November 18 2017: pigeon instinct

Here’s a (hopefully) interesting question: Martyn Coleman is now in his sixth spell with Penrith – has ever there been a more instinctive homing pigeon in the long history of Northern League football?

And here’s a (ditto) interesting stat: while the lad scores for fun for the Blues, breaking the club record last season, he’s only managed a total of eight with his five other clubs, most recently South Shields and Shildon.

Conversely there’s Willie Paul, so greatly a one-club man that he’s now made more than 800 Penrith appearances. Might that be a league record, too?

Martyn’s in the team for today’s visit to Dunston UTS, Willie on the bench. “A very long journey,” says the Dunston programme but for Penrith it may even be their nearest derby. That or West Auckland? The sat-nav savvy may know.

After a disappointing season, the Cumbrians seem much to have improved under new player/manager Kyle May, himself signed from Shildon, though they still fear that at the end of the season the FA will hook them into the North West Counties League in the wretched name of restructuring.

The FA appears no longer to care about a club’s wishes, or even its means. They see only little boxes, and as the late Pete Seeger observed, little boxes made of ticky-tacky.

Dunston are the model which many would wish to emulate: solid, comradely, ever-welcoming and impeccably run. When we did all those Last Legs walks two years ago, it was also the only one with three pub stops.

“If we get back too early Malcolm (the chairman) will have us sweeping up leaves,” they said. There are still quite a few leaves about the place today: best not to ask the lads where they’d been.

Though struggling near the foot of the table, Penrith deservedly win 2-0. The now-retired league chairman wins the raffle (again) but decides not to claim the prize: thanks for the pint, Malcolm.

*Though the question in yesterday’s blog was indirect, Keith Stoker was first to know that the only place name in England which formally ends with an exclamation mark is Westward Ho!

Keith also works in a gripe about the way the Americans pronounce tomato, but that’s one for the redskins.

Westward Ho! is a seaside village in Devon. Originally just a hotel, it was dreamed up by early Victorian PR men in an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Charles Kingsley’s novel of the same name.The estate grew. Onward!!!!!


November 17 2017: name game

En passant, as apparently they say on the chess board, Monday’s blog not only wondered how Perkinsville came by its name but which other North-East communities – save Washington – are named after people.

Probably we can discount Billy Row (near Crook), Percy Main on north Tyneside and even Haydon Bridge, in the Tyne Valley, though he sounds quite a distinguished cove.

The most obvious addition, as several readers suggest, is Peterlee – named after the former miners’ leader who in 1919 became leader of Durham County Council, the first Labour party member to hold such office in England.

Perkinsville’s north-west of Chester-le-Street and Chester-le-Street FC secretary Lenny Lauchlan is among a number who point out that, in the 1840s, it simply took the name of the immodest local coal owner.

The US has Perkinsvilles in Arizona, Indiana, New York, Vermont and even Alaska, but we must assume they’re distant cousins.

Neil McKay nominates Craster, up on the Northumberland coast, famous for kippers and crab sandwiches and named in the 13th century after the local estate owner. “We met Rachel Craster up there last Easter,” says Neil.

Tony Jones suggest Blucher – locally pronounced to rhyme with moocher – that village on Newcastle’s western skirts which like the nearby pit was named after Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, the Prussian general who fought alongside Wellington against Napoleon.

“Not a local man, admittedly, but he’d have been a hero to the pit owner and his miners when the pit was sunk,” says Tony.

Though the pesky thing appears long since to have been stolen by marauding raiders from Walbottle, Blucher may also be the only place in England whose name is properly spelt with an umlaut.

Grass Routes readers will know, of course, the only English place name spelt with an exclamation mark….

*Yesterday’s note on the death of former Bishop Auckland Amateur Cup final captain Tommy Farrer recalled that his obituaries had been published, and a minute’s silence held, almost nine years before his eventual demise. It reminded Lance Kidney of a yet more premature passing.

Dave Swarbrick, particularly remembered as singer and fiddle player with Fairport Convention – with whom Darlington RA secertary Alan Hamilton is much taken – was essaying the Daily Telegraph crossword from his hospital bed in 1999 when he turned the page and was somewhat taken aback to find himself in the obituaries section.

Swarbrick, it said, had died in his home city of Coventry and, like Tommy Farrer, he was able to see the funny side.

“It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve died in Coventry,” he said.

Back on his feet, the old fiddler had the obit photocopied and sold autographed copies for a quid – until somewhat churlishly stopped by the Telegraph, which claimed copyright. He died last year.


November 16 2017: Legend dies (official)


Almost nine years after his obituary was published and a minute’s silence held before the match, Bishop Auckland legend Tommy Farrer has died. He was 94.

As the American humourist Mark Twain observed in similar circumstances in 1897, earlier reports of Tommy’s death appear to have been exaggerated.

Tommy had come north as an army PT instructor at Barnard Castle, and was Bishops’ left back in three losing FA Amateur Cup finals – against Barnet in 1946, Willington in 1950 and Pegasus the following season.

He aslso won eight amateur international caps with Bishops and a further 12 after returning south to play for Walthamstow Avenue.

That’s him on the left atop today’s blog, leading out the side ahead of the Willington final, though a more famous picture – which I’m blowed if I can source – showed him with the opposing captain when Bishops met a Nigerian X1, largely barefoot, at Kingsway in 1949.

But now someone has kindly sent it to me:


The referee between the two skippers, incidentally, was a Football League official called Paddy Power, a PE teacher and Army cadet sergeant major at St Peter’s school in York, where Guy Fawkes had been a pupil a little earlier.

Probably he had no connection with the High Street bookies, though the prudent wouldn’t bet on it.

Tommy Farrer lived in Maidstone, Kent, with his wife Gladys. It was there that Terry Jackson, then the Bishops’ chairman, rang in January 2009 to offer the club’s condolences. “If you hang on a minuite,” said Gladys, “he’s just popped down the shop for a paper.”

The programme for the match with Newcastle Benfield had called him a Two Blues legend, the minute’s silence had been impeccably observed. Whisper it, there’d even been a piece in the Backtrack column in The Northern Echo.

Happily, Tommy and his family saw the funny side. Terry blamed a misunderstanding but was, in any case, in good company.

Back in 2002 a “breaking news” banner on Sky reported Margaret Thatcher’s death when she’d simply been taken to hospital after a funny turn. Three members of the Abba pop group were said by a German newspaper in 1976 to have died in a plane crash while, in 1922, a New York newspaper had gravely reported the death of Pope Benedict XV from pneumonia.

The following day’s paper had another front page story: “Pope Benedict makes remarkable recovery.”


November 15 2017: the great escape

Among the things for which I remember Willington, on the road between Crook and Durham, is that it was home to the late Ronnie Heslop, in 1961 the first man to escape from Durham Jail.

Thereafter they called him Rubberbones, a nod to the way he’d squeezed through a hole in his cell floor, having painstakingly removed the grille cover with a teaspoon, into the unlocked empty cell below.

Though he had a particular fondness for burgling Co-ops, a night shift which didn’t always pay dividends, old Rubberbones was a decent enough bloke – unlike the notorious John McVicar who, in his mid-70s autobiography, claimed that it was he who’d been the first man over the wall at Durham.

The Sun serialised it. Suspecting that Ron wouldn’t be happy that someone had blagged his claim to fame, I took the Hall Brothers bus to Willington to see him. He talked – much more freely than to one or two former members of the regional crime squad – but declined to have his picture taken.

Eventually it cost me a fiver, still a sole foray into cheque book journalism.

Willington tonight seems at peace, the main street perhaps boasting a record number of hot food takeaways per capita, the mid-table second division football team at home in the Brooks Mileson Memorial League Cup to Shildon, promotion hopefuls in the first.

The Hall Lane ground is being transformed under Richard Tremewan’s chairmanship, not least a handsome new terrace built by the dead man’s son in memory of the late and much lamented Jackie Foster, a former club stalwart, great footballer and great guy.

The clubhouse, warmed by that wonderful stove, will soon double in size; the ground has cover on all four sides, the pitch perimeter is fetchingly boarded  in blue and white, the once-troublesome pitch – this season also used by Durham City – is impressive.

Richard’s also recruited Dean Midas from Bishop Auckland – “head of PR” says Richie, and a man doubtless familiar with golden analogy.

Shildon dominate, Willington work their socks off. Lewis Graham, the goalie, plays a blinder against one of his former clubs. With eight minutes remaining, Winter scores Willington’s winner.

For Shildon it’s part of a greatly disappointing sequence, for Willington a further sign that the tide is at last turning. Unlike Durham Jail, that much is inescapable.

November 14 2017: death of a hopper



These are mournful times: word arrives of the passing of Derek Harrison, one of the pioneers in football’s first ground hops – Northern Lague, 1992-96 – and the man who almost inadvertently provided the cover for the March 2005 issue of the league magazine.

The previous NVNG had lamented the standard of pies in the league’s tea huts. A few days before the next one went to press, a box about six inches square was delivered to this house.

It contained both a very handsome pork pie and a note that Derek’s lovely wife Brenda, herself a ground hop regular, had died a few days earlier. NVNG97 featured the Brenda Harrison Memorial Pie.

The gesture was typical of a wonderfully generous and ever-charismatic man. Back in 2005, the editorial expressed gratitude. “It is a reminder for those of us forever assailed by football politics and football powerbrokers, those weary of homogenisation and fearful of other imminent impositions, that the game at this level can still be about friendship, fellowship, flexibility and fun.

“When sometimes it’s so easy to forget, that pie was a reminder of all that is good and unique about non-league football.”

Derek was 91, lived in Bakewell in Derbyshire – he’d sent wonderful Bakewell tarts, too – was passionate about anything non-league but also about Watford.

David Harrison reports that his dad had been in hospital and then a care home since a fall in February but that he still kept a “decent stash” of red wine in his wardrobe, with which to entertain a steady stream of visitors. The Telegraph and the Non League Paper were constants, too.

He died suddenly, in the middle of telling a story to one of his carers. On what proved to be David’s last visit, his dad’s final words will remain: “Watford will be all right this sseason, won’t they?”

Twelve years since we feared imminent impositions, and almost two decades since “restructuring” was mooted, the politics and the powerbrokers remain perniciously in play. The pie situation come to think, doesn’t seem to have changed much, either.

*Some other items which featured in NVNG97, March 2005:

*Bedlington Terriers and Jarrow Roofing were both in the FA Vase quarter-finals, the first time since 2002 that the league had had two clubs in the last eight. Terriers’ chairman was Graham Burnard – is hat the chap who’s now chairman at Morecambe?

*Tow Law had returned to their Ironworks Road ground after the Coal Board spent £250,000 making good a subsidence crater in the goalmouth.

*Whickham with £1,300 led Northern League clubs’ magnificent response to the tsunami in South-East Asia.

*Sunderland RCA official Owen Haley was recovering after an operation was switched to the private Washington hospital because of the length of the NHS waiting list. “There was even a wine list. I didn’t want to come home,” he said.

*Newcastle Blue Star were planning a year of celebrations to mark the club’s 75th anniversary.

*Penrith president John Hirst had written a wonderfully nostalgic book to mark the club’s departure from the Southend Road ground.

*Vandal plagued Seaham Red Star had a new 13ft security fence – “like the exercise yard in Durham jail” it was observed. It still keeps them out.

November 13 2017: Cup legend’s funeral


Jimmy McMillan’s funeral was held at Kibblesworth Methodist Church this morning. “Probably the finest player ever to wear a Crook Town shirt,” said the minister, and none in the crowded chapel would disagree.

A splendidly produced order of service booklet told the story of the man who never left Kibblesworth and who was a stalwart of the church. Jimmy, goodness knows, had even signed the pledge as a youngster, though it’s said that he made a mean drop of ginger wine.

Chiefly, of course, he is remembered as the only man ever to play in four FA Amateur Cup winning sides – Crook Town between 1954-64.

Ray Snowball, goalkeeper in three of those finals, was among the mourners – 85 and still golfing – as were Alan Brown, who played in the last two, and Danny McCourt, right back in the 1964 victory.

Alan Brown’s also affectionately remembered at Shildon, where always he was “little” Alan to differentiate him from a team mate of the same name (who, of course, was “big.”)

Jim was also president of the Durham Amateur Football Trust, well represented at the funeral.

The order of service told of a man whose behaviour was exemplary both on and off the field, a player never so much as booked throughout a long career, a fixture in the village cricket team and a senior planning officer with Durham City Council.

“Quite simply,” it concluded, “there’ll never be another like Jim.”

*Kibblesworth’s a pleasant former pit village a few miles north of the road from Chester-le-Street to Stanley. It should on no account be confused with Kimblesworth, a few miles south-east, though no doubt often has been.

There’s a pub, a workmen’s – where the wake was held – a school (which, of course, is now an academy) and an hourly evening bus to Whitley Bay bandstand, should Kibblesworth folk ever fancy a blow.

We approached it through Perkinsville. Perhaps one of the Chester-le-Street lads, the learned Lenny Lauchlan maybe, can tell us who Perkins was. And is there anywhere else in the North-East – save, of course, for Washington – named after someone with roots thereabouts?


November 12 2017: going soft


Clarty politics, yesterday’s blog lamented that a few drops of rain – a “soft patch”, as they reported – had led to the postponement of Tow Law’s FA Vase tie against 1874 Northwich at Winsford.

By way of contrast, Keith Bell in Canada recalls the famous image of the great Tom Finney, looking as if he might be clearing Becher’s second time around but, in truth, on Preston’s right wing at Chelsea in 1952. They called it The Splash.

This was the man who scored 187 in 433 Football League appearances for North End, 33 in 76 for England and of whom Bill Shankly observed that he’d have been great in any match, in any team and in any age – “even with his overcoat on.”

The future Sir Tom didn’t drown, didn’t develop webbed feet and didn’t – so far as history records – take to his bed with the sniffles. Since he lived to be 91 – he died in 2014 – the experience may not have done him too much harm nor led to an FA investigation.

The image won the 1952 sports photograph of the year award, might have done in almost any other year, and was the model for the statue of Sir Tom unveiled outside Deepdale in 2004.

If ever a picture was worth 1,000 words – illustrating how men were men and are now treated like mewling infants – it’s that one.

Keith Bell also recommends further viewing. Find on YouTube the FA Cup fourth round match between Spurs and Newcastle United in 1952, he suggests, or the 1955 semi-final between the Magpies and York City.

“When we were last back in the UK,” he adds, tellingly, “I watched Tynedale v Sale in the RFU’s national league second division. Nobody was bleating about ‘soft patches’ there.”

What’s a little wet to a water rat?

*Tom Finney, by then 44, was among a host of big names who turned out exactly fifty years ago for a match at Bishop Auckland in memory of Colin Barker, a former Bishops, West Auckland and Evenwood Town player who had died tragically.

The famed Preston plumber scored twice in an All Stars 5-4 win voer a Northern League X1 (for whom Stewart Alderson, still West Auckland’s indefatigable general manager, was on target.)

A man capped 76 times by England turning out for a charity match far from home? That wouldn’t happen today, either.

*Guisborough Town chairman Don Cowan had other concerns about yesterday’s blog – at the foot of his page was an ad for Harrod’s sequin-encrusted sandals.

Don recalls the occasion in August 2015 when I fell and broke my arm on the Last Legs stage to Alnwick Town. “If you were wearing the sequin-encrusted sandals you’re promoting it’s perhaps not surprising,” he writes.

So far as I understand these things, however, such ads are based on the browsing activity not of the blogger but of the reader. The sequin-encrusted sandal may be on the other foot.