April 23 2019: to hell in a handcart

To much dismay but to no surprise whatever, the FA has awarded the running of the new step 4 league in the north to the Northern Premier League.

So the Northern League, the world’s second oldest, will irredeemably and irrtrievably whither. So St George’s Day, celebrated for deeds of gallantry and national character, will be remembered for cowardice and gutless predictability.

So the Ebac Northern League will continue to leak good clubs, with good grounds, with little or no incentive to stay and and with none, unless voluntarily, likely to join from above.

So tall poppy syndrome strikes once again, so the strong are brought down – perhaps the FA thought today’s date especially appropriate – so an institution catastrophically and culpably crumbles.

The immediate upshot is that the Nothern League will lose three more first divisioon clubs at the end of next season, when almost certainly none will come the other way.

If in time the league is to continue with two divisions at all, it will have to take more clubs from step 7 – the Wearside League and Northern Alliance – which, certainly in the Wearside, already struggle to meet minimum numbers, where ground grading is pretty much a thing of the past and which the FA has effectively cut adrift from the National League System. More of step 7 tomorrow.

All this, remember, is in the name of cutting costs and reducing travel, the watchwords when the FA began its wretched and risible restructuring 19 – yes nineteen – years ago.

All this was said to be about promoting and protecting leagues, not least those administratively and financially sound and with long decades of experience and expertise.

What wretched timing that as other leagues clearly struggled, the Northern League should flourish.

It probably can’t be argued that the NPL (Evostik) doesn’t meet most of those criteria, but what on earth does it bring to the party that the Northern League can’t?

What were the men in blazers thinking of when they made their game-changing decision? Was there something else?

The Northern League was represented at the tendering meeting – pitch and toss, more like – by chairman Glenn Youngman, secretary Kevin Hewitt and treasurer Frank Bell. I know that they worked very long and very hard on their presentation and have no doubt whatever that it was a very good one.

They, in particular, will be devastated. For how much longer will good men stay to watch the league atrophy, to see so much hard work – not least by clubs themselves – count for so little?

How long before people begin to suspect that the game is over, and that the Northern League is going to hell in a handcart?

A final point for now: in my 20 years as Northern League chairman, certainly in the last 16, I was a caustic, constant and it’s to be hoped constructive critic of the restructuring exercise. It didn’t tick boxes, it made them out of ticky-tacky; it frequently didn’t solve problems, it created more.

It was always – always – going to be a case of devil take the hindmost.

Since 2016 the league management committee has been more diplomatic, no doubt wisely. Let’s not call it appeasement, for that word remains perjorative, but relations were no doubt more cordial. A report of a meeting with the FA stated as much.

To what end? The mighty dragon, if not yet slain, has been brought terminally to its knees. And the saddest, the most damning, the most most diabolical thing of all?

On a feast day said no longer to have much meaning, far too many in football will bloody well rejoice.


April 22 2019: noughts for his discomfort

Two remarkable records fall at today’s Ebac Northern League Cup final between Newcastle Benfield and West Auckland – one treasured, the other gladly shed.

The first’s that North Shields supporter Russell Wynn’s sequence of 393 successive games without a goalless draw ends when it’s 0-0 at the final whistle.

Mind, he’d come awfully close just the day previously when the first goal in a Sunday cup final came in the 104th minute. Extra time counts, apparently, penalties don’t.

“The writing was on the wall,” says Russ.

The second’s that, when penalties come, Shane Bland saves two and West win 4-3 – the first time that that great club has lifted a knock-out trophy since 1964, when they beat Crook Town 4-0 in the Durham Challenge Cup final.

It may also be the first time that a team has won the Northern League Cup without having a shot on target in open play.

The game’s a noon kick-off at Seaham, the crowd 471. The serious supporters head for 3pm games at South Shields or Spennymoor; I head for a pint.

Ten more things we learned at today’s match:

*Former Seaham Red Star chairman Bryan Mayhew, who fought long and tenaciously for his club, has died. May he rest in peace.

*Though the Easter Monday weather’s glorious, a great cloud of uncertainty of the FA’s making hangs over all. An annoucement of who’ll run the new step 4 league in the north is now expected early this week, it’s said. “The league faces an uncertain future,” writes chairman Glenn Youngman in the programme. “The decision will have a huge impact for many years to come.”

*Consulted by the league, both Easington and Willington have agreed, however reluctantly, that the result of last Thursday’s abandoned game – floodlight failure once again – shoud stand. 1-1 it will be.

*King of the ground hoppers John Dawson, who collapsed scumfished at last Friday’s Ernest Armstrong final, has finally rejected the adage about ne’er casting a clout till May is out. “I’ve left all my jumpers off and it’s blooming freezing in that stand,” he says.

*Someone on the sunny side reckons it’s two top coats warmer. I’ve never understood that phrase. Shouldn’t it be two top coats colder?

*Fellow ground hoppers Lee Stewart and his partner Katy haven’t been to so many games this season but have now ticked off 231 Wetherspoons. “232 at Accrington Stanley on Saturday,” says Lee.

*Keith Stoker, who follows both Ryhope teams but is himself pretty peripatetic, is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned “Grumpy old git” and a cap with the single word “Grouchy.” His family buys them for him, he says.

*Though understandably hard, the Seaham pitch looks in amazingly good fettle for this time of the season.

*It’s very good to see Consett chairman and league treasurer Frank Bell back to incomparable full vigour after his recent health scare. Like most of the league management committee, Frank’s also impeccably attired. Only one might flunk the fashion parade – “smart casual,” he says. Casual, anyway.

*Though it’s hardly the weather for ducks, a coach load of West followers have made an early start in the Mallard.


April 21 2019: deaths in the family

Tommy Riley,  a stalwart player in history’s greatest Amateur Cup final, has died. He was 89.

It’s a sadness, too, to learn of the passing of Bob Black, a tireless and always cheerful backroom worker with Evenwood Town and, later, Bishop Auckland.

Tom Riley was Crook Town’s right back in the twice replayed 1954-55 final against the Bishops, arch-rivals, and is thought to have been the last surviving member of that side.

“It was one of the proudest events of his life, to play against the ‘posh boys’ from Bishop Auckland,” his son David wrote to the club. “His part in the game, along with his medal, shirt and photos will be treasured by his sons, grandchildren and great grandchildren.”

Tom had first played Northern League football for Stanley United, joined Annfield Plain and moved to Crook in October 1953, playing in five different poisitions before settling at right back.

That’s where he played in the Wembley final, the 2-2 draw watched by 100,000 people, but following injury to Ken Williamson moved to inside left in the replay at Newcastle nine days later.

Watched by a near-60,000 crowd, that one also ended 2-2. Three days later at Middlesbrough, another 36,000 saw Ken Harrison’s goal give Crook the most famous of victories.

Crook Town historian Michael Manuel recalls that Tom’s only disappointment was that he never got to climb the steps to the royal box to collect his medal, Ayresome Park  being unaccustomed to royalty.

The referee for all three games was the one-armed Alf Bond, his decision to rule out a potential Bishop Auckland equaliser in the third game forever earning him the one-armed bandit soubriquet among the Bishops.

Tom scored 20 goals in 101 Crook appearances, despite being seriously injured in a motor cycle accident in France in 1954-55. He was a colliery blacksmith at Tanfield but later moved south.

Bobby Black was an Evenwood lad who’d long been involved withthe club. “He was prepared to do anything – odd job man, groundsman, kit man and we did a lot of work together on terracing and hard standing” recalls former manager Ken Houlahan,

When the club installed floodlights, Bob was the one who ‘volunteered’  to fix the crane to the top of the pylon. “He was the type of volunteer every club is dependent upon, and loved his grub after games,” Ken recalls.

Bob later joined Bishop Auckland, where his enthusiasm and energy were undimmed. Club chairman Steve Coulthard, who first met Bob when he played for Evenwood 40 years ago, remembers a man who “did everything.”

At Bishops he was programme seller, steward, groundsman, odd job man and “a very good friend to all.” As up the road at Evenwood, he also enjoyed his grub.

“A top man and a gentleman,” says Steve.

April 20 2019: owning up

Perfect weather, perfect climax, Billingham Town and Thornaby are both in contention for the title on the final day of the second division season.

Town, two points ahead, are at Heaton Stannington, fourth. Thornaby host Esh Winning, third bottom. Not (so far as is known) having the services of a helicopter, the league not unreasonably takes the trophy to Heaton Stan. The blog gets itself to Thornaby.

The atmosphere’s terrific, the clubhouse overflowing in every direction, the crowd put at 501. The ref’s so keen to get things under way that the game kicks off at 2 57 and Thornaby take the lead – own goal – a minute before the thing should even have started.

Isn’t that grounds for appeal? The goal’s particularly welcomed by North Shields fan Russell Wynn for whom it’s now 392 games without a goalless draw.

Word soon arrives that Billy Town are also ahead – and that that’s an own goal, too.

Former Thornaby chairman Tom Grant, scumfished in club hat and scarf, swelters round the ground trying to sell more of the same. It’s the polar opposite, as it were, of refrigerators to Eskimos.

Thornaby score a second, yet another own goal, Billy Town lead 2-1. The news may be of particular interest to Northallerton Town manager Darren Trotter who’s promised a substantial sum (shall we say) to the players’ pool if they’ve the most second division clean sheets this season.

Northallerton will now finish with 17, Thornaby and Billy Town with 16. What might be called a grand gesture.

Thornaby contrive to miss a penalty but Lewis Murphy’s late goal makes it 3-1. The score on Tyneside remains the same, Billy Town champions and the league backed the right horse.

If all this points-per-game talk is correct, then Thornaby will also be promoted, ending the first season of the ebullient Apollo Quadraogo’s chairmanship in which gates have almost doubled and the number of younger supporters has increased hugely, probably something to do with the music.

Twenty years ago Apollo arrived on Teesside as an asylum seeker from Burkina Faso, a West African nation of 11 million people,where he’d kept goal for the national Under 17s team. Now he’s keen to credit the many others who’ve helped forge a remarkable renaissance  not least non-stop club secretary Trevor Wing.

Few head homeward at 4 45pm. In the sylvan sunlight of Teesdale Park, the party’s just beginning.

*The trustees of Brandon United, a club earlier thought to be in jeopardy, confirm tonight the arrival of reviving new blood from Northern Alliance third division club Coundon and Leeholme United.

Grass Routes readers read it two days ago, of course.

Coundon manager Rob Bowron, formerly a director at Bishop Auckland, will take the team reins froim Chris Blakelock who assumes a trustee role overseeing all football matters. Rob also helped lead Bishop Auckland St Mary’s a successful youth football club and will bring his own backroom staff to Brandon.

“We are fuly aware of the challenges both on and off the field,” he said.

Coundon secretary David Strong, who’d also been secretary at Bishop Auckland, moves in the same role to Brandon. Other posts are expected to be filled from the same source – it’s not clear if Coundon and Leeholme will continue.


April 19 2019: president trumped

Football folk love Good Friday – and Easter Monday, for that matter. Properly played, it offers the possibility of three matches in a day.

Nothing so ambitious here, but there’s an 11am kick-off at Willington – Darlington Travellers Rest, a club of which I’ve long been president, against Shildon Railway in the Norman Wright Cup final.

It means missing the Ernest Armstrong Cup final – well done Northallerton, commisserations Chester – but for once president takes precedence.

Even to the exclusion of last night’s debacle at Easington, the Willington lads still talk of club chairman Richard Tremewan’s stroke two months ago. Richard’s still in hospital, still making slow progress.

“He had so many plans for this place,” the lads say. It’s much to be hoped that he can still realise them.

Presidential presence notwithstanding, the Travellers lose 4-0. Morghan Claydon, who’s played for Bishop Auckland this season, nets three and is man of the match.

On the Jackie Foster Terrace the crowd positively basks in the Easter weekend sunshine. Last Good Friday the final was postponed – snow.

Some people’s third match, my second, is the Ebac Northern League second division game bewteen Billingham Synthonia and Redcar Athletic at the Norton sports ground.

Sunshine notwithstanding, Synners long-serving secretary Graham Craggs is immaculate in dark suit, white shirt and tie.  Almost certainly the league’s best dressed secretary  – best dressed ball boy, too, come to that – he reckons Dunston, departing, have the sartorially smartest committee.

The award for scruffiest secretary might be more keenly contested. The scruffiest chairman’s a walkover, but say no more.

Among those who’ve only seen two matches is John Dawson, king of the ground hoppers, who had a funny turn at the Ernie Armstrong and missed the 3pm kick-off at Hartlepool.

It’s now thought that John, a man who habitually and prudently wears many layers, was simply overdressed for the 70 degree occasion. You’ve heard of summat and nowt? This was scumfished and nowt.

A quite extraordinary game, with a late flurry of goals, ends 5-5. Louis Johnson bags a hat-trick for Synners, For both clubs it’s the last game of the season, and a Good Friday they’ll long remember.


April 18 2019: a remarkable village

Word is that the new blood transfusion at Brandon United will come from Coundon and Leeholme United, now in mid-table of the Northern Alliance third division.

Since no one’s been able to confirm it – not quite, anyway – it offers chance to recall adventures in a remarkable football community.

More on tonight’s goings-on at Easington Colliery a bit further down the blog.

Coundon’s a former pit village near Bishop Auckland, Leeholme all but inseparable. Coundon Three Tuns, a pub team then in the Wearside League, amazed the North-East football world in 1984 by reaching the last 16 of the FA Vase – home to Tamworth – and beating Norton and Stockton Ancients in the Durham Challenge Cup final.

A well-bred female feature writer on The Northern Echo, sent to chronicle those remarkable achievements, wrote that the Tuns was the sort of pub where you wiped your feet on the way out.

The landlord, somewhat understandably, was unimpressed. We got away with a Grade I grovel.

The team then became Coundon TT – whatever TT stood for, it sure as Strongarm wasn’t teetotal – and in 1987 won the Challenge Cup again, beating the mighty Bishops 2-1 in the Easter Monday final.

That morning, player/manager Paul Adams had turned out for the Coundon Workmen’s Club side which won the Auckland Hospital Cup, leading to double celebrations around the village that night.

“What time did you get to bed?” Paul was asked.

“About Thursday,” he said.

The goalkeeper was John Hopper, a colourful character also remembered at several Northern League clubs. “If goalies are meant to be mad, I’m over-qualified,” he once said.

Then there was the Foresters Arms who, just a few years ago, had almost to put up extra shelves behind the bar to accommodate the Durham Alliance trophy and all the other silverware they won.

And then there was Conservative Club, twice winners of the FA Sunday Cup at Anfield a decade or so ago but about whom a word of explanation is necessary.

Just because they were called Conservative Club doesn’t mean that they were all card carrying, deep blue Tories. It’s doubtful if any of them were, though many years earlier I’d been sin died – as they say in thoise parts – for suggesting as much in print.

It was a bit like Horden Conservative Club, yet more improbably located, where during the 1983 miners’ strike a notice appeared in the window: “Due to the iniquitous actions of the Thatcher government against the workers, the price of a pint will be reduced by 15p until further notice.”

Coundon Cons were managed by Paul Aldsworth, another colourful character who answered universally to Pele, and whose 17-year-old son is attracting much attention at Shildon.

Pele himself is now on the coaching team at Darlington Town, expected – as we were saying – to transmogrify into Shildon Reserves next season.

Goodness knows if any of them are involved with Coundon and Leeholme, a club formed in 2017 – buit great good luck to all concerned.

*At Easington Colliery the lights went out yet again, the second time this season against Willington alone. Amid much spectator frustration, the match was abandoned at half-time, meaning that the Northern League season won’t end on Saturday as planned.

Whoever is to blame – and the parish council has much for which to answer – it has become a ridiculous and wholly unacceptable state of affairs. The league is brought seriously into disrepute – I’m at Willington for a local cup final on Friday morning and may learn more of their frustration.

*Finally, frustratingly, Tottenham Hotspur fan Gary Brand spots yet another typo in yesterday’s blog.  We’d meant to acknowledge that remarkable win over Man City, particularly enjoyed by Darlington RA secretary Alan Hamilton. Typing “Sours” and not “Spurs” curdled things, alas.

April 17 2019: Indian summer

Former Darlington and South Shields player Ian Larnach died today, aged 67. A lovely and an inspiring man, he’d fought bowel cancer for almost eight years  with indomitable courage and a total absence of self-pity.

Much more of Ian in my Northern Echo column on Saturday. For the moment, let’s just recall his passage to India with Crook Town.

It was 1976. Crook GP Arun Banerjee had strong sporting links around Delhi, proposing – to some incredulity – that Crook send a team there. The Indians were delighted to agree – but could Crook get Bobby Charlton, they asked.

Charlton also agreed, but then cited injury for a late call-off. The Crook party was managed by former Middlesbrough and England Under 23 full back Gordon Jones, assisted by Hartlepool United stalwart Billy Horner with Ian nominally as trainer.

Crook players like Charlie Gott, Charlie Morrison and Terry Turnbull were joined by guests like Darlington men Colin Sinclair and Clive Nattrass and former Irish international Eric McMordie.

Pat Partridge was referee, Terry Paine – Southampton and England – became Southampton, England and Crook for the last game – the three matches were watched by passionate crowds totalling 200,000.

If it sounds like it would make a good book, it did – a very good book. Can You Get Bobby Charlton? by Steven Chaytor was published in 2003 and is no doubt still kicking around the internet.

Steve also wrote One Dead Ref and a Box of Kippers – equally quirky, equally enjoyable – potted biographies of Football League men from his south Durham neck of the woods. Ian Larnach, born in Ferryhill Station, was among them.

“He worries about the grass roots,” Steve wrote. These days don’t we all.

*Daelington RA, now in the Wearside League, host Silksworth tonight – the last home game of their centenary season.

Last Saturday they beat local rivals Darlington Town, talk turning to the last time that two Darlington teams had met in a senior league game.

That appears to have been in 1907-08 when Darlington FC – the Quakers – twice met Darlington St Augustine’s, the Northern League’s first champions. Quakers, also founder Northern League members, turned professional and joined the North Eastern League at the end of that season.

Tonight’s game ends 3-3, putting RA a point ahead of Town and with both clubs having one game left in which to claim local bragging rights. Next season, it’s strongly whispered, Town will become Shildon Reserves though continuing to play on the 3G pitch at the Eastbourne Academy in Darlington. It wouldn’t count as a derby though, would it?

For RA secretary Alan Hamilton and his no-less assiduous wife Sally, both Sours supporters, the real excitement is to come on the clubhouse telly.

*Still speaking in whispers, much speculation surrounds the identity of those coming to take over at Brandon United next season. Tonight United have a good 2-1 win against Billingham Synners, the crowd boosted by a cohort of distinguished journalists – OK a Grass Roots rootler – anxious to discover the truth. More, with luck, tomorrow.