Four-and-a-half months after his heart attack – January 13, Black Friday – Ebac Northern League president and former World Cup referee George Courtney returns to the middle this morning. It really is very good to see him back in action.
It’s a charity match at Coxhoe Athletic’s ground near Durham – the first time that George has reffed there for 50 years, Steetley in the Auckland and District League, and – somewhat surprisingly – my first ever visit.
It’s a nice little ground, almost quaint, an elderly notice at the gate warning those entering that they do so at their own risk (if not quite to abandon hope.)
“I’ve taken my tablets and brought my spray” says George, 75, pictured above and still keeping his eye on the ball.
It’s not so much a game of two halves as of three equal parts. George refs the first – gently, perhaps cautiously – retires to the line thereafter. It may be the first time that a former Fifa referee has run the line at Coxhoe.
Thereafter the pitch perimeter rail become a sort of garden fence, over which George holds all manner of conversations. He’d begun his teaching career at Coxhoe secondary school, remembers everyone – or, if he doesn’t, cracks on that he does, anyway. It’s an art.
Afterwards he’s fine, admits to being “a little bit conscious of things”, vows to continue a “leisurely” comeback next season.
For me it’s the final game of 2016-17. It’s become a 92 club, mostly Northern League but ranging elsewhere from Ayr United to Arsenal and from Wearhead United – the country’s highest ground – to Wembley.
The second of those Wembley visits was just yesterday, of course – thanks to all those who sent sympathetic emails over the giddy heights problem (and to Keith Stoker who suggested where a whole drawer full of umlauts might be found.)
Lots of kind folk want Grass Routes to continue through the summer. I’ll have to see what can be done – like the great George Courtney, life in the butcher’s dog yet.