September 21 2021: bridling….


It’s to be a bit of a catch-up blog. and first we cross paths with Bishop Auckland fan and faithful blog regular Andy Lister.

Out walking with a friend near Wetherby the other day, Andy came across this homophonically horrific sign, Horses for courses, they decided to continue, nonetheless.

Was it bigamous, Andy wonders? Now all he has to do is break it to the wife.

*Yesterday’s blog somewhat trepidantly noted that Steve Bloomer, a football superstar 100 years before David Beckham, had been descried as “as crafty as an oriental and as slippery as an eel.”

“An expression that could be taken the wrong way,” writes Martin Birtle and presumably doesn’t mean the bit about the eel.

It reminds him of a still-familiar 1850s list of 19 offences punishable by transportation to Australia which included “impersonating an Egyptian.”

The 19, these days shamelessly abrogated by an Aussie wine company, also included stealing from furnished lodgings, petty larceny – less than a shilling – bigamy (Andy Lister please note), stealing fish from a pond or river and “waterman carrying too many passengers on the Thames (if anyone drowned.”)

Legislation against “Egyptians” – gipsies, in other words – had first been introduced during the reign of Henry VIII in 1530 “to expel the outlandish people calling themselves Egyptians.” They were given 16 days voluntarily to leave these shores.

Partly the king was concerned that too much fortune telling was going on – “using great, subtil and crafty means to deceive the people”, but probably the gipsies had seen it coming. The act wasn’t repealed until 1856.

Egypt Cottage was a Newcastle pub dating fromthe early 18th century, apparently so named because that part of the city near the Tyne – a home to grain warehouses and spice dealers – was known as Little Egypt.

In later years it was conveniently next to Tyne Tees Television’s once-bustling studios, a popular watering hole for stars of everything from The One O’Clock Show to The Tube.

Remember The Tube, fronted by Jools Holland and Muriel Gray, broadcast from 1982-87 and made in Studio Five? The Egypt was so greatly frequented by some of the biggest names in music, it was known as Studio Six.

*We reported last week that Darlington RA had been fined £40 – plus the cost of the grub – after insufficient players had their feet under the table following the midweek Wearside League at Windscale, who play at Egremont in West Cumbria. The RA had described the post-match offering as “tin cartons of gravy with potatoes.” Former Workington FC director Dave Cumberworth seeks to explain.

“They’re tough lads in Egremont and it’s a form of hot tatty pot sometimes served with hot mashed sweetened beetroot. Workington Reds used to serve it to sponsors and match officials – the players preferred pie and chips. I feel sorry for the ladies who probably spent all day making it, free of charge to the club.”

Besides, adds Dave, the RA lads missed a treat.

*Chris Snowdon draws attention to a Twitter thread and blog recalling the annual meeting of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) at the Caledonian Hotel in Inverness – no less – in June 1970.

A proposal to abandon the picking of lots to decide the outcome of drawn knock-out matches in favour of a penalty competition was unanimously agreed. Who’d have thought it, the penalty shoot-out is over 50 years old.

*This Sunday’s charity match at Spennymoor Town, organised by dementia-awareness charity Head for Change, is attracting global interest. Dr Judith Gates reports that a Berlin-based television company has sought permission to attend with the aim of screening the game across Europe. In the first half heading will be restricted to the penalty areas, in the second it’ll be outlawed. For those without German television, admission’s £5, concessions just £1. Kick off 3pm.

September 20 2021: Boro’s Bloomer

Superstar: Steve Bloomer

Greavsie’s 357 goals were the most in top division history, his six seasons as divisional top scorer another record. The second in both categories played for the Boro.

Reckoned the game’s first superstar, Steve Bloomer signed from Derby County for £750 in 1906, scored 59 in 125 league appearances and was also an able sprinter, cricketer and baseball player and (so it’s said) a dab hand at cribbage, an’ all. Ever ahead of his time, he may also have been the first footballer to wear white boots.

“As crafty as an oriental and as slippery as an eel,” said a contemporary account (which must not, of course, be seen as a slight upon orientals.)

Only the Teesside atmosphere failed to agree with him, which might have explained his pneumonia. When he returned to County after four seasons, they turned out the town band to join the thousands waiting to greet him at Derby Midland railway station.

The man they now call the first David Beckham grew up in the Derby area, had his most prolific seasons before moving to the North-East – five times the country’s leading scorer – and was capped 23 times. Everything from boots – white or otherwise – to Phosphorene carried his name by way of endorsement, though the latter couldn’t do much about the pneumonia.

All that may have marred his record was the drunk and disorderly charge in 1898, the day after scoring twice for England at Hampden, for which misdemeanour – the D&D, not the goals – he was fined ten shillings.

In 1914, then aged 40, he travelled to Germany to manage Britannia Berlin and for once exhibited a singular lack of timing. When war broke out three weeks later he was interred in the Ruhleben camp where he was to spend three-and-a-half years and where fellow prisoners included former Middlesbrough team mate and Scottish international Fred Pentland, who’d gone to manage the German Olympic squad.

Detainees organised all manner of sports. Bloomer managed England against the Rest of the World at football, scored a double hundred at cricket – they called the scrub where they played the Ruhleben Oval – and in the Old Age Olympics still ran 75 yards in 9.5 seconds.

In 1923 he became manager of Spanish side Real Union which in the national cup semi-final beat Barcelona – managed by Crook lad Jack Greenwell, another story – before seeing off Real Madrid.

He died aged 63 in a room above a back street pub in Derby and with little to his name, his wife having left almost all that she had to another bloke.

At Pride Park, however, they still sing of Steve Bloomer before every match:

Steve Bloomer’s watching us

Helping the fight

Guiding our heroes

In the black and white.

Right now the poor chap would seem to have his work cut out.

*In response to yesterday’s blog, Keith Nicholson notes that his great uncle was Bill Nicholson, Greavesie’s manager for most of his time at Spurs – “an icon in north London but just Uncle Bill to me.”

Nic’s wife was christened Grace but known universally as Darkie – “not a racist term but a nickname to differentiate her from her sister, as Grace had dark hair and her sister fair hair.”

Her sister answered to Fairy.

“Is it not a sad indictment of our times,” asks Keith, “that these days you’d probably be sent on some equality course simply for greeting your relation?”

*Jimmy Greaves got on the wrong side of Co Durham referee Peter Willis, who also died recently, after suggesting that Peter only sent off Kevin Moran in the 1985 FA Cup final because the game was on television.

Peter sued and won – and being the man he was, gave the damages to charity.

September 19 2021: Saint James’ and Greavsie

Jimmy Greaves’s death reminds blog reader George Alberts of a day he could hardly forget, and not just because Nicolaus Silver – trained by Fred Rimell, ridden by Bobby Beasley, off at 28-1 – had become the first grey in ninety years to win the Grand National.

It was March 25 1961, Newcastle United’s kick-off against Chelsea put back to 6 30pm to accommodate the big race, George and friends among the 28,867 crowd after playing for Redheugh Boys Club in Gateshead that afternoon.

At half-time it was goalless. “My mates and others in the crowd gave Greaves some stick,” George recalls. “With some players that’s always dangerous….”

It ended 6-1 to the visitors, Greaves scoring the first four and Ron Tindall the others past new goalkeeper Dave Hollins. Duncan Neale bagged what may hardly even have been a consolation.

Three days earlier, the Magpies had won 2-1 at champions-elect Spurs, a rare highlight in a bizarre season which saw them score 86 goals – 28 to Len White, none other in double figures – but concede 109. They were relegated along with bottom club Preston North End.

For the benefit of the sadistic, the United team that Grand National day was Hollins, Keith, McMichael, McGrath, Scanlon, Bell, Neale, Allchurch, Hodgson, Harrower, McGuigan.

For George’s dad, at least, there was some consolation. At Aintree, if not at St James’ Park, he’d backed the winner.

*The young Greaves was also in the Chelsea side which in January 1958 was drawn at home to Darlington in the FA Cup fourth round, but might not be held responsible for what happened next.

Chelsea were mid-table in the old first division; Darlington, familiarly, the near the foot of the third division (north). That they took tickets for the replay down to Stamford Bridge seemed to redefine optimism.

Sensationally, Darlington led 3-0 before Chelsea pulled it back to 3-3, Greaves three times hitting the post. Old men still talk about the Wednesday afternoon replay, more than 15,000 – many playing hookey – crowded into Feethams to witness the Quakers’ 4-1 win.

They couldn’t blame Greavesie, though. Perhaps for the only time in his career, he’d been dropped.

*Many more mourn the death of Durham Amateur Football Trust chairman Keith Belton, recorded in yesterday’s blog. “I used to love talking to him,” says Crook historian Harold Stephenson. “He had a huge knowledge of amateur football, especially the Northern League. A real gentleman.”

We’d noted Keith’s lifelong passion for Bishop Auckland, failed to mention – for the very good reason that I didn’t know – that he was a Sunderland fan, too.

Lifelong friend Dale Daniel recalls that Keith would avoid any Saturday afternoon match reports, setting his recorder for 9pm – something called Quest, apparently – and sitting down to watch the game without knowing the outcome.

Thereafter, about 11pm each Saturday, he’d email an analysis to Dale. The accustomed first word may not be repeated. The second was useless.

*Fifty years ago I’d be in St John’s church in Shildon at least twice every Sunday – and thereafter in the Red Lion – one of the younger churchwardens in Christendom. These days it’s usually only funerals that I attend there.

Today I’m at the 9 30am service – interesting, invigorating even, but much changed. Back in the day the only Tambourine Man was Bob Dylan; now I’m the only person wearing a tie.

Afterwards over coffee I’m approached by an elderly chap – “elderly” may be defined as even older than I am – who wonders if I remember the FA Amateur Cup tie between Shildon and Crook Town in 1953-54. I don’t.

“Our goalie, Speirs, got laid out early on by Ken Williamson,” he recalls. “We had to put another player in goal. Mind, someone lamed Williamson later.”

Northern Goalfields confirms that Shildon did indeed fall 3-0 to Crook at the first hurdle, Town going on to win the cup in a twice-replayed final against Bishop Auckland. The man at the back of the church is wistful. “If it hadn’t been for what happened to the goalie,” he insists, “it would have been Shildon who won the cup.”

*The reason for again darkening St John’s door is that John Chandler, an old friend from Shildon days and himself a retired vicar and active Colchester United fan, is back visiting the area.

Thereafter the four of us head for lunch at the Hare and Hounds at Westgate-in-Weardale, where the carvery’s renowned and the Weird’Ale brewery’s out the back.

John recalls his pre-school paper round in Shildon. “101 Northern Echoes, two Daily Mirrors and a Telegraph.” Times do indeed change.

There’s also plenty of reading on the Westgate village notice board. “By replacing your morning coffee with green tea,” says one notice, “you can lose 87 per cent of what little joy is still left in your life.”

We stick joyfully to the Weird’Ale but can’t help wondering what might have happened, had Speirs not been laid out in the FA Amateur Cup first round.

September 18 2021: death of a DAFT lad

Among his souvenirs: Keith Belton

After a long illness, Keith Belton died today, aged 82. He was chairman and indomitable instigator of the Durham Amateur Football Trust, front man for 50 years of the Tees Valley Jazzmen, a lifelong Bishop Auckland fan and a passionate champion for Witton Park, the former ironworks village in which he was born and raised.

He leaves a partner, Sheila, and two sons plus one of the most extensive collections of non-league football memorabilia in Britain.

The same quietly relentless enthusiasm touched everything to which he turned his hand. Though ever-amiable, he wasn’t a man who’d easily take “No” for an answer.

Old school in many ways, he also enjoyed new technology, designing and producing several wonderful wall hangings on Northern League themes. Closer examination of the chart celebrating 27 years of the league magazine revealed a number of interlopers, from Christine Keeler to Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, who might be considered strange bedfellows.

“I like to include a few different people,” said Keith, self-evidently.

Witton Park, white-hot crucible of the fight against Category D – Durham County Council’s hated policy from the 1950s which condemned 121 villages to a no-development death – had generations of Beltons. For many years there was a concert party called the Beltones in which the young Keith played his part.

As a young un he’d also play accordian around the local chapels and Women’s Institutes, usually for nothing but rich indeed if someone slipped him five bob. There was also a skiffle group and, while at King James I Grammar School in Bishop Auckland, he discovered jazz – a lifelong love affair.

Founded with his late brother Gavin, the Tees Valley Jazzmen made their debut in 1970 at the Hardwick Hall Hotel in Sedgefield, the wages of syncopation two free pints and a plate of pie and peas. It was just like old times.

They played on four continents and across Britain, probably earning a few bob more but would still have done it for a plate of pie and peas. I’d attended the 40th anniversary gig at the Bowburn Hall Hotel, an occasion so intimate that the audience passed round a tin of sweeties – Quality Street-cred, if ever.

“There are nights when you don’t feel like turning out,” said Keith, “but when the band’s playing and the room’s with you, there’s nothing like it in the world.”

I’d last heard them in 2018, playing at the front of what briefly became the Champagne Bar – part of the former Doggarts’ department store – in Bishop Auckland market place. To Keith it wasn’t the Champagne Bar; he was playing Doggarts’ window.

Though he’d moved to Norton, near Stockton and ran a property business, his heart never left Witton Park where the long, long Category D fight had ultimately been successful. In 2002, with his cousin Ken Biggs and with Dale Daniel, he co-wrote Forever Paradise, a 140-page village history.

“Witton Park is one of the best loved villages in England,” it began – and so it became – though its indiustrial past was oft-incendiary. “Witton Park in its heyday was contemporary with the American Wild West and every bit as lawless,” the book added.

“Paradise” was – still is – the name of an area down by the River Wear. Few Witton Park folk thought it inappropriate.

Dale Daniel reckoned Ken the technical expert, Keith the historian and himself the historian’s labourer. “Nothing was too big for Keith,” he says. “He’d always go for it and worry about the consequences later.”

DAFT, the most improbable of acronyms, began in 2006 and burgeons yet. “It was his idea from the start,” says Dick Longstaff, the Trust secretary. “He was very enthusiastic and always having ideas about this and that. His contribution was the backbone of the Trust throughout and he’ll be greatly missed.”

The Trust, appropriately, is moving into a new base in the lodge of his old school in Bishop Auckland, where the first exhibition since lockdown will be staged on Saturday October 2. “It will be a very poignant occasion,” says Dick.

Already Keith had given hundreds of old football programmes to the Trust, some from the game’s formative years. Until just a month ago, says Dick Longstaff, he’d still been buying Amateur Cup medals from the 1890s. Whatever happens to that great treasure trove, it will serve as a memorial to a remarkable man.

All that jazz: Keith at the keyboard with brother Gavin behind

September 17 2021: milking it….

The Real thing: Ken Thwaites is front right

Wednesday’s blog talked timorously of the swingers’ club in Stanley. It should not be confused with the swinging sixties, when the term was more innocently employed, and to which with some relief we return.

A couple of days earlier we’d mentioned Ken Thwaites, an all-round sportsman of huge reach – his cv includes playing football for Shildon – and drummer with The Real McCoy, resident band at the Kirklevington Country Club near Yarm and the Marimba night club in Middlesbrough.

The name came from band leader John McCoy who, not at the time having access to the internet, may not have read Wikipedia’s claim of “numerous false etymologies” for the familiar phrase. Wiki prefers the theory that it dates back to 1850s Glasgow, when they’d talk of “a drappie o’ the real Mackay.”

Mackay was whisky, of course, and may not always have come in drappies.

At any rate, blog reader Lance Kidney also turns to the internet and discovers that The Real McCoy made a record, unforgettably called Show me how to milk a cow and promoted with the help of a friendly farmer near Tow Law and a pantomime cow elsewhere.

Fontana released it on February 17 1967, the same day as the interestingly named I’ll try anything by the late Dusty Springfield. It appears not to have been one of that troubled lady’s greater hits.

Journalist and DJ Stan Laundon’s website – to which thanks for the image above – also notes a Northern Echo report that the cow chosen for a promotional shoot turned out to be a “grumpy bull” and that Echo music critic John Exelby thought the band good but the material weak.

Ken Thwaites, who lives near Whitby and remains greatly active, recalls that the song went down well with a Jamaican beat on stage, that it sold well locally but failed to make the charts. “We got threepence a record,” he says and that, presumably, was threepence between the lot of them.

Lance Kidney found a copy for sale on eBay, was aksed to pay more than £20 and thought better of it.

The earlier blog also said that Ken had worked with Rod Stewart at the fabled Fiesta club in Stockton. Ken can’t remember that but does recall backing him at Redcar Jazz Club, where he appeared with Long John Baldry.and later at the KD Club in Bilingham. “He was with Steam Packet-Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger and in 1967 they got £50 between the lot of them.”

The Real McCoy didn’t make another record.

*Still on a musical note, still in the sixties, blog reader Steve Wolstencroft complains about regular reference to “We all live at the top of Eldon Bank” – sequestered by Shildon supporters to the tune of Yellow Submarine.

“I’ve never been to Eldon Bank and don’t know where it is but I can’t get that bloody song out of my head. It’s the earworm to end all earworms,” says Steve.

How must they feel in Dean Street?

*Many reacted sympathetically to news in yesterday’s blog of former Boro centre half Bill Gates’s dementia. Early editions (as they say) were mistaken to state that the Head for Change charity match at Spennymoor Town is on November 26. It’s on Sunday September 26 (3pm) – heading allowed only in the penalty area in the first half, no heading at all in the second.

There’s also a call from former England amateur international Dave “Jock” Rutherford, for many years a Northern League stalwart, who recalled playing alongside Bill in a charity match at Redcar in the 1980s.

Sharon asks who was on the phone. I tell her it was Jock. “Never heard of him,” she says.

Who on earth is going to tell the lad?

September 16 2021: double header

Judith and Bill Gates in happier times

Lunch with Judith and Bill Gates, old friends, had been arranged long before Judith helped fill about 20 column inches of the sports pages of today’s Daily Mail.

She asks that the date be put back half an hour, nonetheless. Radio 5 Live wants to talk to her at 12 45pm. There’s a bit of a queue.

Both attended Spennymoor Grammar School, he on the bus from Ferryhil and she from just around the corner. They got together on the school trip to the Rome Olympics in 1960 – “the blonde from Shildon had turned him down” Judith likes to recall – married when she was 16 and he a year older. They mark their diamond wedding in November.

Bill was a centre half, captained England’s youth team, made his Middlesbrough debut before his17th birthday and had made more than 300 appearances before retiring at 30.

Thereafter he furthered his accountancy studies, opened a sports shop and, 13 years later, sold the 12-store Monument Sports chain for £4.4m. Success, it’s said, owed much to his vision that trainers were the future.

Judith had attended Nevilles Cross teacher training college in Durham, became a head teacher in Middlesbrough before she was 30 and a schools inspector in Sunderland at 36. They moved to the Cayman Islands, had a second home in Florida, kept a third in Castle Eden, just off the A19 near Peterlee.

For all that, of course, Bill was neither the best known – nor, indeed, the most well-heeled – person of that name. “People are quite disappointed when they realise I’m not the other one,” he once told me. “When I finally convinced an air hostess that I wasn’t Microsoft Bill, she wondered rather plaintively if I might be his father, instead.”

Now things are utterly, inexorably and tragically different. Bill is yet another former professional footballer to succumb to dementia and Judith – formally Dr Gates, her doctorate a PhD – has no doubt of the link.

As formidable as she is friendly, she is chair and co-founder of the charity Head for Change. A forthcoming match at Spennymoor Town is the reason that the nation’s media – quite likely the world’s – is impatient for her to finish lunch.

*Once a vigorous, vibrant ever-engaging companion, Bill is now almost completely silent, perhaps bewildered. Judith calls it the long goodbye. “He is a Titan no more,” she says on a Head for Change website. “The game that strengthened him is destroying him brain cell by brain cell.”

In another interview, she’d talked of his playing days at the Boro. “He had to head the ball about 100 times a day in training then came home with headaches and migraines, unable to communicate with the family. It is a major problem. We have a duty, a responsibility, to protect present and future players.”

Another interview: “The light in my husband’s eyes dims every day. I hope no future players and their families have to endure what we are going through.”

H4C, as neatly they abbreviate it, has already signed up around 60 high profile backers including Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker. John Stiles, Nobby’s son and familiar on the after-dinner speaking circuit, is a particularly passionate campaigner. Their initiative to address degenerative neurological disease in sport also embraces rugby, American football and others.

“I want to shout a warning to all young players of today,” says Judith. ” I want to tell them that they are not indestructible This is an epidemic.”

*H4C campaigns for awareness, for further research, for support networks for those affected and for their families. The Spennymoor match on Sunday September 26 (3pm) is doubly appropriate because Spennymoor United was Bill’s first club and because Brad Groves, the Moors entrepreneurial chairman, began working life as a warehouse boy for Monument Sports.

“Bill used to give him Saturdays off to play football,” says Judith. “I don’t suppose he’s forgotten.”

Around 25 former pro’s have already committed to the game, organised jointly with the Spennymoor-based Solan Connor Fawcett Famiy Cancer Trust. What’s magnetising the media is that in the first half heading will only be allowed in the penalty area and, in the second half, won’t be allowed at all.

Not everyone’s convinced. A social media warrior tweeted that they’d soon be playing with balloons while blog reader Jeff Dawson, without knowing where we were at lunchtime, was sympathetic but uncertain. “Hopefully the Brewery Field match will not lead to further fiddling with the laws of the beautiful game” he emailed.

Judith insists that they don’t want to outlaw heading completely, simply to address a grim and growing problem. “No one,” she says, “should have to live through this.”

*Nick Gates, their son, heads Coaches Across Continents, a global award-winning charity active in 133 countries which seeks to enhance young lives through football. A few years ago he sent me a video of a group of African youngsters greatly enjoying a training session. One little lad was doing the splits while balancing the ball on the nape of his enck. “We call it the Mike Amos,” he said.

*At much the same time that Judith was being interviewed on 5 Live, Ebac chairman John Elliott – ubiquitous, as probably they say in Lands – was chatting away at length on the fledgling GB News.

Blog reader Chris Snowdon was impressed. “He seems a sound bloke – no airs or graces, just as you always describe him.”

Whether John mentioned Brexit is, sadly, not known – but you really wouldn’t bet against it.

September 15 2021: O’Rourke’s drift

Monday’s piece on acclaimed sports journalist Ray Robertson’s impending 90th birthday noted in passing how greatly times have changed in and around the press box.

These days the media pack are kept on a tight lead, marshalled by a posse of press officers, force fed platitudes and intravenous inanity and – if it’s Newcastle United they’re covering – risking banishment for having an opinion. Many may never have so much as had a coffee with a player.

That things were wholly different in Ray’s younger days around Ayresome Park may best be illustrated by an extract from The Boys of 67. a book about Boro’s 1966-67 third division promotion season under Stan Anderson. kindly forwarded by blog reader Brian Bennison.

In the summer of 1966, when other things were going on elsewhere – and, indeed, at Ayresome – Boro had paid Luton Town £18,500 for centre forward John O’Rourke. Ray had been tipped off about the move by Daily Mirror man Harry Miller, who asked his fellow journalist to look after the lad.

Towards the end of September, Ray was having dinner with his wife Joan at their home in Nunthorpe when O’Rourke knocked timidly on the door. “He asked if he could stay for a couple of nights as he had digs near Ayresome Park and couldn’t stand it any longer,” he recalled in the book.

The couple of nights drifted into December. “As we didn’t want him to go into a hotel over Christmas we agreed he could stay a little longer and it lasted until the end of the season.”

Feet comfortably beneath the table, the striker hit 27 goals in 38 games that season, including a hat-trick in the crucial last match against Oxford United. He also helped with fashion shows for Joan, a greatly stylish lady.

“He used to do the catwalk, modelling men’s suits for the likes of Cecil Gee’s,” former team mate Gordon Jones once recalled. “We used to give him some incredible stick in the dressing room.”

In the book, Ray acknowledged changed times. “Can you imagine today s star striker staying with a local reporter? Stan Anderson was aware of it, but it all came down to a matter of trust. John wouldn’t divulge any team secrets and for my part I had to remind him that I had a job to do. If I had to criticise his performance as a player, I would.”

John O’Rourke joined Ipswich Town in February 1968, played subsequently for QPR and for Coventry City, became a newsagent on the south coast and remained friends with his former landlord. He died in July 2016. aged 71.

*The piece on Ray’s 90th also brought an email from long-serving former Daily Mail man Doug Weatherall – “Ray was a treasured friend and colleague with whom I spent many happy times, though I preferred real ale to his Coke.” Top bloke, Doug also has another birthday fast approaching, but he’ll just be a bairn of 89.

*I’ve spent the day in Stanley – not, for once, Stanley Hill Top, above Crook, but the former West Stanley in north-west Durham where once Murray Park overflowed with North Eastern League supporters (and with dog racing enthusiasts.)

For the purposes of the proposed book, it’s a compare and contrast exercise, a bit like O-level English.

Back in 2013, the papers overflowed with reports that the former KIngs Head pub in Stanley was to be reborn as the Local Spa Hotel, said to have dungeons and “greedy girls” and to be one of the north’s most pendulous swingers’ clubs.

Over 500 objections unsuccessfully ensued, the Evening Chronicle apparently particularly concerned that the club was next to a chip shop.

That I go in search of it this lunchtime must be supposed a latter-day use of the journalistic licence, before the damn thing is forever revoked. Oldest swinger in town? That’s for another chapter.

*The homeward bus decants its passengers on Durham’s outskirts. “Big fire in the city centre,” says the driver, a big fire which anecdotally becomes a “huge explosion” and, inevitably, a bomb. Neither is true.

It’s 3 30pm and what’s most illustrative is the forlorn faces among Durham’s school pupils, denied a bus ride and faced with a mile walk – maybe a mile-and-a-half, who knows – back home. One way and another, it’s been a very educational day.

September 14 2021: a gravy offence

If location, location, location is indeed the secret of success, as one or other of the Forte family famously supposed, what’s to be done about football in Cumbria?

Isolated through no fault of their own, teams down the years have faced all manner of logistical difficulties – and so, of course, do those paying a visit.

Take, for example, last Wednesday’s Wearside League match between Windscale and Darlington RA and no matter that when the Wearside League was formed in 1890 teams were expected to be based within five miles of Sunderland post office.

Windscale play at Egremont, 135 miles from Sunderland but a mere 110 from Darlington. To make last week’s match, many players had to leave work around 3 30pm. Cars left around 4 30pm, arriving at the ground two-and-a-half hours later.

The match ended at 9 35pm, the hosts 5-2 winners. After showering and so forth, the RA faced another two-and-a-half hour return and, of course, work next morning. Only three stopped back for a bite to eat – food described by the RA as “metal cartons of gravy with potatoes.”

RA had earlier indicated that they’d like post-match refreshment for at least ten – and as a result have been fined £40 by the league plus the cost of the grub. It seems a bit over the top, recalling Ebenezer Scrooge’s observation to the First Spirit that there was more of gravy than of grave about it.

Club officials now talk of an appeal to Durham FA. They’ll insist, they say, that Windscale make a personal appearance….

*None is more accustomed to trans-Pennine travel than Penrith, ever uncomplaining, though it was in a Vase tie at Ilkley that we watched them last Saturday. The good news is that Stuart Johnson, the Blues’ defender who seemed to have suffered a serious leg injury, was seen at Carlisle hospital and is back home. The bad news is that Billy Williams, Penrith’s long serving and indefatigablen chairman, tested positive for Covid that evening. He’s feeling better already, he says.

Quids in: Pound off You with Ken Thwaites (right) after the 4 20 at Redcar.

*Yesterday’s blog had cause to mention Ken Thwaites – retired headmaster, greyhound trainer, musician, chapel organist, former Shildon player, Normanby Hall cricketer for 60-odd years and still much involved in horse racing.

Combining at least two of his interests, Ken also once owned Kindle the Flame – perhaps the only horse in British racing history named after a line from a Charles Wesley hymn.

When you get a namecheck in Grass Routes, all sorts of good things can happen….

This very afternoon, Ken – described as assistant trainer – helped send out Pound Off You, a winner at 17-2 in the 4 20 at Redcar. Doubtless there were a few bob off the bookies, too.

The horse is trained by Gillian Boanas, daughter of the late Mary Reavley, a legendary East Cleveland trainer with whom Ken worked for many years. “That was brilliant,” he said.

Thanks to my old friend and former editor Pete Barron for the photograph (and the tip.)

*Ken’s name also prompted emails from both Ray Gowan and Allen Nixon. Ray, a former Normanby Hall team mate, recalls that in Ken’s formative days he was in the band that backed Rod Stewart at the fabled Fiesta Club in Stockton. On the day of the 1966 World Cup final, his band The Real McCoy also appeared on the same bill – though perhaps in slightly smaller print – at the Windsor Jazz Festival alongside The Who and The Move.

Allen remembers serving alongside him – “yonks ago” – on the Radio Cleveland Advisory Panel. “Unpaid but with perks,” he notes. “You got a free copy of Radio Times every week.”

September 13 2021: water water everywhere

Sports report: Ray Robertson in the old Ayresome Park press box

A convivial little garden centre gathering today marked the impending 90th birthday of celebrated North-East sports journalist Ray Robertson.

Convivial? It may also have been world record breaking – the first time in inky trade history that journalists, even retired journalists, have lunched together on unlicensed premises.

I sulked throughout.

To mark the occasion – great idea, this – they’d been to a Methodist church auction, successfully bidding £15 for a pile of around 30 football books about 3ft high. Top of the pile was Tony Adams’s autobiography Addicted, slightly inappropriate because whatever else of a more wholesome nature Ray may be partial to, he’s a lifelong teetotaller. We drank his health in tap water.

After a year in a solicitor’s office – “hated it” – Ray had begun in The Northern Echo’s Bishop Auckland branch in the 1950s. A contemporary was the late Bob Cass, later a star man on the Mail on Sunday. Together they’d put the world to rights in Rossi’s, a street corner cafe where the Bovril was renowned and the coffee machine made a noise like a windy pick on time-and-a-half. “It was a bit like the Fonz,” said Ray.

Rossi’s wasn’t licensed, either.

Back then it was the story, not the story teller, which mattered. No by-lines, no big egos. “The first time that Bob got his name in the paper was when he broke his leg playing for Bishop Auckland Wednesday” Ray once recalled.

For Ray the timing was perfect: the Northern League in general and the Bishops in particular were entering upon a golden age which brought him four successive Wembley trips between 1954-57. “It was an awful lot better than the solicitor’s office,” he supposed, and still has a treasury of Harry Sharratt stories by way of witness statement.

In 1960 he became the Echo’s man at Ayresome Park – the paper called him Ranger – making his debut on August 20 at Bristol Rovers. Alan Peacock’s two goals helped Boro to a 3-2 win.

He became a virtual part of the furnishings, knew and got on with players and management in equal measure – times change – retired from the Echo in 1993 but continued as a freelance until the industry’s ink ran dry.

He’d met his late and lovely wife Joan at a back stage party at the Fiesta night club in Stockton. Des O’Connor, the evening’s star turn, told her that he was sure he’d seen her before and that he never forgot a face. So he had: he was a red coat at Billy Butlin’s in Filey and Joan had been crowned beauty queen.

The 90th falls this weekend. Thereafter he won’t be short of reading matter.

*Ken Thwaites, for whom a season with Shildon is but one of lifetime’s great memories, writes after yesterday’s report on cricket at Glaisdale. He’d have liked to have been there, but was umpiring elsewhere. He lives near Whitby.

A retired primary school headmaster – Times Educational Supplement on one side of the desk, Racing Post on the other – Ken also spent a lifetime with Normanby Hall Cricket Club, was a greyhound trainer, is still much involved with the horse racing industry and remains a Methodist church organist.

Once he had a dog called Reverend Firefly, irrevently banned from Sunderland stadium for fighting. Ken never went back either.

Yesterday’s blog also noted that, five weeks short of his 80th birthday, Norman Whiteford of Tantobie had been named man of the match for his 2-7 from six overs in the Amos Lowdon-Wilson Cup final agaihst Brandon II the previous day. It would be indelicate to report whether or not Ken’s still playing, but in any case he’s but a bairn of 78.

September 12 2021: Glaisdale expression

Bus trip: Glaisdale’s pavilion (right) and directions to the ground

Glaisdale’s a charming village north-west of Whitby with a railway station on the Esk Valley line, a Museum of Victorian Science (honest) and a half-hidden cricket club to which the well-manicured sign above offers directions.

We miss it, for all that. Sharon, the brains of the organisation, calls up Bluetooth (or some such.) “It appears to be in the middle of the river,” she says.

Take the wrong track and you end up at the little museum, described in a wholly complimentary review as “like being in a prop store for a series of horror films” and offering “a virtual tour of Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory”. Bump down the right one and the cricket field spreads invitingly ahead.

Glaisdale’s also renowned for Beggar’s Bridge, now Grade II listed, built in 1619 by local lad made good Thomas Ferres. Denied the hand of the squire’s daughter because of his own lowly estate, Ferres determined – like Dick Whitington, though possibly weithout a cat – to seek his fortune elsewhere.

On the night before his departure, however, the river was in flood and he was unable to cross to say his farewells to the lovely Agnes. He became Sheriff and later Lord Mayor of Hull, returned to marry the lady and determined that never again would the flooded river come between a lover and his lass. More magnificent than mendicant, Beggar’s Bridge stands yet.

The cricket pavilion may not be 17th century, nor even Victorian, but has seen better days and will soon handsomely be replaced. The seats all came from buses. “It’s become a bit of a tradition,” says Glaisdale man Mark Hollingworth. “When they wear out we get some more. For £100 you can get a bus worth.”

Mark’s also in charge of the kettle, though the ground has no electricity. “Calor Gas,” he explains.

Inside the pavilion there’s a framed photograph of a long-gone village team – all Ventresses, Tordoffs and Winspears – with Sir Leonard Hutton, though I couldn’t read the accompanying story of what Sir Len was doing there in the first place.

It’s the Feversham League’s top four play-off final, the hosts entertaining Slingsby – Malton way – who’ve already won the six-team league after a three-way tie on points at the top. The presentation party might normally be league president Sir Richard Beckett QC, 77, a non-executive director of the mighty J D Wetherspoon pub chain and, it’s said, a jolly good egg.

The Becketts go back a long way in these parts, Sir Gervase – Sir Richard’s grandfather – once Whitby’s MP. League secretary Charles Allenby, the best of men, notes that his grandfather was once Sir Richard’s grandfather’s butler.

Since the president’s unavailable – he’s said to be a very keen litter picker, though that’s just a throwaway line – the honours honour falls to the vice-president, which is the poor blogger stuck in the middle of the river. The Feversham League is wonderful, the epitome of all that’s good about grass roots sport, and I’ve long been smitten by everything about it.

Slingsby bat, make 129-3 from their 24 overs, must await developments when the drizzle turns more serious. “Proper rain” someone says, morosely.

Finally returned to the fray, Slingsby’s bowling is economically opened by a bespectacled little lad called Zak, not the height of twopennorth of copper and barely (if at all) out of primary school. “I think I’m seeing things,” says Charles, affably.

A match seemingly headed towards a comfortable home win turns in the final overs when Slingsby’s bowlers restrict the flow, grab a few quick wickets and win a great game by two runs. As ever in the Feversham League it’s played in great good spirit, cricket with a smile on its face.

League chairman David Westhead notes in his opening comments that they’d even sent me the infrequent railway times lest my accustomed driver be unavailable (or washing her hair).. As ever, she waits patiently. It’s been a great day.

*Back north of the Tees, John Raw attended today’s Amos Lowdon-Wilson Cup final between Tantobie – up (West) Stanley way – and Brandon II, after which Tantobie’s Norman Whiteford was “rightly” named man of the match for his 2-7 off six overs. The original Stormin’ Norman, 63 years with the club, turns 80 in five weeks time and still reckons he has a year or two in the tank.

I’d chatted to him back in 2009, then just a bairn of 67, after he’d won the North East Durham League bowling award with 25 at ten. Norman thought it all a matter of line and length, or flight and the other thing as the more vulgar suppose, though league chairman Brian Barrass had a theory of his own.

“I think he just kids them out, rather than bowls them out,” said Brian. “He sends the ball so high that the batsman’s played three different strokes before it comes down again.”

John Raw has no doubt that today’s award was deserved. “He is,” he says, “an inspiration to us all.”