May 28 2017: George Courtney’s comeback


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.

May 27 2017: Gooners hit the heights

Observing a happy day at the FA Vase final, last Sunday’s blog noted how good it was to come down in the world.

The royal box, for all its comforts, is awfully elevated. For those of us in whom so much as standing on a chair is likely to induce a panic attack, the Bobby Moore Suite seats seem much closer to sanity, and to safety.

Last Sunday’s blog also noted that, on the back of Wembley tickets, there’s a warning that seats at Level 5 are steeply tiered and that the job might not be suitable for those with vertigo – or those, like me, just terrified of heights.

Guess where we are for the FA Cup final? It’s what theatre folk call the gods, though if God’s in his heaven he’s surely having a laugh (and we’re almost close enough to hear him.)

The elder bairn, bless him, tries to persuade the stewards to let us onto something called the EE Terrace. Inexplicably, the plea “Don’t you know who my dad used to be?” falls upon deaf ears.

Nor are things helped by mordant myopia. There are those up there who can no doubt not just see the Shard but their granny’s back gate in Battersea. All I see ahead is trouble.

Honest, it’s an eyrie feeling. Some would call it a bird’s eye view but it’s really more like an astronaut’s.

Sanchez hits the net after three miutes or so. We, almost literally, hit the roof. Then it’s noticed that assistant ref Gary Beswick – Newton Aycliffe lad- ex-Northern League, former ambition to ref the Billiungham derby – is flagging furiously.

Ref Taylor goes across, remarks that the day’s turned out nicely, decides that Ramsey wasn’t interfering – to which, of course, the time-honoured response is that if he wasn’t, shouldn’t he have been?

Small world coincidence, we’re sitting next to faithful blog reader Norman Robinson – Annfield Plain lad, Shildon and Hartlepool supporter – who reckons it akin to an incident in Hartlepool v Doncaster, last game of the season. That was Rebecca Welch – Northern League, too.

The bairns have got 19-5 with William Hill against an Arsenal win after 90 minutes, 20-1 against Ozil scoring the first – and goodness knows where this PC keeps its umlauts. You can’t win them all.

The goal stands, the excitement mounts, the fear goes nowhere. Wembley formerly styled itself as the Theatre of Dreams but up here is truly is the stuff of nightmares.

Arsenal are playing well, no sign now of planes tugging exit signs. Then Moses dives, as if seeking to hide in the bulrushes and is sent packing. Even the most incorrigibly short sighted can see that ref Taylor is playing a blinder.

Costa scores for the ten; Ramsey, moments later, hits the Gunners’ winner. It says so on the big screen. We leave on the final whistle, nine o’clock train to catch, glass to raise, seemingly hundreds of stairs to descend.

At last the red-and-white brigade sing “Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay.” Let’s hope he doesn’t bring all of us crashing down to earth.

May 26 2017: titbits from the dinner

Tonight’s been the Ebac Northern League’s annual dinner, the first time in 21 years that I’ve not had to sing for my supper. Herewith 20 things I’ve tried hard to remember.

*The FA today announced its league allocations, the effect of which is that Guisborough Town – third bottom of the first division – are relegated. Esh Winning, bottom of the second, are reprieved. Jarrow join from the Wearside League.

*The league had asked for 22 clubs in the first division and 21 in the second. The FA did it the other way round.

*On a predictably good night for South Shields, club secretary Philip Reay – who stuck with them when they had nowt – won, richly deservedly, the Arthur Clark award. Top award, top man.

*After being spotted in suit and tie at Wembley. Philip reverted to T-shirt tonight.

*Just a few months after his hip replacement, long serving league management committee member and Chester-le-Street chairman Joe Burlison, 69, is playing walking football. “Eleven goals in four games,” he reports.

*Morpeth Town won the programme competition, for which I was a judge. For once I backed the right horse. Billy Town won an award for most improved – and what a remarkable improvement it’s been.

*Still with Billy Town, club chairman (and very much else) Peter Martin took the Unsung Hero title. Who could possibly argue?

*Craig Hignett, the guest speaker, must spend half an hour every morning getting into his trousers.

*Morpeth’s Ben Sayer was named the league’s player of the year, Gavin Cogdon of South Shields took the BBC Newcastle award and Shildon’s Lewis Wing the young player award.

*Alnwick Town secretary Cyril Cox hopes to mark 50 years in football next season by hosting the annual league meeting in the banqueting hall at Alnwick Castle.

*The minute’s silence for the Manchester victims was impeccably observed. A third of the stand-up bingo receipts will go to that fund.

*Veteran long serving West Auckland general manager Stuart Alderson won the stand-up bingo after something of a recount.

*Only three pints all night. Honest.

*North Shields president Malcolm Macdonald has a new hair style. “Makes me look like my dad,” says Supermac.

*Ashington committee member Gavin Perry, still just 28 but 14 official years with the Colliers, is standing for the league manageent committee.

*Daniel’s Flyer, a recent 25-1 winner at Newmarket for league spopnsor John Elliott, is out again at York on June 17.

*Five months after his heart attack, league president George Courtney makes his refereeing comeback in a charity match at Coxhoe. on Sunday.

*Darlington RA won the hospitality award – probably something to do with Sally’s home made biscuits – and Northallerton Town the tea hut award.

*Promoted as streamlined and more succinct, the dinner ended at almost exactly the same time it always does.

*It was a greatly enjoyable night, more than £20,000 in prize money ahnded to players and individuals. The lads didn’t miss me at all. Thanks.

It’s now 1am and, if you’ll excuse me, time for bed. I’m on the 7 30 to London to watch the Gunners lift the FA Cup.

May 25 2017

What is this life if full of care

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep and cows.

                        W H Davies: Leisure

Nailsworth, a lovely Cotswold village of 6,000 or so souls, will next season become the smallest community  ever to host a Football League club – Forest Green Rovers.

Irthlingborough, once home to Rushden and Diamonds, had just 8,000. Fleetwood, 25,000 or so, may be the smallest now – and Glossop, as everyone knows, is the titchiest to have supported a top flight club.

In his later years, Nailsworth was also home to W H Davies, a one-legged Welsh vagrant who married a pregnant prossie 30 years his junior whom he’d met at a bus stop on the Edgeware Road.

His life changed after he wrote Supertramp, book and author embraced by the London literati. Old habits being what they are, he still moved between five different houses in Nailsworth, the last of them now displaying a blue plaque.

The Forest Green story is truly remarkable, perhaps summed in the ground’s postal address – Another Way. Nailsworth, however, is home to a second club that may claim to be the arboreal thing – Shortwood United which, outgrown, now simply answers to Wood.

I was there with Ashington in February 2012, last 16 of the FA Vase, the Colliers one of five Nothern League teams in the last 16. West Auckland and Whitley Bay played one another, Dunston and Billingham Synners had also made it.

Unlike Nailsworth, Ashington had no great poets of whom to boast, though the town could still lay claim to the gag about the chap who goes into the barber’s and asks for a perm….

The ground was beautifully set, Forest Green (at home to Gateshead) across the valley. If not quite Esh Winning verdant, it was a pretty good runner-up.

Shortwood led 2-0 after ten minutes, rarely looked like pulling it back. In the second half one of the Collier army was passing round extra strong mints in the mordant manner of a plate of chocolate digestives at a funeral tea. They lost 3-0.

Shortwood were promoted at the end of that season, played Port Vale in the FA Cup first round in 2013-14 and remain at step 4. They still have some way to go before overshadowing the mighty Forest Green.



May 24 2017

Ray Robertson began his football reporting career by covering the Northern League’s first golden age, in the 1950s, becoming The Northern Echo’s man at Ayresome Park for 40 years or more.

When most supposed him a confirmed bachelor, he married the very lovely Joan. Her funeral’s held this morning at Teesside crematorium – among the mourners Doug Weatheral, another veteran of North-East press boxes.

Doug was a Daily Mail man. If he wanted to know the Newcastle team he’d ring Joe Harvey and if he wanted Liverpool’s, he’d ring Shanks. Like those of other newspaper legends like Charlie Summerbell and Bob Cass, his contacts book overflowed.

These days, Doug laments, the whole circus is run by ringmasters – it would be tempting to suggest trained monkeys – from club PR departments. Players and managers are no longer contacts, much less mates, they’re a weekly press conference.

It recalled the terrible foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, when a number of grounds in the Crook and District League – as close to the game’s grass roots as it’s possible to get – were declared out of bounds.

Stanhope Town and Wearhead United, bottom and second bottom of the second division, were due to meet in the season’s last game. With both grounds unavailable, Stanhope chairman Clem O’Donovan – an old mate – wrote to his Sunderland counterpart asking if the Stadium of Light, also near the Wear, might be available.

Sunderland agreed. Clem rang me with a great story and I, in turn, rang Sunderland for a comment. The story, said the PR department, would be put out to everyone at a time of the club’s choosing.

I said that it was my exclusive and I’d be running it in the next day’s paper. In that case, said the club, the invitation would be withdrawn. For the sake of those starstruck players, I had to fall in line with the media manipulators. Mind, it was a wonderful day.

*This evening, River Tees almost from mouth to source, I’m at the final service at Newbiggin-in-Teesdale Methodist chapel, up near High Force, opened in 1760 and the world’s oldest Methodist place of worship in continuous use.

The ubiquitous John Wesley preached there at least four times, usually with a grumble about the weather. Tonight it’s glorious, and so is the wonderful little chapel

Sixty years ago the Barnard Castle Methodist circuit – in which Barney was the only town, and not what you’d call metropolitan – had almost 50 churches. Now there are six.

Times change. Is it the prerogative of those of us who attend far too many farewells to suppose that they don’t always change for the better?

May 23 2017: back up the Junction

Back in January, the blog told how one of the FA Vase programme editors had emailed to ask if I’d like to write a piece on the Northern League’s unique domination of the competition.

With great pleasure, I replied – only for the guy to claim that the deadline had passed. Clearly the FA Vase programme has the gestation period of the hairy mammoth – either that or someone got wind of the idea and didn’t like the sound of it.

So the guy wrote it himself. “What on earth are they putting in the water up north?” asked the header in the piece for the South Shields match last Sunday.

Amid some cogent comment from Whitley Bay chairman Paul McIlduff, the “Northern League” piece told of earlier Vase successes for Newcastle Blue Star and Whickham – though both were Wearside League clubs at the time – then talked of Stamford, which is a lot nearer London than Darlington, and Halesowen.

Halesowen’s near Birmingham – “a rare Midlands side plying their trade in the Northern League,” said the official FA publication.

Who writes this stuff? Who checks it? Come on fellers, you had four months to do your homework.

Beneath the headline “Up the junction!”, the cover of the (Northern) League magazine in December 2003 carried a photograph of Spaghetti Junction – also in Birmingham – and a warning that clubs taking promotion from the NL might find themselves travelling to the West Midlands.

“Moving to the Unibond League first division isn’t promotion, it’s suicide,” I wrote. It annoyed the hell out of the FA’s leagues manager but clearly we weren’t being prescient at all. What with Halesowen and other “rare examples”, we were clearly behind the times.

*The magazine in December 2003 also noted that the league’s disciplinary committee had considered a written request from a second division player to be released. It contained words like “reguarding”, “spaire” and “recieved”. The reason for his request, the player added, was because he was in his final year at university.

*Thanks for the emails and memories about Corbett Cresswell, the “glory days” Bishop Auckland centre half who died last week. Corbett’s funeral will be held at St Helen’s church, Low Fell, Gateshead at 10am on Friday.

*A funeral service for Peter Ramsey, a greatly respected referee and assessor, will be held at All Saints church in Fulwell Road, Sunderland SR6 0JD at 11 30am on Monday June 5. Peter died after a road accident.

May 22 2017: Bishops’ hero dies


Corbett Cresswell, three times an FA Amateur Cup winner with Bishop Auckland and part of a great football family, has died after a long battle with dementia. He was 84 and had won ten England amateur caps.

Warney, his dad, moved from South Shields to Sunderland in 1922 for a then world record fee of £5,500. Known as “The prince of full backs”, he won seven England caps, and made a total of 571 Football League appearances for South Shields, Sunderland and Everton, scoring just once.

Frank Cresswell, Corbett’s uncle, captained England schoolboys on each of his four appearances, scored once in 13 Sunderland apearances before moving to West Bromwich Albvion. He also played for Chester and Notts County.

Corbett signed for the Bishops from Evenwood Town, for whom he’d made his debut – coincidentally against the Bishops – in an FA Amater Cup tie in January 1951. The picture below, taken from the programme cover that day, shows Corbett and his dad. It’s been kindly supplied by Alan Adamthwaite, whose two books on Bishops’ history have become best sellers.

“He hated being known as Warney’s son, absolutely hated it,” recalls Derek Lewin, another three-time Amateur Cup winner.  “He wanted to be Corbett Cresswell in his own right.”

Corbett played in the 1955-57 Wembley sides before 14 games with Carlisle United as a professional. He is thought to have joined Horden CW but seems to have left the scene early.

Derek Lewin recalls the centre half’s particularly close relationship with legendarily eccentric goaslkeeper Harry Sharratt, though the pair always found fault with one another’s performance.

It’s confirmed in Glory Days, Alan Adamthwaite’s account of those years. “Harry was a bloody idiot,” said Corbett. “He would pull off fantastic saves and then deliberately throw the ball to a marked Bishop player….then produce another remarkable save. Without any doubt he was the best goalkeeper ever.”

In Never Again, Alan’s biograpohy of Bob Hardisty, Bob recalled Corbett as a deceptive, long-striding centre half who looked slow until you ran alongside him,. “It’s problematic how he will do when he turns professional,” he’d added.

“He was a breath of fresh air in many ways but didn’t suffer fools gladly,” says Derek. “He’d certainly let you know if he didn’t like you.”

Corbett had trained as an accountant, became a furniture salesman. “Occasional tables,” recalls Derek, “there couldn’t have been anyone in the Tyne-Tees area who hadn’t bought a table from Corbett.”

He was also an accomplished golf, tennis and bowls player and regularly turned up at Bishops’ reunions. The next is on August 24. Sadly, the numbers grow ever fewer.

*Yesterday’s blog noted the startling rumour that South Shields secretary Philip Reay, a 365-days-a-year t-shirt man, had been spotted wearing suit and tie at Wembley. Hawk-eyed West Allotment Celtic secretary Ted Ilderton now supplies proof – the image atop today’s blog. Very smart, too, but I bet it wasn’t half hot.