – made his debut for his home town club as a 16-year-old and was in the West Auckland team which thrashed Juventus 6-1 in the 1911 “World Cup” final.

Billy Robinson, his brother, was in the Darlington side which won promotion to the second division in 1924-25 and after short spells with Southend and Carlisle, returned to Feethams as assistant trainer.

Chiefly, however, we talked about Billy Kelly – Marjorie’s late husband – just 18 when he made the first of his 300 Darlington appearances in 1937 and still keen enough, 28 years later, to make his debut for Cockerton in the Darlington and District League.

“Always a football man,” said Marjorie, who died in 2014. “He suffered broken ribs, concussion, all sorts of things, but he couldn’t wait to get back on the football field.”

“Always put his heart and soul into his work,” said the programme, price twopence, when Billy had a testimonial in 1949.

“One of the mopst popular players Darlington ever had,” wrote Quaker in the Northern Despatch.

The benefit was against a “Select X1” that included Bill Nicholson of Spurs and Allenby Chilton of Man United. “It was quite useful,” said Marjorie, “he earned very, very little from football.”

Another cutting, the following season, had Billy receiving the Durham Senior Cup after Quakers’ 1-0 victory over a Sunderland side including Shackleton, Broadis and Mapson. The winning team each received a tankard and a cigarette case, Billy offering the hope in his little speech that Sunderland might still win the first division.

They finished third, a point behind Portsmouth and Wolves.

With familiar names like Stan Anderson, Jimy Greenhalgh and Derek Stonehouse, Billy also helped form two teams – Darlington All Stars and Croft Exhibitionists – to play in charity matches. “It was just after the 1966 World Cup,” said Marjorie. “People were forming teams all over the place.”

Just before Christmas 1969, Billy collapsed during a match for the Feethams groundsman but seemed fine after a couple of days in bed. On January 18 1970, however, he died just ten minutes into a match between the Exhibitionists and Romanby, Northallerton. He was 50.

“People said it was a good way to go,” said Marjorie, “but it wasn’t if you were one of his family.”

*That same column back in 2005 recorded lunch – ham and pease puding sandwiches, as usual – with Northern League sponsor and Gretna FC chairman Brooks Mileson, the usually urbane Brooks becoming almost excitable.

Gretna were then in the Scottish third division If they won the following day, they’d be promoted – thought to be the earliest date on which any British side had achieved the feat.

In the event they finished with 98 points, 32 wins and two draws from their 36 games, 20 points ahead of Peterhead in second and 47 ion front of third-placed Cowdenbeath.

Brooks by then was also becoming well known for the animal sanctuary on his estate near the border, the Sunday Post a couple of weeks earlier reporting that the newest arrivals had been two African tortoises.

The following weekend, two more African tortoises had mysteriously appeared in the Gretna club offices, together with a note from their owner in Dundee. “They couldn’t settle,” it said.

*Whatever the medium, writers love feedback, if only to prove that someone’s paying attention. In Northern Echo days, correspondents’ gender balance probably tipped slightly towards women, none more valued than Janet Murrell, from Durham.

Janet’s frequent party piece was to return whence it had originated a sadly frequent typo or some other howler which had appeared in that day’s paper.

One report had concerned a proposed 20mph speed limit – “not a statuary obligation,” said the Echo, prompting Janet as usual to stick the offending paragraph to a little bit of card and to write a short comment beneath.

“Glad to see it’s not in stone,” she said.

Her death at the age of 88 is in today’s classifieds. Thanks for everything, Janet.

April 8 2021: taking a lend….

Blog reader Stuart Cowley, allegiance at once suggested by the figure 73 in his email address, anticipates Sunderland’s upcoming double header against fast-improving Blackpool.

Will Blackpool be allowed to play former England youth international Elliott Embleton, 22 last week and at the Stadium of Light since a nipper, whose loan spell at Blackpool is said much to have refreshed the Tangerines?

Clearly not, Stuart guesses, though things were different in the not-so-distant past.

Sunderland man Brett Angell came on as a West Brom sub against his parent club in April 1996 – “not surprisingly he failed to score,” says Stuart – while ten years later my old mate Tommy Miller, the Shotton polliss’s lad, was a loanee in the Preston side which won at the Stadium of Light (where, as they say, he belonged.)

The most memorable example of taking a lend – curious phrase, that – may have been when Lomanu Lua Lua not only played against Newcastle United while on loan to Portsmouth in March 2004 but scored a late equaliser in the 1-1 draw

“It helped deny Bobby Robson’s side Champions League fotoball,” says Stuart. “Shame.”

*Common denominator, Fanfare for the Common Man – as we’ve been saying – was a No 2 hit for Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1977 but based on a 1942 work by the American composed Aaron Copland.

It was the latter version, as might be supposed, which the Durham Mechanics Band played in the Cathedral in 1986 at a memorial service for that great North-East writer Sid Chaplin. The band included Sid’s brother Joe, on tuba, and his nephews Brian and Nick.

Shildon lad originally, Sid had been a union official at Dean and Chapter colliery, Ferryhill, in the 1940s. His son Mike, another much-acclaimed writer, recalls that his dad once called a strike over the cutting-edge issue of mucky cutlery in the canteen.

“The strike,” Mike adds enigmatically, “proved unnecessary….”

*Yesterday’s note on the death of teak-tough centre half George Siddle – a Wembley finalist with West Auckland and Scarborough, a Sassenach at Queen of the South – stirred particular memories for Ray Gowan, a former team mate at Gateshead.

“A brilliant friend and confidant and a magnificent man,” says Ray.

They’d travel together to matches from George’s home in Trimdon, Co Durham, sometimes in George’s car and sometimes in Ray’s Triumph Spitfire sporty job – “I was a bit young and flash,” he concedes.

The slight problem was that they’d to pick up Barry Storey, another team mate, en route – no problem in George’s car but a bit of a quart-and-pint-pot job in a Spitfire. “Barry, being the slightest, was squeezed into the dickey seat,” says Ray. “If George’s wife and son came to the match, we definitely had to use his car.”

Blog reader John Maughan remembers George from his time with Bishop Auckland “He was a great centre half, always went up the field for corners exceptwhen scouts were watching ahead of a cup game.”

John’s also among several readers to point out that yesterday’s picture was wrongly captioned. It was George on the left, his mate Michael Barker on the right. Apologies.

*While three in a Spitfire may indeed have been a bit dickey, we once had four young reporters in an MG Midget – the lengths you’d go to to attend a meeting of Crook and Willington Urban District Council. The history of Wearhead United, that wonderful football team whose demise we reported last August, records that because of a “transport glitch” they once shoehorned nine players into a Ford Capri for the ride down dale to Bishop Auckland. Push and shove, any advance?

April 7 2021: George Siddle dies

Break a leg: George Siddle (right) with Michael Barker

George Siddle, who made Wembley appearances for two different teams in two different competitions 12 years apart, died on Monday after a long illness. He was 86.

He is also remembered as one of a great border force of Northern League men who played Scottish League football for Queen of the South in the 1960s.

“A centre half who no one passes,” said John Carruthers, the Gateshead-based scout who signed George and so many more.

Others included English amateur internationals like Michael Barker, George Brown, Arnold Coates, Bill Roughley and Dave “Jock” Rutherford though George Brown, then with West Auckland, made only occasional appearances. “I could earn more as an amateur at West than as a professional at Queen of the South,” he once admitted.

Best remembered of all, of course, is Allan Ball, the young goalkeeper signed from Stanley United over a 2am corned beef sandwich in South Hetton pit canteen. Allan, who died in 2018, went on to become the Doonhamers’ record appearance maker and one of only two Englishmen – Joe Baker the other – to represent the Scottish League.

George Siddle gave it a season. Michael Barker, one of four brothers to play with distinction for Bishop Auckland, travelled north for six, still regarded by older Doonhamers as one of the finest players to wear the shirt. “There were some queer places, your Mottherwells and your Forfars, but the worst bit was the travelling,” said Michael, who died in 2010.

The English, in turn, were regarded with a certain Sassenach suspicion. “We just hoped they didn’t get called English bastards when they went up north,” Palmerston Park PA man Alex Wilson once told me. “They call us that and we’re from bloody Dumfries.”

History repeated itself in 2000 when Ashington manager John Connolly, the former Newcastle United player, became the Doonhamers’ boss and took with him about six Collier lads and, perhaps more surprisingly, three from Tow Law.

“If we’d wanted a team of Geordies,” someone wrote to the local paper, “we could have signed Jayne Middlemiss.”

George Siddle played for West Auckland in the 1961 FA Amateur Cup final defeat to Walthamstow Avenue but was on the winning side when Scarborough – including other well remembered North-East names like Jimmy Shoulder, Gerry Donoghue, Harry Dunn and former Newcastle goalkeeper Bert Garrow – beat Wigan 2-1 in the Trophy final.

His big mate was Michael Barker, who’d been with Bishop Auckland when former Coldstream Guardsman Lawrie McMenemy became the Bishops’ first manager. “He whacked me over the a**e with a garden cane for not doing my press-ups right,” Mike once recalled. “I wouldn’t care, I’d done 25 and they were perfect.”

It would never have happened with a committee.

The pain may have been greater yet when Mike broke his leg in a Good Friday derby with West – after a wholly accidental collision with his friend George Siddle.

“It’s a good thing he wasn’t my enemy,” said Mike, later.

“I felt terrible about it but we didn’t fall out,” said George, who also had a spell with Gateshead.

Queen of the South, George recalled, “were a nice little team” with lovely people. “The Scottish second division at the time had players who were a lot better than Northern League level but a hell of a lot who were worse.

“The programme would give a brief pen picture and then put on the end ‘Englishman’. That just about summed it up. They gave us a bit of stick but we could give it back. They were half-English in Dumfries, anyway.”

George lived in Sedgefield, where he had long run an upholstery business. The last time I recall seeing him, in 2013, he was still working – as were his new hips – and still golfing. He was smashing, unassuming, always friendly – and now the shall-not-pass centre half has, very sadly, passed.

*That quote about the Motherwells and the Forfars was accurate if coincidental. Both teams were due a mention. Forfar, now with former Northern League striker Scott Fenwick leading their fight fior third tier survival, reached the last 16 of the Scottish Cup on Saturday with a penalties win over Edinburgh City – Fenwick among those on the spot.

Motherwell, home town team of Guisborough Town chairman Don Cowan, won 5-0 at Formantine – somewhere in wildest Aberdeenshire, apparently – where travelling fans climbed trees outside the ground in order to comply with social distancing and one still got brayed by a wayward shot. Don doesn’t say which side was responsible.

The clubs have been kept apart in the draw. Forfar v Motherwell in the final?

April 6 2021: Common touch (take II)

One for the pot? Alf Common

Fanfare for the Common Man, as yesterday’s blog noted, was indeed sounded by Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1977. Both Simon Mears and David Walsh point out, however, that it was based – however loosely – on a 1942 work of the same name by the American composer Aaron Copland. Be that as it may….

Yesterday’s blog also recalled John Common, the carcass king of Alnwick Town. The previous day’s, by one of those not-infrequent coincidences, had had cause to mention Alf Common.

Alf had become the world’s first £1,000 footballer when transferred from Sunderland to Middlesbrough on Valentine’s Day 1905. If it raised eyebrows – and goodness knows it did – it did nothing to explain why Alf was in charge of the communal tea pot when Cockfield met Erith and Belvedere in the 1923 FA Amater Cup quarter-final.

Alf was born in Millfield, Sunderland, in 1880, a tubby little chap – 5ft 8ins and 13 stones – said always and unsuccessfuly to be trying to lose weight.

He’d played for Sheffield United, joined his home town club for £325 but six months later was persuaded to join Boro’s ultimately successful fight against first division relegation. Just six years earlier they’d been in the Northern League.

The fee caused outrage, question raised in the House – of Commons, of course – Sunderland berated for asking so preposterous an amount and Middlesbrough for paying it.

One of the popular prints compared it to “white slave trading”, another worried that professional footballers would soon be in the same market as thoroughbred yearlings.

The FA was also concerned, not least because in 1899 they’d proposed a maximum £10 transfer fee but felt unable to impose it. They investigated Boro’s books, could find nothing wrong with the transfer but were concerned at other things they found – or, strictly, which they couldn’t find at all.

Common’s penalty in his first Middlesbrough game, at Sheffield United, gave the club its first away win in almost two years. He scored 58 in 168 league appearances, two in three England games, but was fined £10 and stripped of the Boro captaincy after an incident of “drunkenness and violence” and moved south to the Arsenal. Comment would be superfluous.

After finishing his career at Preston, he ran a pub in Darlington where he died, aged 65, in 1946 and is buried in the West cemetery. None of it explains what the £1,000 man was doing in charge of the tea pot at Cockfield.

*No one remembers who came second, of course, but the next £1,000 man had Darlington connections, too. Robert Frewen Turner, known sometimes as Leggy Turner and sometimes simply as Bob, was born in Leicester in 1885 and played football for Leicester City and cricket for the county before a move to Everton in 1909.

In 34 games over three seasons he scored just one goal, pitching up in 1912-13 at Darlington in the North Easetrn League, where he did a bit better.

After the war he became Darlington RA’s cricket professional, hitting a century on his debut, against Bishop Auckland. It was April 26 and there was a blizzard. As we were saying the other day, nothing new under the sun.

Turner proved a greatly successful pro, claiming 9-38 against Thornaby and taking a job as a driller at the town’s North Road railway works. Among the interesting things about all that is that the RA’s ground is not 200 yards from the Alma, the pub where Alf Common’s name was long above the door.

Did the two £1,000 men raise a glass together? You really wouldn’t bet against it.

April 5 2021: fanfare for the Common man

Pottering around the April 1999 Northern League magazine for something else entirely, I come across the following entry in the Chairman’s Log:

“March 4: lunch with Mike Chaplin, writing a BBC drama series on life at a northern non-league club. ‘Affectionate,’ he insists. Point him in numerous directions but for some reason he seems particularly keen to meet Alnwick Town’s chairman, the scarlet pimpernel John Common.”

Mike Chaplin is still very much around, still writing prolifically, awaiting publication – as the blog noted last month – of his new book on a lifetime’s uncomfortable allegiance to Newcastle United.

But what happened to the drama series on life at a northern non-league club and what happened to that old scallywag John Common, a man given to leaving half a sheep – and other bits of dead animal – in the opposition dressing room?

The first bit’s easy. “I was simultaneously developing another idea for the BBC and it got lift-off that year,” says Mike, still in Newcastle.

So it did. Monarch of the Glen ran to seven series, 64 BBC1 episodes between 2000-05 stars like Tom Baker, Susan Hampshire and Richard Briers, enjoying the good life elsewhere. “It took over my life for years to come,” says Mike.

“Unfortunately it meant that the football idea was still-born. Reading your blog makes me sad that I missed all that material relating to the enduring human comedy, especially in Tow Law.”

John Common had come late to Alnwick Town and to the Northern League, combining the roles of chairman, assistant manager and – well into his 40s – occasionally piratic centre forward. He was what folk call colourful, colourful in black-and-white stripes. Last I heard, long ago, he was living in the wilds up near Rothbury somewhere.

Today’s header, it will be appreciated, was Emerson, Lake and Palmer, No 2 in 1977. Whatever happened to the uncommon man?

*The Northern League magazine in April 1999 was chiefly devoted to Bedlington Terriers’ remarkable feat of reaching the FA Vase final at Wembley, just six years after brothers Keith and David Perry – manager and chairman – hauled them from oblivion’s very edge.

“All we asked Keith to do was get us out of the bottom two in the second division,” club secretary Eric Young told the mag.

Brooks Mileson’s companies had agreed a new league sponsorship deal, Durham City had won the second division and Billingham Synthonia the programme competition, Whitley Bay were exploring ways of returning to the Northern League from the Unibond and Ted Ilderton – then the Northern League referees’ secretary and a Northumberland FA Council member -had moved house yet again.

“NFA on his blazer badge doesn’t stand for Northumberland Football Association,” said Steve Ord, then Morpeth Town’s chief executive. “It stands for No Fixed Abode.”

The most memorable story in NVNG61, however, concerned long-serving former Guisborough Town secretary Keith Smeltzer, a man stll faithful and familiar around the KGV.

Keith, a man known to like a drop of draught Guinness, had been stopped by police – for the fourth time – while pedalling, perhaps elliptically, from the clubhouse to his nearby home.

This time seemed a bit more serious: someone had reported that he was carrying a gun, though it was probably just Keith who was loaded.

Perhaps fortunately, one of the Cleveland pollisses who boxed him in either side was well-remembered former Northern League referee Jim Devine – the magazine headline was “Devine intervention” – who at once recognised both Keith and the disarming innocence of the occasion.

Keith had previously been pulled over on susicion of being drunk in charge of a pedal cycle, riding without lights and cycling on the pavement. “On each occasion,” he said, “all three might have applied.”

April 4 2021: not a Virgin for ever

Passing mention of Erith and Belvedere in yesterday’s blog stirred memories of something more substantial. and of the time that the East Coast Main Line gained its Virginity.

It was the FA Vase quarter-final, last day of February 2015, the red red Robins of North Shields drawn at E and B who ground shared – still do – with Conference club Welling but had a separate entrance, separate dressing rooms, separate stand and even separate hospitality.

It seemed a bit like the grand old Duke of York, still ground sharing with the Ferguson woman but enjoying nothing more intimate (we are assured) than the occasional tea for two.

The programme recalled the seven previous encounters between the men of Kent and Northern League sides, among them the occasion in 1960 when Shildon won 7-2 down there, Johnny Curran hitting five.

A few years earlier, two bus loads of supporters had followed Erith to West Auckland, found six inches of snow on the pitch and, having come an awfully long way, set about helping shift it. It seemed a bit ungrateful for West to thump them 3-0.

The most memorable of all may have been the first, however, Erith and Belvedere drawn amid Cockfield’s hazel groves in the 1922-23 FA Amateur Cup quarter-final. The travellers sallied north on Friday lunchtime – “an age where you still got news flashes in the window of the local newspaper,” said the programme – and returned with a 4-0 defeat.

What particularly impressed them was that the chap in charge of the communal tea pot was Alf Common, who when transferred from Sunderland to Middlesbrough 18 years earlier had become Britain’s first £1,000 footballer.

“It’s a bit like today’s Deres travelling to North Shields and finding Alan Shearer in charge of hospitality,” said the Erith programme, but that was clearly nonsense. At the Daren Persson Stadium, hospitality’s Malcolm Macdonald’s job.

The Robins led 2-0 after ten minutes – Dean Holden and Adam Forster – and that’s how it stayed. “Beyond our wildest dreams,” said Alan Matthews, Shields’ excellent chairman, but better – much better – was to come.

*Among that day’s many happy memories was a micropub called the Door Hinge, almost across the road from the ground, purveyor of top-class ale and even better sausage roll. Doubtless like many more innocents, we asked the landlord about the name.

His mother’s maiden name had been Indge, he said, her Christian name Doreen. When not calling her Rusty, schoolmates simply knew her as Dor Indge.

Ther pub name was simply a tribute to her, and to her sausage roll, he said. We never could decide if he was taking the daft northern lads for a ride.

*Erith’s principal claim to fame may be that it was the adopted home of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who became the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.

Selkirk spent four years in self-imposed exile on an uninhabited archipelago 400 miles off Chile, an experience made yet less pleasant because he was forever kept awake by seals in mating season – and seals, it’s reckoned, are at it pretty much all year round.

Finally rescued by a privateer called The Duke, he was dropped off at Erith. The town still has a Selkirk Road, a Crusoe Road, even a Friday Road. The local Rotary Club marked the event’s 300th anniversary in 2009.

There’s just one problem: local legend has it that Selkirk took one look at Erith and begged to be taken back to the Juan Fernandez Islands.

*February 28 2015 was the last day of the East Coat main line franchise – “a national betrayal” the RMT bloke had said on the radio – the occasion passing without incident or even a piper to play a lament, though the atmosphere on the return was a bit like the lead car in a Co-op cortege.

East Coast couldn’t even offer a funeral tea, trolleys lined up in the buffet car like those old steam engines at Darlington scrapyard, awaiting the burners.

The train arrived back in Darlington at 11 40pm, exactly to time. Twenty minutes later, somewhere between Durham and Newcastle, it turned – however improbably – into a Virgin. That went well, didn’t it?

*The header on today’s blog recalls Do you want to remain a virgin for ever?, a Malcolm Leigh film of the early 1970s. Those were the days when most towns still had a cinema and, each Saturday, The Northern Echo carried a brief summary of what to expect.

It fell to Steve Harris, a bright young reporter who probably enjoyed it. After Do you want to remain a virgin for ever? he wrote: “If so, apply E Heath, 10 Downing Street, London WC1.” He was sacked.

April 3 2021: risen indeed

Best go canny on the Easter analogy, but just a few days after the blog reported the death of Percy Main Amateurs, the historic North Tyneside club is – inescapably – resurrected.

The Northern Alliance premier division side, formed in 1919 by returning soldiers, had announced that it was folding at the end of the season. Now there is new life, chiefly in the form of incoming directors Paul Singleton and Ryan Lynch.

Local lad originally, Paul works for an American hedge fund company – I never did understand what a hedge fund is, topiary not a strong point – and is also a director of Erith and Belvedere FC. Ryan runs a company called Dough, which has five outlets on Merseyside, and is about to launch the Lynchburger.

Team manager Steve Hurd is stepping aside to join the committee, replaced by Dave Dickson who’d guided Billingham Synthonia to a promotion place in the Ebac Northern League second division before Covid curtailed season 2019-20.

The club website talks of “looking to a very bright and exciting future”, of “rebranding the whole set-up” and of “a raft of developments in the pipeline.”

It all seems very timely.

*This remains the last day of Lent and, appropriately, there is temptation. The Wensleydale Creamery League kicks off again today after a four-month lockdown, Reeth Athletic Club v Colburn a particular lure.

Almost certainly it’s not lethal – “experts” havng concluded that the virus is pretty impotent in the open air – but is attendance legal?

FA and government guidance still states that no spectators are allowed at “grass roots” football and that a return will be “no sooner” than April 12. Is there to be further word before then? Might there yet be a crowd for the Consett v Hebburn FA Vase final on May 3? Anyone understand what’s happening?

League name notwithstanding, Reeth’s in Swaledale – Yorkshire’s most glorious. Last time I was on Reeth sports ground, September 2011, was in the company of future England manager Gareth Southgate, though neither of us got a game.

It was a Sunday morning, the opening of the new £650,000 pavilion, the village brass band playing Oh what a beautiful morning as very well it might. Gareth represented the Football Foundation, who’d invested £344,000, though the formalities were performed by Robert Miller who owns a 36,000-acre grouse moor thereabouts.

Described as an American-born British billionaire, Mr Miller made his money through duty free shops and was said at the last count to be worth $4.8bn. Doubtless he wouldn’t have left them short.

The old pavilion had had neither separate changing roms nor electricity, another bit said to have fallen off whenever the wind got up. The greatest problem, however, was posed by the ceaseless Swale, much given to overflowing its banks out the back.

The new one was effectively built on stilts, if not six feet above contradiction – as used to be said of the old evangelical preachers – then a good yard, anyway.

Swaledale thought the new pavilion wonderful, and so it was, though up there its occupants – especially the cricketers – would probably still call it t’ut.

In the end, possessing neither a dog nor an expression of innocence, we just take an afternoon stroll instead. Though some of its teams have played just four games, the 11-strong Wensleydale League hopes still to complete a 20-game season by using midweek dates and, a bit like the river, overflowing into June. They could be crowded out yet.

*Among owners of the Gunnerside grouse moor before the benevolent billionaire was Sir Joseph Nickerson, founder of Cherry Valley Farms – said to be the world’s biggest breeder of Pekin ducks.

Perhaps Sir Joseph may best be remembered, however, as the poor chap inadvertently peppered by Willie Whitelaw at a shoot in Teesdale.

Back in the 1970s, I knew the head beater who invited me and a photographer to the beaters’ end-of-season bash at the Buck Inn in Reeth. Trouble was, no one had told Sir Joe that the fourth estate was about to trespass on his own little patch.

“Send them orf with something for their trouble,” he instructed a lackey, and thus we headed back down dale with no supper but two Cherry Valley vouchers. Out for a duck yet again.

April 2 2021: Easter extraordinary

Happy Easter. You’ve seen the forecast – freezing temperatures, Arctic winds, falls of snow. Now read on.

Yesterday’s blog recalled the infamous FA Amateur Cup tie between Stanley United and Yorkshire Amateurs, January 31 1948, in which four United players sought sanctuary because they could no longer stand the cold.

Things were no better up at the “other” Stanley – communities which should never be confused but which are, of course, all the time – where East Tanfield CW met Moor Green in another second round tie.

Moor Green sounds like it should be Birmingham. Soft south, anyway. Blog reader Ray Ion finds a report in The Times, February 2 1930, of a “remarkable” match in which two of the home side and six visitors were “led from the field” for fear of perishing on the spot.

Though “proceedings were altered” at half-time, the weather wasn’t and the match was abandoned with the north-west Durham side leading 2-1. They lost the rearranged game 3-2.

Further misfortune befell East Tanfield at the end of their probationary Northern League season when the annual meeting voted them out in order to allow Penrith’s return, but let’s get back to Easter.

Easter Day in 1930 fell on April 20, about as late as it gets before bumping into Whitsuntide, and a particularly memorable weekend for Sunderland, who won 6-0 at Liverpool, the prolific Bobby Gurney hitting four.

Gurney was a Silksworth miner who’d joined from Bishop Auckland for the standard £10 signing-on fee, paid in gold sovreigns and carried home on the bus to his mum. Having marked his debut with nine for the Reserves at Roker Park, he went on to become Sunderland’s leading scorer for seven successive seasons, still always travelling to home matches on the tram.

Newcastle United and Middlesbrough also won that Easter weekend, though it was Sheffield Wednesday – are you reading, Mr White? – who were champions-elect.. “The clouds are certainly lifting over the North-East,” said The Northern Echo’s back page, though the sports editor clearly hadn’t read the front, which talked of gales, icy rain and blizzards.

Only Hartlepool had escaped the worst, said the Echo, somewhat surprisingly. In Hartlepool it was only blowing half a gale.

The Durham Challenge Cup final between Tow Law Town and Spennymoor United had ended 1-1 – “miserable conditions, miserable match” said the Echo – while Crook’s derby with Willington was abandoned after 20 minutes, the weather said to be “deplorable.”

Across at Chilton, near Ferryhill, the Colliery Welfare were leading Stockton 6-0 in a Northern League match when, 65 minutes gone, four home players decided that they could withstand the elements no longer. Stockton scored four in the next 18 minutes but, after 85 minutes and the score 7-4, Chilton player T Stephenson was carried semi-conscious from the field, said physically to be blue with cold.

Match finally abandoned, Chilton won 1-0 at the second attempt.

If it wasn’t fit to turn a dog out, things were perhaps a little easier across the Pennines where a goal-bound Rochdale effort in the match at Carlisle was cleared off the line by a whippet.

Something similar happened at Bedlington Terriers in 1992, when an Evenwood Town attempt was blocked by a perhaps-lucky black cat, prompting own manager Graeme Forster to wonder if the whole of the cat were over the line.

Back at Easter 1930, the women folk were proving they were made of sterner stuff. A 7,000 crowd turned out at Darlington RA (are you reading, Mr Hamilton?) to watch Marks and Sparks ladies take on those from Fred Woolie’s in a charity match for the NUR Orphanage, a “talking picture van” from one of the major newsreel companies eagerly in attendance.

No matter that the Woolies’ captain had to receive treatment even before the match kicked off, having fallen over the rope which tethered the net, an entertaning encounter ended 3-3 – but not without controversy.

“A degrading spectacle,” thundered the Council of Christian Witness, something touched upon by local councillor W G Loraine, who kicked off. “You can see worse in first-class tennis,” he said.

Religious controversy? Shocking weather? As may never have been said of a North-East England Easter, there’s nothing new under the sun.

April 1 2021: an ill wind

Yesterday’s blog recalled the infernal occasion at Stanley United – January 31 1948, Yorkshire Amateurs in the Cup – when the weather became so atrocious, atrocious even for Stanley Hill Top, that four home players were unable to continue.

“I was there,” recalls blog reader and retired headmaster David Armstrong, indelibly. “The Stanley goal was a penalty after a Yorkshire Amateurs player picked up the ball in the area. It was just about the only time in the second half, kicking up against the elements, that we were in their half.”

Nor was it to be the last occasion on which Stanley found themselves short-handed in the teeth of a storm – though on November 17 1962, the entire North-East felt its force.

Stanley trailed 2-1 to Whitby Town in a Northern League match when referee Ron Evans had no option than to abandon the match when five United players sought sanctuary in The Little House on the Prairie. The game was replayed, Stanley winning 4-2.

At Whitley Bay, meanwhile, weather conditions were so bad that it could have killed the poor referee, truncating before hardly it had begun an outstanding international career.

Whitley played Willington. “It was a wild day, absolutely terrible,” Pat Partridge once told me. “I remember the linesmen sort of crouching, as if trying to escape from the storm.”

The visitors led 1-0 when Pat abandoned the match after 37 minutes, spent 20 minutes in the shower and still couldn’t get warm. Although feeling unwell all week, he still turned out at Ferryhill Athletic the following Saturday.

On the Monday he finally went to the GP, who ordered him straight to bed and visited every day for a week. “He said they’d only just caught it in time,” said Pat. “If it had been rheumatic fever, I’d have been a goner.”

The illness meant three months out of action. “Iwas lucky,” he said. “The winter of 1962-63 was so bad, I hardly missed a game.”

The incident was recalled in all the national newspaper obituaries when Pat – Billingham boy, Cockfield farmer – died in 2014, aged 81. “Drama was never far away,” said The Independent, “when Pat Partridge was in charge.”

At 4pm on November 17 1962, meanwhile, while the Whitley Bay and Willington players were probably still drying out, the Seaham lifeboat George Elmy was launched into a Force 8 gale to the assistance of a storm-tossed fishing vessel. Returning with the fishing boat crew, the George Elmy was just ten yards from the pier when it capsized. Nine men lost their lives.