October 20 2018: plain and Simpson’s

Yesterday’s blog anticipated a family lunch in London. It is not, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Shildon side of the family.

The occasion’s Sharon’s brother-in-law’s 90th, the venue Simpson’s in the Strand, one of the country’s most venerated – and essentially English – eating establishments. I wear my Arsene Wenger tie specially.

Simpson’s began as a smoking room in 1828, was taken over by John Simpson 20 years later, became the unofficial headquarters of English chess and still attracts both the well-heeled and the penurious – the latter, as on this occasion, only when someone else is paying.

“The Briton may stupefy himself with food for the small sum of half-a-dollar,” wrote P G Wodehouse of Simpson’s in 1915. These days there may be more satisfaction than stupefaction, though it works out at a great deal more than half-a-dollar.

We start in the Knights Bar, where a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding sandwich (honest) is £15 (honest, again) and a 330ml bottle of pale ale about £6 50. Downstairs we’re in the corner – the table, we’re assured, where Churchill held court and quite possibly cabinet, too.

The lobster soup’s £12, the steak and kidney pudding £20. The test’s to see if it’s even better than Fray Bentos – it is – though I chicken out of asking if they’ve any HP.

Though Simpson’s is best known for its roast beef, it aso offers Lord Woolton pie, a meatless concoction of potato, barley and peas named after the wartime food minister. Back then it was probably around a shilling, now it’s £21.

Eight of us dine, raise a glass to the birthday boy, give no thought to the 700,000 folk up the road, protesting against something-or-other. With wine and what-have-you, there’s unlikely to be any change out of £1,000 – but next Saturday afternoon it’s back to pie and Bovril.


October 19 2018: Tiger Tigers

We’re in London for a family gathering tomorrow, chance for a lovely autumn stroll along the Regents Canal towpath from Kings Cross to the Mile End stadium at Tower Hamlets.

The walk’s joined by my younger son, in London these past ten years and an admirable courier, and by Mr Gary Brand, who’s lived there all his life but remains so misguided that he still supports Spurs. The walks 5.8 miles; several pubs interrupt progress.

Mile End’s principally an athletics stadium, reminiscent of Billingham Synthonia’s old ground and, like Central Avenue, essentially one-sided. Around 100 of the capital’s nine million populace are scattered around the stand for the Essex Senior League match between Sporting Bengal and Clapton.

Sporting Bengal were formed in 1996 to address the perceived under-representation of East London’s large Asian community – particularly Bangladeshis – in senior football. Inevitably they’re nicknamed the Tigers.

It’s been a success story. Tonight’s programme talks of “barriers broken down” and of equal opportunities for Asian players.

Though the squad is now mixed-race, the club’s twitter account talked before the match of “kormas and samosas at the ready.” Sadly, there’s not even so much as a tea hut.

At half-time Mr Brand goes out to a petrol station over the road, returning with several cans of something disgusting called Diasarano Sour which smells rather like cherryade and to which he and the bairn are greatly welcome. More agreeably, his carrier bag also contains a bottle of Newcastle Brown but, remembering recent blogs, I leave it until later.

The Essex Senior’s the same level as the Ebac Northern League but seems in recent times to have made little impact on the later stages of the Vase – though Stansted met Dunston in the fourth or five round maybe a decade ago.

This is a thoroughly entertaining match, the hosts two down inside the first 15 minutes but fighting back to win 4-2, the thrid and fourth scored when down to ten men.

It’s a greatly enjoyable evening; just a shame about the samosas.

October 18 2018: a very dim view

Headed “Power game”, the blog of April 26 2018 – on Easington Colliery’s final home game of the season, against West Allotment Celtic – reported that it was the last match in which the floodlights would be powered by a generator.

Funded by the Football Foundation and the parish council, a £190,000 close season project would see major work on clubhouse and dressing rooms and, at long last, the floodlights connected to the national grid.

Hadn’t we heard all that before and, in truth, several times before? “It’s happening, you can quote me,” said Paul Adamson, the club chairman.

Tonight they’re at home to Willington, the sort of Thursday evening match which draws a good crowd and, on this occasion, ground hoppers from Bedford, Mansfield and all over the North-East.

We’re there shortly before seven – with thanks to Harvey Harris for the lift. Paul immediately reports that the lights are still on the jenny but that work on cable laying and the rest of the refurb will start on November 12.

Probably he says I can quote him.

Shortly after seven the lights go out. “They’ve sent for the bloke from Hetton,” it’s reported.

The bloke from Hetton arrives, the lights go back on, the referee announces that the players need to warm up and that the kick-off will be put back to eight o’clock.

At 7 32 the lights go out again. Soon afterwards it’s announced that the match is off.

It’s the third or fourth time that I’ve been at an Easington Colliery match that’s been abandoned or postponed because of floodlight failure, including their first home game back in the Northern League a few seasons ago.

A poll – an exit poll – among the ground hoppers reveals that the most is six.

They’re great lads, Paul Adamson and volunteers like Billy Banks and Les Measor. They work tremendously to sustain a senior football club in a community where apathy abounds and, in any case, the primary responsibility for this dark ages debacle is almost certainly not theirs.

It needs nonetheless to be said that this is no way to treat football followers, or opponents, and that the whole thing greatly tarnishes the good name of the Ebac Northern League.

You can quote me on that, too.

*Blogs for the next couple of days probably won’t be published until Sunday afternoon.




October 17 2018: spec savers

This is becoming serious: just two midweek matches, Guisborough and Redcar, and both logistically impossible (as, indeed, would all midweek games be without the faithful support of the lady of this house.)

So the nearest to football is an enjoyable talk at the men’s breakfast in Durham by long serving former Sunderland centre half Gary Bennett, now much involved with Show Racism the Red Card.

The week previously he’d spoken at Frankland high security jail. “Life and things,” said Gary, which seemed quite appropriate, really.

In the evening there’s nothing but fireside and Coronation Street, the former much more enjoyable than the latter, which these days should be renamed Emergency Ward 10. So thank goodness for Grass Routes readers.

Yesterday’s blog had cause to mention former Newcastle United chairman Alderman William McKeag, prompting Neil McKay to recall being taken by his dad to watch Newcastle at Leeds United, on a wintry Boxing Day in the late 1960s.

Neil’s dad guessed the hotel in which the team would be gathered, found them – “Pop Robson, Wyn Davies et al”  – watching Football Focus or some such. Outside the snow began to fall. “Good,” McKeag told his team, “perhaps it’ll bring Leeds down to our level.”

Needless to say, adds Neil, the players didn’t seem too impressed.

Derek Lewin – England amateur international, long serving former FA Council member and three times an Amateur Cup winner with Bishop Auckland – recalls Gordon McKeag, William’s son, who also had a spell as Newcastle chairman (as well as being Icelandic consul and chairman of Jesmond tennis club.)

The FA were debating on-field matters. “Derek Lewin should give us an opinion, as he is the only member of the Council to have played football at a high level,” said Gordon.

What of today’s 127-member FA Council, still including representatives from the three armed forces, from Oxford and Cambridge universities, the Amateur Football Alliance, the Independent Schools Association and goodness knows what else?

Durham FA rep John Topping was reckoned a canny goalie in the Over 40s League, the North Riding’s Len Scott once scored a belter in the Wensleydale League and our own invaluable Dave Robinson is listed as Billingham Synthonia, but that’s just the club which formally nominates him.

The only names familiar from “high level” football – Derek Lewin played Football League, too – are Howard Wilkinson (League Managers’ Association) and Gordon Taylor from the PFA.

What they need is someone to speak for the myopic. My bespectacled appearances in goal for Bishop Auckland Grammar School third team make me the ideal candidate.




October 16 2018: laughter lines


As a change from the situation at Ashington FC – today’s Times carries the headline “Corbyn ally leaves football club exposed over funding”, by no means the first time that the paper has examined the affairs of the Colliers and their now former chairman Ian Lavery – let’s more sedately return to that wonderful cartoonist Dudley Hallwood.

We recalled him a couple of times last week, though even that began with a set of caricatures of the 1961 Northumberland Senior Cup final between Ashington (who else?) and Whitley Bay.

Retired (Newcastle) Journal writer Tony Jones has now kindly sent both the affectionate obituary he wrote following Dudley’s death in 1991 and a sketch of former Newcastle United chairman William McKeag (1897-1972). It tops today’s blog.

Depicted with monocle, spats and a cigar, Alderman McKeag was among the artist’s favourite subjects – and loved it. “Dudley cartoons, he doesn’t lampoon,” he said.

“For the best part of four decades (Hallwood) was a familiar figure on the North-East’s frozen touchlines, a puckish observer of changing times,” wrote Tony, recalling the raffish deerstalker and the flask of whisky, both to keep out the cold.

Then a mischievous paragraph. “Despite a hopelessly complicated domestic life, he fathered four children of whom he was utterly proud.”

We also hear, and bearing coincidence aloft, from prolific Newcastle United historian and author Paul Joannou. Paul recalls “brilliant” caricatures – “he did a great one of my father at the County Hotel, NUFC’s unofficial headquarters for many years.”

His latest book, out in time for the Armistice centenary, is a meticulous, poignant and wholly compelling account of Magpies – past, present and those whose St James’ Park days were yet to come – in the Great War. Among them was William McKeag.

Born in Durham and both a Durham City FC director and Liberal MP for the city, McKeag saw service in both world wars, becoming in the first Britain’s youngest WO1, a regimental sergeant major.

Paul’s book has much about him and many others, including the incredible stories of Tom Rowlandson, a truly Corinthian goalkeeper from Newton Mortrell, south of Darlington, and Jack Thomas, a Sacriston pitman and former Spennymoor United player who became a counter-espionage agent.

*To the Glory of God: Newcastle United and the Great War (Novo Publishing, £16 99.)

PS Congratulations to Ashington on a great Vase win at Nelson tonight. Long may it continue.

October 15 2018: Guido Fawkes night

A website called Guido Fawkes, much enjoyed by the chattering political classes, this evening carries a large and potentially incendiary headline “Labour chairman resigns.”

The chairman in question is Ian Lavery MP, the office from which he has resigned – as yesterday’s blog reported – is the chairmanship of Ashington FC. He cites pressures of the day job.

The website says much more. For several reasons it’s a firework the blog proposes not to re-ignite.  Suffice to quote incoming chairman Brian Shotton from the club’s media release on Sunday:

“We have a great opportunity to ‘press re-set’ at this football club and to begin a new era….I can only envisage future successes.”

*Thanks for all the emails, without exception supportive, on the back of yesterday’s blog about the wretched business at Hebburn Town on Saturday.

So far as alcohol on the terraces is concerned, different competitions have different rules. Sadly, since it’s the idiot minority who ruin it for the responsibile majority, the FA must now impose a blanket ban on all alcohol outside of clubhouse and hospitality areas.

Dan Harden, our man amid the Kansas wheatfields, reports that over there the Kansas Jayhawks American football team have a securely fenced “drinking area” at one end, capable of holding around 2,000 in a 52,000 capacity stadium. It serves only beer.

For that number they also have four portable potties, as the Americans engagingly call them. Last year, Dan reports, a very well refreshed gentleman struggled his way to one of these receptacles, finally managed to open the door and was going about his business when a wayward goal attempt landed – “ka-whap” – on the plastic side.

Caught with his trousers down, the gentleman flung open the door and staggered outside. He was given a rousing ovation, says Dan, by the sober ones.

The point’s serious, he makes it well. “There are plenty of sports bars with 49 screens each carrying all manner of athletic competitions. In my humble opinion that is where one needs to go to enjoy a match and a pint.”

Like the gentleman at the Jayhawks, English football’s had enough. For the good of the game, the FA must act now.


October 14 2018: ban the booze

The most regularly vexed debate at Northern League annual meetings used to concern drinking alcohol while watching a match. Should there be total prohibition?

Believing that there was plenty more time to sup ale – and that it only took one idiot – I always believed that there should.

So to yesterday’s FA Vase match between Hebburn Town and City of Liverpool where, according to the Newcastle Chronicle website, around 20 police vehicles were sent to address disturbance and violence at the end of the match.

Those purporting to be home supporters had even taunted the visitors over Hillsborough, than which nothing can be more heinous, more reprehensible or more provocative.

A blog reader went with his seven-year-old grandson. “Arriving ten minutes before kick-off I was dismayed to see alcohol being consumed on all four sides of the ground,” he writes. “Sensibly the pints were being sold in plastic glasses, but bottles were also being sold and carried around the ground.”

What happened at the end, he says, was yet more distressing because of the large number of youngsters in the ground – “many of them part of the Hebburn juniors set-up.”

A Hebburn statement emphasises that the club liaised with all relevant authorities before the game and apologises to neighbours and supporters for the “awful scenes” inside and outside the ground at the end.

It was a minority, they say, and doubtless it was – but look again at the second paragraph.

Hebburn Town are a club wonderfully reborn, as yesterday’s record 1,312 crowd suggests. Things have been transformed on and off the field, with a vibrant youth culture and a real attempt to embrace the south Tyneside community.

Then this happens, and we’ve doubtless not heard the last of it. The lesson should be clear to all and rigorously and vigilantly enforced at every level of the game – those watching football must simply do without.

*Ashington FC announced tonight that club chairman Ian Lavery  also the local MP and chairman of the Labour Party – has resigned with immediate effect. “Time pressures”, not unreasonably, are cited.

Watching the Colliers last week, I noticed in the programme that Ian’s team – chickentikkamosalah – were almost bottom of the fans’ fantasy league. Now he’ll have more time to keep his eye on the ball.