March 26 2017

Via the X21 bus from Newcastle to Newbiggin, yesterday’s blog was distinctly sunny side up. It couldn’t last, of course.

The first email I open this morning is from a gentleman who’s supported his local team for almost 40 years, mostly as a season ticket holder, but who walked out of Saturday’s first division game after half an hour because he was so appalled at the language from the visiting dugout.

He’s very unlikely to be back – and what, he wonders, about the player’s little lad at his first Northern League match?

Since it was the technical area, of course, it means that for much of the time an assistant referee will have been no more than a few feet away. The referee himself would often have been well within earshot.

That the match officials hear no evil is personally damnable, of course, but the much greater responsibility lies with the FA. The persistent and pusillanimous insistence on “managing” the problem – as opposed to rugby union, which grabbed it by the scruff of the neck – has led to one of the greatest acts of corporate treachery in sporting history.

Never mind, boys, we can always put up a few more posters….

*The second email’s from Martin Haworth, also about offensive language, also about a little lad reduced to tears by the ferocity of the abuse. Martin and Denise were at a Scottish “junior” game in Ayrshire. Clearly Anglo-Saxon is universal.

  • It’s Mothering Sunday, the lady of the house persuaded to make one of her infrequent appearances at the village church. They’ve a lovely traditioon of handing out daffs to all concerned. Before the service starts, I point out that the first hymn is the admittedly awful Shine Jesus Shine. “S**t,” she says.
  • Talk of the X21 to Newbiggin stirred memories for Ebac Northern League president George Courtney of a splendid morning’s golf up there last summer. The lunchtime talk was of great Northumberland derbies, and of great players like Eddie Alder, Brian Slane and big Billy Wright – “scared referees to death.” George and his playing partner Albert Hickman even won a fiver on the match. He doesn’t say if he’s spent it all yet.

March 25 2017

Though North-East England has at least four Newbiggins – what’s a biggin, anyway? – the one for which the absurdly prefixed X21 leaves the Haymarket bus station in Newcastle is on the Northumberland coast, three miles beyond Ashington.

The day’s so lovely that it’s tempting to stop on the bus, have a walk round the harbour, watch the anglers digging for bait – Newbiggin harbour seems to have more bait than the back shift at Woodhorn colliery – and maybe bag some fish and chips.

We’ll return to fish and chips in the next day or two. Thanks for all your fragrant emails on the subject.

Temptation resisted, Ashington v Newton Aycliffe suggests that the old adage about ne’er casting a clout until May is out is wantonly being ignored. Not just the teams wear shorts, the picnic tables at last used for the purpose for which they were intended.

Cricket weather, as the Harmison clan might suppose.

It’s still just £2 for codgers’ admission – certainly the cheapest in the first division, possibly the result of club chairman Ian Lavery MP’s Socialist social conscience.

Doubtless it’s also Ian’s influence that there are hoardings around the ground for the MP, the Labour Party, sundry unions and one or two quasi-governmental bodies. It’s not so much advertising as a public service announcement.

A cold Brown Ale in that excellent bar proves greatly refreshing. Good also to catch up with Colliers’ secretary Gavin Perry, lamenting the fact that his run of 100 games without a goalless draw ended at Bedlington v Willington last Tuesday.

The conversation turns to boring games – not that one . Gav recalls a recent match at which, within the first 12 forgettable minutes, the conversation had embraced Tyne Tunnel tolls, the excellence of Gregg’s sausage rolls – each to his own – and South Shields secretary Philip Reay’s insistence that he’s taught his dog to give the “six” signal in cricket.

It begs a question, of course. “We’d have been more impressed,” says Gav, “if he’d taught it to do the ‘four’.”

The Ashington programme talks of the most frustrating of all seasons, a frustration which continues when Aycliffe win 2-1, both goalsd from Jamie Owens. Though the Colliers shudder the bar twice in as many seconds and have several other very close encounters, it’s the visitors upon whom the sun shines today.

March 24 2017

Kevin Stonehouse, a Shildon lad who played among others for Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool and Darlington, is back on home territory tonight for a clubhouse talk-in.

These days he’s one of Newcastle United’s top scouts, had this afternoon been watching England Under 19s play Spain at St George’s Park and on Saturday will be back in the Midlands for Shrewsbury v Bolton.

Many another would have booked into a Premier Inn and called off. Kevin remembers the date and keeps it. His crack’s tremendous, his fee the same as his expenses – nothing whatsoever. Top, top man.

David Bayles, another Shildon legend, is also in attendance – determined to make it despite a severe bout of man flu which would have restricted a lesser mortal to four pints.

A couple of people during the course of the evening also draw attention to a running Twitter thread about the blog so generally complimentary that someone heads it “The special one”. Even the bloke who writes that Mike Amos is a hypocrite, and spells it correctly, later appears to recant.

Since immodesty is unbecoming, however, a story which I told this afternoon may help restore the balance.

Part of the National Unionm of Journalists’ “Local News Matters” initiative, I’m on a panel at Sunderland Civic Centre with No 1 best selling author Philippa Gregory and Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman. We’re discussing the rather clouded future of local and regional newspapers. I’m trying to make the point that it’s not just “news” which matters.

My old mate Charlie Raine – another Shildon lad, former amateur boxing champion, club entertainer – was in his mid-80s and becoming blind when a cataracr operation wonderfully restored his sight.

Those jobs seem so immediately and so spectacularly successful that I’m always reminded of the parable where the chap sick of the palsy – that’s the one, isn’t it? – is told to take up his bed and walk.

So Charlie was joyously reading The Northern Echo when I called to see him, offering the view that I was delighted he could read my stuff again.

“Bugger your stuff, I only buy it for the racecards,” said Charlie, and shuffled down to the bookie’s with his two bob each way.

The Shildon do in that greatly convivial clubhouse raises £1,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, a cause greatly close to former club chairman Brian Burn’s heart – and no matter that Brian chips in most of the £1,000 himself. West Auckland supporter Dave Bussey tops it up with another £100. A great night.

March 23 2017

Today’s blog may ultimately be considered a bit fish and chippy, a term oft employed in journalism, but first a little background.

Loftus is a biggish village near the Cleveland coast, between Saltburn and Whitby.This morning I’m over there to write a column on the thriving Loftus branch of the Celtic Supporters’ Club. Doesn’t it get a bit boring, just rolling over everyone all the time?

If that seems improbable, what of the two Loftus clubs who were Northern League members? Loftus Albion had seven fairly uneventful seasons from 1922-29, though it was as a Cleveland League side in 1921 that they reached the FA Amateur Cup semi-final before losing to Bishop Auckland.

It was the Loftus side who joined the original second division in 1897 who were the problem. In their first season a match was abandoned because a Loftus player, “somewhat under the influence of drink”, struck an opponent and refused to take the Victorian equivalent of an early bath.

The following year, the match with Stockton Vulcan was also abandoned partly because both balls had burst and partly because it was dark. Vulcan, losing 2-1, demanded a replay because five minutes had remained. Loftus objected, arguing that there had only been four-and-three-quarter minutes.

As cyncial journalists also like to observe, there’s nothing new under the sun.

It’s more wild and wasty in Saltburn, where we head for fish and chips at the Seaview Cafe, almost opposite the pier. Folk swear they’re the best in the land, a claim accredited because the queue’s been so long we’ve never previously been able to get near the place.

Even at 11 55am the upstairs room’s full. Downstairs a chap recognises me and reckons he can’t get into the Northern League website. “All I get is children’s clothes,” he says, rather oddly.

Conversation turns to the North-East’s best fish and chip shops, or restaurants. I’m not greatly taken by any of the five-star favourites in Whitby, nor by their prices. Football travellers on the A1 swear by the Wetherby Whaler, but that’s no big deal, either.

There used to be a great place called Kristiansen’s on the Fish Quay at North Shields, but memory suggests their boat no longer comes in.

The Seaview’s good, eight out of ten, the service excellent. The region’s best fish and chips, however, are beyond doubt at Colman’s in South Shields, an ethnic minority amid all the Asian restaurants on Ocean Road and much visited by David Miliband when the Foreign Secretary was the local MP.

Other nominations welcome, of course – but, a bit like Glasgow Celtic, right now South Shields seem to be winning everything.

March 21 2017

It’s 5pm when I ring Shildon secretary Gareth Howe to ask if the match is on. “You’re the 671st caller,” says Gareth (to which the obvious riposte is “Is that all?”)

The pitch, adds Gareth unsurprisingly, may be a bit soft, to which the obvious riposte is “So must those of us be who are contemplating turning out on such a night”.

It’s the second League Cup semi-final, Shildon v South Shields, the possibility of an all-Shields final and the biggest final gate since Frank Brennan and Warney Cresswell were bit bairns.

But where? Blog reader Chris Nelson suggests Wembley, which may already be booked; Steve Wolstencroft proposes a Subbuteo flick-off on the Tyne ferry with the action beamed to big screens on opposite banks – great idea, but the FA probably has a rule against it.

Don Clarke recalls the ferry crossing for derbies at the affectionately remembered Appleby Park, North Shields in his youth – “packed like sardines. I was convinced it was going to sink.”

So on what’s traditionally the first day of Spring there’s an inch of snow followed by persistent rain. Other games at Dean Street will have been called off this season by caffier-hearted referees. This one goes ahead.

On a filthy night, Mariners secretary Philip Reay is dressed, as always, in T-shirt and trousers. “It’s my prototype Wembley outfit,” he says, dripping, though it would be worth the £25 admission just to see the lad in jacket and tie.

It’s also very good to see far-sighted Shildon chairman David Dent, happily recovering from a January 4 stroke just days before his planned 50th birthday party in the clubhouse.

Shildon take an early lead, pegged back after 15 minutes when they concede a “last man” penalty and the defender is sent off. As yesterday’s blog on the Marske semi-final observed, the law has changed to allow for just a caution if the referee perceives that the offence wasn’t intentional.

Many claim that this one wasn’t even a foul. Do any of these myriad law changes actually make life simpler?

Though the ten men battle bravely, Shields win 4-1. Hundreds of Mariners sing about not being home for tea, but that’s against Cleethorpes on May 21 – “We’ll complete the treble over them,” says Don Clarke. “We’ve already beaten them on fish and chips and ice cream.”

Before that, there’s the very large matter of the Camerons-sponsored Brooks Mileson Memorial League Cup final to consider. I wonder what they’re doing with St James’ Park?

March 21 2017

Unless a detour is made into the Top House, the walk from Marske railway station to the Mount Pleasant ground takes little more than five minutes. Usually after an evening game it’s no problem to catch the  21 34 back to Darlington. Tonight proves very different.

United are at home to league leaders North Shields in the semi-final of the Camerons sponsored Brooks Mileson League Cup. In the clubhouse beforehand they’re already discussing where the final might be played should North Shields meet arch rivals South Shields in the final.

“It’ll have to be somewhere in the middle,” says one of the North Shields lads.

“Haway,” says his mate, “the middle’s the watter.”

The league management committee could float the idea, anyway.

Dated March 21, the clubhouse also has a big hoarding promoting club chairman Peter Collinson’s participation in the first day of Jeff Stelling’s “Men United” walk to raise funds for prostate cancer research – though it proves to have been March 21 last year.

The admirtable Mr Collinson now has little involvement with the club, though it’s still pretty hard to get past his wife Cheryl without buying a quid’s worth of raffle tickets.

The game’s eventful, not least when Marske take the lead from the spot after visiting goalkeeper Kyle Hayes brings down an opponent who’s through on goal.

Red card? Apparently the law’s changed and, coincidentally, tonight’s programme addresses the issue after a similar incident in Marske’s last home game, against Penrith.

It’s somerthing to do with “triple punishment”, apparently, a yellow card and a penalty deemed sufficient if there was a genuine attempt to play the ball. Isn’t that putting too much onus on the referee?

North Shields equalise, then do have a man sent off. The visiting faithful chant NE29; the home fans, finding TS11 rather less rhythmic, sing Teessiders instead.

Marske are 3-1 up after an hour or so but in the last 15 minutes the ten men’s remarkable fight back brings the score to 3-3, normal time not even up before I have to leave at 9 25 in order to catch the train.

It’s approaching Redcar Central when Brian Mulligan rings to report that North Shields have won 7-6 on penalties. Weather permitting, Shildon meet South Shields in the other semi-final on Wednesday evening. They could be walking on watter yet.


March 20 2017

Barry Storey, who won FA Amateur Cup medals with Crook Town in 1962 and 1964, has died. He was 76. In 1965, Barry moved down the road to Bishop Auckland – extraordinary how many top players made that five-mile journey one way or another.

They were Crook’s third and fourth Wembley appearances in a remarkable decade, the fifth final in total. All ended in victory.

In 1962, they drew 1-1 with Hounslow Town – Crook’s side including 17-year-old schoolboy Frank Clark – before winning the replay 4-0 at a rain soaked Ayresome Park, the late great Arnold Coates hitting twice. Crook could only manage fifth in the Northern League, though – the title claimed a couple of miles up the hill by dear old Stanley United.

Two years later, Clark having gone on to A-levels and to higher things, they beat Enfield 2-1 after  Enfield goalkeeper Malcolm Mitchell had gone off injured with his side in the lead.

Enfield’s imbalance is said to have hastened the introduction of substitues two years later.

Barry Storey was what these days would be called a midfielder. A pupil of Wellfield Grammar School in Wingate, he played among others for Sunderland Juniors and for the county grammar schools side, signing for Crook from Horden CW in 1960-61.He scored 16 goals in 166 appearances.

A check with Michael Manuel, Crook’s magnificent historian, records that a happy number of the 60s finalists still live to tell the tale – including outside left Jimmy McMillan, the only man in history to win four FA Amateur Cup winners’medals.