June 24 2019: Norman conquest

Mention the other day of Ferryhill Athletic’s ten-year turnaround of Northern League titles – 1938, 1948, 1958 – reminded Norman Leighton of the last of them and, in particular, of Richie Norman, the left back.

It reminded me, in turn, of the protocol for eating Yorkshire puddings – in which parts of the land are they served as a starter? – but we’ll return to that a little later.

Richie, now 83 and still Nuneaton Borough’s physio, spent nine years with Leicester City, joined at much the same time as Gordon Banks and became the great goalkeeper’s best friend.

He was a Newcastle lad but on Middlesbrough’s books, joined Ferryhill on the recommendation of Boro boss Bob Denison. “I never quite knew why I did it,” he told me in 2007, “but they were a tremendous side and a lovely club and I never regretted it.

“The facilities were a bit basic, there was a bit of a slope and the money wasn’t very good but I loved my time at Ferryhill.”

The real attraction, however, may have been the pre-match meal at team mate Bobby Kilcran’s. “It was brilliant. I remember that the Yorkshire puddings were served before the main course. I’d never seen it before or since,” said Richie.

Is it a North-East thing? Proof of the pudding, anyone?

Richie made 365 Leicester City appearances – even scoring two goals – his debut in a 2-0 win at St James’ Park in January 1960. “The whole school was there,” he recalled. He later became Northamptonshire County Cricket Club’s physio for nine years.

His mate Banks made 356 City starts. “We hit it off and bonded together from the start,” he told City’s website after Gordon died in February. “I’m a bit disappointed Leicester didn’t put up a statue for him.”

*The 14-club Northern League was very different in 1957-58. not least because Durham City were the most northerly members. Twenty points but fewer than 15 miles seperated the top nine.

Stanley United might have spoiled Ferryhill’s sequence had they held onto Geoff Strong, scorer of 14 goals in the first four games before Arsenal came knocking (and Geoff took a pay cut.)

Penrith twice played two games on the same day – on one occasion winning both, on another travelling from Cumberland to Tow Law for the second – Crook Town beat South Bank 12-0 home and away on successive Saturdays and the Northern League’s Amateur Cup hegemony (nice word, hegemony) ended when Crook Town lost in the semi-final.

*Congratulations to Darlington RA’s multi-tasking secretary Alan Hamilton, who blames me for much, named the Wearside League’s administrator of the year at the annual meeting. The Wearside will continue with 16 clubs in 2019-20, though Harton and Westoe have merged with Boldon Colliery and will play there.

Alan’s among a number of Grass Routes regulars who no longer seem to be getting the blog automatically as an email, though it can still be found through Twitter. I don’t understand such things. Can anyone suggest what’s happening – and how it can be rectified?




June 23 2019: Cameroon’s strong arm

Friendly fire, yesterday’s blog noted that within seven minutes of the start of Saturday’s gentle work-out between Richmond Town and Penrith, a visiting player had scattergunned expletives in every direction.

It had barely been posted ten minutes before an email arived from Simon Mears – Sunderland RCA supporter, piano teacher, photographer, top bloke.

Simon had been watching the Women’s World Cup, thought it a great example, underlined the contrast. “Yes there are late tackles, yes there are bookings but there’s no rolling around on the floor like they’ve just been shot by a sniper.

“There are no flare-ups, no eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations, no surrounding the referee, no pushing” – and, of course, no handbags.

Then England played Cameroon this afternoon….

*For those outside of North-East England, indeed those abstemiously inclined, today’s header may need explanation. Cameron’s Strongarm is a “ruby red” beer, brewed in Hartlepool since 1955 and originally aimed at the town’s thirsting steel workers.

It’s a pint of which for many years I’ve been particularly fond. “For half a century,” I wrote on the occasion of Strongarm’s diamond jubilee, it has been my amanuensis, my aide-de-camp, my pint-sized little helper.” So it remains.

*Checking that 2015 tribute, I come across in the same column a note from a chap who’d discovered in Boot’s in Sacriston, near Durham, a vitamin supplement “especially for men” and with the small-print proviso that it should not be taken while pregnant or breast feeding.

He raised it with the assistant. “We have to cover all eventualities,” she said.

*Finally back to Hartlepool. Briefly recalling greyhound racing’s unlicensed “flapping tracks”, the blog a few days ago mentioned author Matthew Engel’s visit to Wheatley Hill dogs in east Durham – “a secret world hidden in plain sight.”

At the end of that chapter there’s a footnote. The week after his visit to Wheatley Hill, Engel writes, a chap from Stockton appeared before Hartlepool magistrates charged with causing unnecessary suffering to dogs running on flapping tracks by feeding them noxious substances.

If he wanted them to lose, he fed them boiled cannabis. If he wanted them to win, they got viagara – “made them run their heads off,” he said. He was banned for life from owning greyhounds but allowed to keep 20 ferrets.

Engel sensed incredulity. “I’m not making this up,” he added.



June 22 2019: Act 1 scenic 1


Reader, I finally yielded to temptation. Richmond Town v Penrith, first match of this or probably any other season, it was. Others don’t even try to resist.

Seven minutes into what’s intended as a gentle, amicable, mid-June pipe opener and the Penrith No 10 is judged to have fouled an opponent. His reaction’s extraordinary, simultaneously abusing the referee, traducing his opponent and startling the scattered spectators.

Welcome back, football. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The other argument’s over whether this is the last game of 2018-19, the first of 2019-20 or whether, since officially it’s the close season, it defies the laws of nature by existing in a vacuum.

John Dawson, king of the ground hoppers, insists it’s still 2918-19 and still has a couple of games in Northern Ireland this week before drawing a line beneath it.

Willie Fyvie, down on the bus from Sunderland, insists it’s 2019-20. 2018-19 had finished a fortnight earlier, with a Scottish junior final in the afternoon and Scotland v Cyprus in the evening.

Richmond Town’s ground rewards the effort, of course, named England’s most scenic in two different polls. Time for a photograph – Penrith in red – though readers should not expect to see the ball. It took me all my time to get the castle in.

Ground development necessarily restricted, the Wearside League club has long tried to relocate in the hope of scaling the Pyramid. This could be their last season beneath the majestic castle walls.

Most of the Penrith faithful, save for Mr Ian White, have headed eastwards across the Pennines. Mr White, once again acting secretary, is rumoured to be advising his friend Rory Stewart, the local MP, on how he might do better next time.

The temperature’s around 70 degrees, the first half gentle save for the seventh minute adventist. At half-time it’s 0-0, prompting the inevitable debate over whether it could be the last goalless draw of 2018-19 or the first of 2019-2020.

It ends 2-2, the highlight Robbie Jebson’s 35-yard opener for Penrith. The teams head for a bite to eat in the pub, I head for an ice cream, and to the cricket. It’s still mid-summer, after all.





June 21 2019: MND over matter

In 2015-16, my last season as Northern League chairman, I walked an average 12 miles to each of the league’s 45 grounds. The first steps were from Staithes to Marske in the convivial and greatly generous company of Marske United chairman Peter Collinson and his incredibly energetic dog Cassie.

The Last Legs Challenge rasied just over £28,000, half of which went to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation  and half in £1,000 segments to charities nominated by the clubs themselves and drawn from a hat.

Marske, among those picked, asked that their £1,000 be given to the Mike Findley Motor Neurone Disease fund, started by Mike – whom I’d interviewed a couple of times – after his own MND diagnosis in 2004. He died last weekend, aged 74.

MND is a fearful neurological disorder whose victims have included former football managers Willie Maddren and Don Revie, the singer Heinz – who orbited with the Tornadoes – and, eventually, Stephen Hawking.

“I’m lucky, really,” Mike once told me – amazing how often he said he was lucky – “mine isn’t the 2-5 year (life expectancy) MND, it’s the 5-10 year MND. I’m glad I can say that, it’s been four years already.”

Originally from south London, he was a Fulham fan who adopted the Boro and became a good friend to Marske United – and they to him.

He’d been a full-time Communications Workers’ Union official, was a Redcar and Cleveland councillor, became mayor several years after MND was diagnosed and was appointed MBE for work with his charity.

“You sometimes get down days,” he said, “but you get down days when you’re as fit as a lop.”

They asked me to present the cheque at the Leonard Cheshire Home in Marske, by which time Mike was entirely restricted to a wheelchair, seriously disabled but as positive and as cheerful as ever.

It was a Saturday, somehow he ate fish and chips. “If I can have my fish and chips, I’m happy,” he said – one of the most extraordinary and most courageous men it was ever my great privilege to meet.



June 20 2019: early kick-off

Just when you thought that summer might be getting its hat out, football kicks off again on Saturday. Richmond Town, named England’s most scenic ground, host Penrith in a friendly (2pm).

Pre-season? “For me it’s the end of 2018-19,” says John Dawson, King of the Ground Hoppers. “My season doesn’t start until July 1.”

John remembers the days when spectators weren’t allowed into friendlies until mid-July. “Billingham Town played Aberdeen’s first team. Tommy Donnelly (Billy Town’s long-serving secretary) let me put out the corner flags. That way I wasn’t a spectator, I was a helper.”

John’s already worked out the bus route from Hartlepool to Richmond, where doubtless he will be joined by many others of an insatiable nature. We only live five or six miles away but it might just be a bit too early….

*Still folk simmer over the FA’s sponsorship hypocrisy. More light heartedly, Geoff Thornton recalls his days with the Crawley and District League when the Parson’s Pig, a pub, wanted to change its name to the Purple Haze.

Whether it was a pop group or simply named after a carcinogenic smoke room, Sussex FA refused the change. “Our committee had no idea why – or so they said,” says Geoff.

County authority probably wasn’t needed in the Crawley News six-a-side league. It’s why they had a team called Kinnellref. Geoff’s committee probably wouldn’t have understood that one, either.

*Durham County Council today approved plans for 84 houses on the site of the long-abandoned Spennymoor greyhound stadium, a reminder of how times change.

Once Co Durham had a dozen or more flapping tracks – goodness knows how they came by the name – now there’s just one, at Wheatley Hill.  It stirs memories of Ferryhill Athletic, too.

Ferryhill were Northern League members for 74 years from 1923-24, won the championship in 1938, 1948 and 1958, twice reached the FA Amateur Cup quarter-final and twice the FA Cup first round, losing at Oldham and Workington.

By the mid-nineties, however, their Darlington Road ground – alongside the old A1, opposite the fire station – had been subject to arson and vandal attacks and sundry other predations and was simply unfit for purpose.

For a season they shared with Brandon United, mooting the alternative of playing at Spennymoor dogs. The league, on two or three occasions, duly inspected.

Goodness knows the greyhound stadium was less than palatial either – canny pies, they reckoned – but there was one insuperable problem. It was impossible to fit a football pitch – even with the minimum dimensions allowed – inside the running track.

Ferryhill doubted us, brought in an independent tape, still couldn’t measure up.

In 1996-97 they finished bottom with just five points from 36 games of the Northern League second division – 16 goals for, 177 against. The only win was a 3-2 at Esh Winning, the biggest defeats 11-0 at home to Northallerton and 12-0 at Jarrow Roofing. On four other occasions they conceded ten.

Homeless, the club was suspended at the 1997 annual league meeting and folded soon afterwards. Spennymoor dogs didn’t run much longer, either.

June 19 2019: suffix it

Yesterday’s blog on Dunston’s enforced name change was mistaken in one respect: the FA doesn’t just forbid sponsor names at levels 1-4 of the non-league game, it bans them at Ebac Northern League level, too.

Dunston UTS may, indeed, have got away with it for a couple of years, possibly because those at Durham FA are altogether more rooted than their counterparts at Wembley (powered by whatever.)

Then someone noticed. Or someone spragged.

A few years back there was also Washington Ikeda Hoover, of course, but most people thought that a typo for Ikea, anyway.

Thus it is than an organisation which employs a team of well-paid people to seek sponsorship for its own football ends has others who hypocratically deny such opportunities to volunteers who strive to keep their clubs alive and playing at the highest level possible.

Had not UTS Engineering boss Shaun Sadler been truly supportive, the club’s budget would have been in shreds, its entire future perhaps in doubt.

Clearly there have to be guidelines in club naming – always insist upon the locality, certainly, decline overt commercial messages, perhaps restrict suffixes to two words.

But what possible damage to the game’s precious reputation could “Dunston UTS” have done? And what irreparable damage had the sponsor walked away? No one, after all, seemed to think it out of order when Dunston UTS appeared at Wembley a few years ago.

Just tell the FA that it was another typo, and that they meant Dunston Utd. They probably wouldn’t notice that, either.

*Not all blog readers were outraged. Simon Mears had sympathy with the FA but cited Total Network Solutions, several years at the top level of Welsh football until the company was taken over by BT.

He remembered, too, Jeff Stelling’s famous line: “They’ll be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight.”

Dave Bussey recalled Shaw Lane Aquaforce, the south Yorkshire club who beat both West Auckland and Shildon in the 2014-15 Vase (sponsored by someone-or-other) who were promoted and also told to sink the suffix. They folded soon afterwards.

Shildon fan Paul Mulley – “Mr Very Angry” – wonders if the FA has heard of PSV Eindhoven – named after the Phillips electrical company – though, to be fair, the FA allows historical company associations.

It’s OK, of course, to have the Emirates FA Cup. How long, wonders Paul, before it’s just the Emirates cup?

*On the subject of sponsorship, Ebac boss John Elliott had a horse out this afternoon in the five o’clock at Royal Ascot.

Called Kynren – after the spectacular open-air historical pageant now staged annually in Bishop Auckland – it appropriately carried two-blue colours, started at a measly 6-1 in a 28-horse race and finished fifth.

The younger bairn lost £2 50. John, who likes a flutter, probably invested a few bob more. Will the Northern League’s very handsome sponsorship deal now be in jeopardy? Perhaps the FA could help.

July 18 2019: them and UTS

North-East clubs like Dunston UTS reckon that taking promotion from Ebac Northern League to Evostik League costs an additional £15,000 annually in travel expenses alone. Clearly the backing of good sponsors becomes more important than ever.

Dunston have been much blessed. For years they had a good working relationship with the Federation Brewery – almost next door – and for the past decade have benefitted substantially from the backing of UTS Engineering.

What happens next? The FA has now told the club that for “football purposes” – aren’t football purposes the reason for their very existence, for their every activity? – teams above Ebac Northern League level (step 5) are not allowed to include a sponsor’s name. They start the new season as Dunston FC.

This is the same governing body, remember, which is based at Wembley Stadium, and which allows every opportunity to remind us that it’s powered by whoever. This is the same organisation which (rightly) endlessly seeks sponsorship for just about everything.

Isn’t the FA Cup contested for football purposes? And the FA Vase? Isn’t the Evostik League a football competition? Has ever there been such rank hypocrisy, or such arch and antediluvial incompetence?

Is there no one in higher office at Wembley (powered by so-and-so) who realises what self-defeating absurdity is perpetuated in the FA’s name and might seek to bang heads together (or, better, to kick backsides?)

Is kicking backsides a football activity? Think what mighty sponsorship that would attract.

A club statement’s more diplomatic, simply describinjg the decision as “unfortunate”. Maybe they can afford to be restrained because Shaun Sadler, the boss of UTS, has indicated that sponsorship will continue as before. The company can have its name on the beer mats, after all.

The phrase about “having the game done away with” is used glibly, sometimes jocularly. Yet by potentially damming a club’s main income stream, when all others accept the commercial realities of 21st century sport, isn’t it wholly tempting to suppose that that’s exactly what the Football Association is trying to do?