July 13 2017: baptism of fire

The death of Bill Shevels this week – he was 95 and had been married to his wife, Kath, for almost 74 years – recalls what might best be termed my baptism of fire in two decades as Northern League chairman.

Bill had been actively involved with Darlington Cleveland Bridge FC, ultimately Cleveland Social, for 50  years and was manager for 30, leading the club to the Northern Alliance championship in 1982-83.

By 1996, however, his place at the club’s helm had been taken by his son David who increasingly became a one-man crew.

They’d been Northern League members since 1983, never left the second division, had lost 32 of their 36 games in 1995-96 and drawn the other four, conceding 152 goals.

At the start of the following season, problems multiplied. Anxious to demonstrate what a positive, hands-on leader the league had gained, I persuaded one of the dominoes team lads to become club chairman. In his first game, away to Horden on September 14, he was pressganged into making up numbers to ten, emphatically illustrating that he was better at fives and threes than he was at full back.

Cleveland Social lost 16-1, which would have been the joint second heaviest defeat in Northern League history had not the result been expunged when they resigned two days later. The ground is now housing.

It was my first big test and first big failure. There were to be plenty more.

*The ground hoppers’ weekends from 1992-96 were much more successful. Cleveland Social’s turn came on Easter Sunday afternoon in 1994, when they lost 2-0 to Prudhoe.

It was the weekend that the ancient double decker – hired through a chap called Startup – finally conked out at Ferryhill Athletic, the video showing a great many men in anoraks vainly trying to push life into the thing.

At Evenwood Town, another driver was unable to lock the bus doors and felt obliged to warn the hoppers to take care of their valuables. “All they were bothered about was their programmes,” he reported.

At Horden on Easter Sunday morning, every visitor was given a cream egg – a gesture much appreciated – and at Norton the spread might have fed the five thousand.

Readers will doubtless have discerned the common denominator: none of those clubs remains in the Northern League and only Prudhoe survives at all. We live in worrying times.