April 26 2017: Sandwich course

Though for 20-odd years it was an expectation of office, I’ve never been very comfortable sitting down with the prawn sandwich brigade. More of a pie and Bovril man.

Wembley lay on a lovely lunch, mind, and they do a very canny spring roll at St James’ Park.

No chance of any of that at tonight’s Northumberland Senior Cup final: after all those years in the directors’ box, I’m relegated to the paying seats – codgers £4 50 – on the opposite side.

Among the reasons that it’s by no means a disappointment is that I no longer have to endure the stadium’s glass-sided lifts, a truly fearful prospect for those of us with no head for heights.

It’s Blyth Spartans v North Shields, a repeat of last year’s final which Shields won, memorably and dramatically, 4-3. “It was bedlam over here,” says former West Allotment Celtic programme editor Stephen Allott, sitting alongside.

Tonight’s much quieter: perhaps everyone’s still taking in the events surrounding Newcastle United earlier in the day.

The seats are in much the same position as those on the other side, the principal difference that these are bare plastic. In the west stand they’re padded: the directors’ box is the padded sell.

Blyth deservedy lead 2-0 at half-time, inspired as ever by livewire captain Robbie Dale. Stehen Allott points out that Robbie holds West Allotment’s record for  the highest ratio of goals per game – five, all of them against Willington in the only game he played.

The second half’s much closer, three goals in the last few minutes bring Spartans a 3-2 victory. Pleas to smuggle spring rolls in the medical bag having fallen on deaf ears, we head home via the chip shop.

*It’s also a bit warmer than Tuesday night at Newton Aycliffe. Harvey Harris, who’d been at Spennymoor Town, has images of a blizzard on his phone. Penrith secretary Ian White reports similarly “Arctic” conditions at Sunderland RCA, though it didn’t prevent South Shields secretary Philip Reay from pitching up in his accustomed T-shirt or from presenting a club badge to Penrith mascot Bradley Hodgson as a farewell gift. “What a star,” says Ian. He’s right.

*Reporting the medical ministrations of Dr Bethan and Nurse Maeve – grandbairns aged two and four – yesterday’s blog also noted their diagnosis of chopping the ears off. It alarmed Tow Law secretary Steve Moralee who fears I could go blind as a result. “After all,” says Steve, “where are you going to put your glasses.”

April 25 2017: May day, May day

On Newton Aycliffe cricket field, adjoining the football ground, a junior match is taking place. A well-clad dad comes into the clubhouse asking for a latte to take out.

The barmaid eyes him curiously. “It’s not for me, it’s for my lad who’s fielding,” he says. “It’s so cold he can’t feel his hands.”

So it is for the final day of the Northern League season, Aycliffe v Morpeth Town. Six days from May and it’s more like a particularly nasty night in mid-December.

Nor are things helped because for half an hour immediately before leaving for Aycliffe, I’ve been prone on the elder son’s kitchen floor, ministered unto by Dr Bethan, who’s two, and Nurse Maeve, just four.

Dr Bethan waves a Poundland stethoscope, Nurse Maeve a plastic syringe and a pair of scisssors, happily also plastic. “No you can’t get up,” they insist. “You’re not better yet and we’re going to have to chop off your ears.”

Moore Lane endures a vicious hail storm, swirling sleet, freezing temperatures. The cricketers finally come off; the footballers carry on commendably.

Many of the crowd may regret not listening to the adage about ne’er casting a clout until May is out. Even the liner wears gloves. The magnificent Ken Beattie, Morpeth’s chairman, wears a jumper but no coat.

Aycliffe win 3-1, the undoubted man of the match their appropriately named goalkeeper James Winter, but Morpeth still finish second and receive the runners-up trophy from Ebac Northern League chairman Glenn Youngman.

By that time I’m numbed to the core, so thoroughly miserable that I fear I’m coming down with something nasty. Where’s that Dr Bethan when you need her?

*Ten years today since Alan Ball died. There’s a piece in the Mail. Tremendous footballer, he was also a brilliant raconteur, given to standing on a chair and announcing himself as the after-dinner squeaker.

The only time I heard him swear was when talking about Brian London, West Hartlepool lad and former British heavyweight boxing champion, with whom he was good friends in Blackpool.

London, said his mate, was the only boxer he knew who had a cauliflower a**e. I’ve fot away with one swear word ever since.

*Thanks to all those who’ve offered help with FA Cup final tickets, following the appeal in Sunday’s blog. We’re on sticky ticket wicket no longer. All that’s needed now is victory for the glorious Gunners.

April 24 2017: Washington DeCeased?

Is Washington’s formal resignation from the Ebac Northern League merely to allow a little breathing space before the league’s annual meeting in June? Yesterday’s blog thought it possible, the club can’t be contacted but league secretary Kevin Hewitt thinks it’s curtains.

In that once-new town the faithful few are getting old and, inevitably, less vigorous. Wherever young blood flows thereabouts, it’s not in the direction of the Nissan ground on winter Saturdays. The trend is greatly worrying.

So what does the FA do? Instead of sustaining and supporting what they have, they encourage – some would say cajole – clubs to yet greater expense, greater travel and greater time commitment by taking what fancifully is known as promotion to geographically far-flung competitions.

Then they send overworked officials on compulsory courses. The approach has all the prescience of the tail-end Charlie of the Gadarene swine.

Anyone who has read Washington FC’s potted history will remember that the club was formed, as Washington Mechanics, in the bait cabin of F Pit in 1947.

As a Wearside League club they reached the FA Cup fourth qualifying round in 1970, losing 3-0 to Bradford Park Avenue. In 1988 they joined the Northern League (after finishing 11th in the Wearside.)

For a while they were known as Washington Ikeda Hoover, several times mis-translated as Ikea Hoover, though I don’t recall flat pack vacuum cleaners.

Four men stand out: club president Tom Boylen must be 80, chairman Derek Armstrong, secretary Barry Spendley and evergreen Bob Goodwin may all be pushing 70. They’ve done magnificently, not least back in 2001 when arsonists burned the clubhouse to the ground.

With the invaluable help of then secretary George Abbott, the replacement was palatial (and the chips fantastic.) It was further vandalism which compelled the move to Nissan in 2010.

So with Norton and Stockton Ancients already gone and West Allotment Celtic’s resignation still on the agm agenda, the Northern League faces losing an unprecedented three clubs in one season.

At the end of next season, the FA will likely hook another four or five in the specious name of progress. What on earth is to be done? Time for another course, I think.

April 23 2017: the high cost of football


The guy with the blonde is Darlington RA secretary Alan Hamilton, who was also pictured in last Friday’s blog. It may not be too difficult to spot the difference.

Alan, it may be recalled, had agreed to a total head and beard shave – an awful lot of hair – as the only way he could think of to raise £500 for necessary repairs to the club’s elderly mower.

That’s the machine, not the bloke pushing it. In any case, you know what they say about grass not growing on a busy street.

The blonde is professional hairdresser Joanne Moss, daughtger of Harvey Harris who organised the Northern League’s 125th anniversary ground hop and the lady who delivered what may or may not have been the unkindest cut of all.

Though much more exposed to the capricious Darlington elements, Alan has hit his target and hopes even to have a few bob left over to buy grass seed. A wonderful effort.

*Speaking of finances, it may be recalled that Northumberland FA raised eyebrows – hackles, too – by increasing Senior Cup final admission from £6 and £3 last season to £8 50 and £4 50 this Wednesday, when Blyth Spartans meet North Shields at St James’ Park.

That followed, of course, the proposed 66 per cent increase in West Allotment Celtic’s rent to use the county ground’s facilities, a rise so steep that WAC felt obliged to resign from the Ebac Northern League.

No news yet of a change of heart – they have until May 31 – and the league management committee minuites now reveal that Washington have similarly resigned. It’s greaty to be hoped that it’s just precautionary.

Anyway, a Grass Routes reader has now sent details of the rest of the Northumberland County finals – from cubs and junior girls up to the Benevolent Bowl. Every one will demand £4 50 admission, £2 50 concessions.

Yesterday’s blog noted that admission to the Sunderland Under 23s v Arsenal Under 23s match had been £3 and £1, very much cheaper than watching the cubs. Which do you suppose is more likely to persuade folk in every sense to buy into football?

*And still with the glorious Gunners, it won’t have passed unnoticed that we are again in the FA Cup final. Now that I no longer hold office, the chances of buying two or three tickets appear slim If anyone expects to have a couple – ideally three – spare tickets, do please let me know. You wouldn’t want my little lads crying, would you?

April 22 2017

Sunderland Under 23s v Arsenal Under 23s may be one of football’s greatest bargains: £3 adults, £1 concessions. There aren’t any team sheets.

“Nee team sheets,” grumbles the codger in front.

“Haway man,” says the paybox guy, not unreasonably, “what do you expect for a pund?”

It’s a noon kick-off at what these days they like to call the Hetton Centre but which is still identified on the notice boards as home of Eppleton CW, that most benighted of Northern League clubs. In 2002-03 they were deducted 15 points – “calamitous maladministration” Northern Conquest calls it – ensuring a bottom place finish and, alas, extinction.

Some call these teams the Under 23s, others the development side. When we were kids, they were the stiffs. Should Sunderland be relegated from the Premiership, a near-certaity after this afternoon’s results, they will be hoping that some of these guys progress pretty quickly. The Gunners may keep their powder dry a little longer.

The game seems to me to be a bit half-paced. Sunderland win 2-1, allowing us to head for Darlington RA’s final match of the season, against Whickham.

The Hetton crowd was a surprisingly low 320 – “about half of them freebies,” someone supposes – at the RA it’s 50, of whom nine are pass holders and three or four have come to watch hirsute club secretary Alan Hamilton’s post-match sponsored tonsorials.

Fifty, sadly, is about acerage for Brinkburn Road, though it didn’t stop Durham FA fining them a couple of seasons back for failing to control the crowd.

Alan’s still aggrieved. “One full back’s grandfather lamped their winger’s grandfather, or maybe the other way around. I was 100 yards away. I wouldn’t care, but by half-time they were buying each other drinks.”

The RA are delighted to have escaped the bottom two. Whickham, another club with little financial resource, win 4-1 and will finish in the top six (that is to say, sixth.) They’ve done tremendously well.

The annual presentations and great removal exercise follow in the clubhouse, but to see Alan Hamilton as they will certainly never have seen him before, blog readers will have to come back tomorrow.

*Yesterday’s blog wondered if Twitter was a quitter (or, more exactly, what I’d been doing wrong in the quest to find the social medium.)

Unilaterally, it seems to stir. There are automatically generated emails reporting not only that Alnwick Town and Tow Law Town are now following the thing but so do Sausage Fingers and Harry the Dog. That’ll be Heaton Stan who, it’s recorded, has even mentioned the blog in conversation. Clever dog, Harry.

The lady says that I now have to tweet which, had we a budgie, would seem akin to that wonderful old North-East phrase about not keeping a dog and barking yersel.

Like the guys at the Hetton Centre, we shall just have to see what develops.

April 21 2017

I appear finally to be on Twitter, me and that Donald Trump chap, though in my case the conversation may be one-directional. I may have forgotten to press Button B.

The younger bairn set it up remotely a couple of weeks ago – “treble your number of visitors overnight,” he promised – though it’s his dad who hasn’t the remotest.

While the number of Grass Routes visitors continues steadily to increase, there’s little sign of an explosion in triplicate or, indeed, that anyone’s greatly fond of a tweet.

Just two automatically generated emails have acknowledged new followers, one from Stockton Town FC (thanks, lads) the other from “The Real Ricky Butler.”

A chap called Ricky Butler used to be Northallerton Town’s social media guru and could be – how may this be put? – a bit of a pest. Clearly, however, that wasn’t the real Ricky Butler but a cardboard cutout.

About once a day, Twitter also automatically generates emails urging me to follow people like Jonathan Ross and Jeremey Clarkson (you cannot be serious) or to buy a fanzine from Hessle Rangers.

They’re also particularly keen that I should know about someone called Charlotte G Shore – is the G for Geordie? – and just today there’s a message saying she’s in the Daily Star. It gets sillier.

Somewhere in the midst of all this there’s a missing link. I fear that the missing link may be me.

April 20 2017

Somewhere around here, probably at the foot of today’s blog, is a photograph of Darlington RA secretary Alan Hamilton as you may never see him again. He is about to lose – to sacrifice – the lot. Little wonder he looks a mite apprehensive.

Alan’s back-story is quite well known. A disillusioned Darlington FC season ticket holder, he expressed interest a few years ago in becoming one of the Northern League’s noble army of Secret Shoppers.

The RA had recently lost their secretary, failed completely to find a replacement, faced extinction. We met, inevitably over a couple of persuasive beers, and Alan went to the RA instead.

He has been incredible, absolutely magnificent: secretary, groundsman, clubhouse supervisor and very much else. Barely a day passes without Alan’s working at the Brinkburn Road ground, latterly joined on match days by his wife Sally – dressing room cleaner, hospitality provider and baker, raffle ticket seller.

If ever there was a couple of whom it could be said that the grass didn’t grow beneath their feet, it’s the Hamiltons. Now, however, it’s in danger of so doing.

The club’s heavy duty grass cutter, 50 years old and known not entirely religiously as the Green Goddess, is close to pushing up daisies. It’s gone, the cutter kaput, the cheapest estimate for restoration £500.

Since that’s £500 more than the club has, on Saturday night – after the season’s final match, against Whickham – Alan will undergo a sponsored haircut and shave. His hair hasn’t been cropped for three years, his beard properly trimmed for ten. Everything must go.

Since Grass Routes is almost appropriately named, would any blog reader care to chuck a few bob into the pot? Alan can be contacted at nobbydarlo@ntlworld.com, on 07872 324808 or cheques made payable to Darlington RA FC can be sent to him at 50 Grange Road, Darlington DL1 5NP.

alanhamiltonblog (2)A photograph of the new look Alan Hamilton should appear in the blog before the weekend’s out.

*Alan Hamilton, of course, is one of many who sacrificially give of their time and talents to sustain Ebac Northern League football clubs (and many others). Just this morning another letter arrived seeking support for an Honours List nomination for one of the league’s most dedicated club officials.

The attempt will have my very best shot – and, almost certainly, miss. Non-league football has a huge army of selfless volunteers. The almost total lack of Honours List recognition is a national scandal.