August 19 2017: Match official killed

Today’s games have a sombre prelude: there’s a minute’s silence in memory of 18-year-old Kieran Oliver, killed last Sunday in a three-vehicle crash in Kibblesworth, Gateshead just a day after making his debut on the Northern League line.

A referee since he was 14 and very highly rated, Kieran was Gateshead’s young referee of the year last season. His debut last week had been at Jarrow v Easington Colliery and it’s league newcomers Jarrow who are today’s visitors to Darlington RA.

Concerned at their poor start, RA have arranged a pre-match bonding session and lunch for the players for which club secretary Alan Hamilton – who’s also groundsman, bar manager, programme editor and much else – assumes the additional role of chief cook.

“A kilo and a half of pasta and they scoffed the lot,” he reports.

Grass Routes, it may be recalled, has been inviting suggestions for a Latin motto for the necessarily amateur club’s crest to mark the centenary in 2018-19.

Keith Stoker suggests Pecunia est non omnia, which apparently translates as “Money isn’t everything”, David Moyes offers Dominus nos arriuvet – May the Lord help us – which may currently be a little more realistic than Don Clarke’s distinctly Caesarean proposal of Venimus, vidimus, vicimus: We came, we saw, we conquered.

Jarrow’s start to Northern League life has been more encouraging, the club particularly chuffed with a 240 gate for the midweek derby with Hebburn.

Their claim that there’s only one team in Jarrow is something which it is probably wiser for the blog not to pursue, however.

Three down inside half an hour, RA look like they can bond OK but have a bit of trouble defending. At half-time it’s 3-1; after a better second half for the hosts, the game ends 4-2. The crowd’s just 36.

Alan says afterwards that he thinks the eventual motto may be Ad adorem ludorum – for the love of the game. It would doubtless have been Kieran Oliver’s guiding principle, too.May he rest in peace.


August 18 2017: Fairweather friends

Contrasts: this afternoon I’m up in Lanchester, between Durham and Consett, to interview Canon Bob Spence, retiring Roman Catholic priest and “disillusioned” Newcastle United nut.

Tonight I’m back down to Shildon, and that most congenial of clubhouses, for a talk-in with Carlton Fairweather, one of the Wimbledon Crazy Gang of the 1980s. Both are great value: Carlton even makes biblical reference to Lazarus, though most of the Shildon lads probably suppose him to be a Middle Eastern midfielder.

Canon Spence, who’s 80, was reported in 1999 to have conducted an exorcism during Ruud Gullit’s time at St James’ Park – a claim he vehmently denied, though he had sprinkled holy water and said prayers for the club and its folk.

That they reached the FA Cup final, he insisted, was down to their own efforts, not his or his Maker’s.

Three years ago he was in the papers again, after sending back his season ticket in protest at the tie-up with Wonga, the payday loan firm. He is not, it may without contradiction be supposed, a Mike Ashley fan.

“I try not to be too abusive about him but he has done terrible damage to the club. A very vulgar man. There were kids paying a lot of money to wear shirts with Wonga all over them and probably their parents in a lot of trouble with the same firm.”

Google the Wimbledon Crazy Gang of the 1980s and something equally disturbing might suggest itself, a macho culture almost dangerously out of control.

Though he admits that it was the players who ran the club, Carlton proves utterly charming. He didn’t drink, smoke or swear, didn’t even spit at the “This is Anfield” sign as they left the Liverpool tunnel. “I wasn’t that kind of guy,” he says, the sensible one of the Crazy Gang.

A Londoner, he’s been in Sunderland for the past 15 years after meeting his Sunderland-born wife in a night club on Teesside. He’s coached Sunderland’s women’s side and several of the youth teams and is now with the Foundation of Light.

The evening raises money for prostate cancer research. Carlton speaks without charge. Still crazy? Like Bob Spence, a top man.

August 17 2017: Squad shun!

Several matters with which to catch up, but first what television folk term breaking news. Ray Gowan, among the Northern League’s longest serving and most unmissable managers, has at last proposed holy matrimony to Pauline, his partner for 17 years.

The old lad even – somehow – got down on one knee on holiday in Montreux, which is where they met. Presumably that makes the lovely Pauline the Golden Rose of Montreux.

“I’m totally amazed at the number of well wishers, friend and foe alike,” says Ray, whose clubs included Shildon, Brandon United, Spennymoor United and Ashington. He and Pauline have lived for several years in South Africa.

Mr Ilderton next, methinks.

*Now to the matter of “squad numbers”, raised in yesterday’s blog after Washington started a game with three shirt numbers higher than 11 and then brought on number 11 as a sub.

Ebac Northern League registrations secretary Dave Robinson confirms that the rule has changed – that is to say, that the FA has changed it. Dave had mentioned as much at the 2016 annual meeting but said that he hoped clubs would continue to use 1-11, with the option of 12-20 (the highest number allowed) as subs.

So Washington weren’t breaking any rules. Indeed the FA-produced team sheets for first division matches don’t even have numbers down the side any more, simply 20 spaces.

But why? Few if any ENL clubs will complete the season with fewer than 20 players. Given the usual player turnover, none would want the expense of “squad names” as well.

Why confuse spectators? Why, more pertinently, does the FA seem pathologically unable to leave well alone? Why must all pigs be equal?

Dave plans to raise the Washington business with the league management committee. It seems awfully daft to me.

*Still quite a bit of unfinished business, but room only to mention Guisborough Town chairman Don Cowan’s contribution to the club names debate. As a youngster, Don played for a pub team called the Mill Inn. They were registered as AC Mill Inn.


August 16 2017: Biggles flies again

Back in the dear departed day at Timothy Hackworth Junior Mixed in Shildon, a bright young thing called Margaret Wanless was almost always top of the class – the class of 50, it might be said – rewarded by the teacher with a 7/6d book token. The unspoken expectation was that it would buy literature of what was termed an “improving” nature.

Then one year I beat her and was similarly rewarded, somehow found an extra three bob and bought the Ian Allan all-regions train spotters’ annual – the much coveted “Combined”.

Tom the teacher bit his tongue. It was clear, however, that in the field of improving literature he believed that a train spotters’ annual could much be improved upon.

When Norman Robinson left Langley Park Juniors in 1973 he was given a copy of Biggles and the Dark Invader, a book that has survived six house moves and gathers dust yet.

“A far better memento than the modern day American hype of graduation, proms and the like,” says Norman, not unreasonably.

Biggles was mentioned in yesterday’s report from Marske. The attendant grumbling over kick-off time confusion attracted little other response, though Whitley Bay fan Stuart Fitzgerald wonders if the FA has also sanctioned squad numbers at Northern League level.

Washington, observes Stuart, began the other night with three shirt numbers over 11 and then brought on No 11 as sub. The 2017-18 rule book says that shirts may be numbered 1-20 but there seems to be nothing about a 1-11 starting line-up. I’m seeking advice on that one.

Tonight back to Shildon, 7 30 kick-off, for the visit of North Shields. Last year the fixture attracted spectator trouble and unwanted headlines, tonight all is calm. Indeed the only Robins fan behind the goal is the photographer.

Perhaps everyone’s calmed by the Wednesday evening peal of the bells from the nearby parish church, ringing not just for me and my girl. A good and enjoyable game ends 2-2.

*Carlton Fairweather, a former member of the Wimbledon Crazy Gang, speaks at a talk-in at Shildon’s clubhouse this Friday, 7 30pm. Admission is free, all very welcome, but donations are invited to Prostate Cancer UK.

August 15 2017: The FA, no quarter

An excellent new e-book on the Northern League, about which more in the next day or two, has barely gone two pages before describing me as “a sometimes curmudgeonly defender against what he regarded as unreasonable demands from an out-of-touch FA.”

Curmudgeonly, me? Out of touch, them? Let us turn to the matter of evening kick-offs.

Ever since floodlit games began, the accepted kick-off time – unless you were Penrith, and had travel issues – was 7 30pm. Everyone knew it, everyone accepted it, almost everyone liked it.

Then this season the FA – compulsive control freaks, hidebound homogenists, incorrigible and insatiable interferers in that which need not concern them – introduced a rule change even on that.

Midweek games would kick of at 7 45pm unless a club applied to the league for an exemption and the visitors agreed.

So now we have a dogs’ dinner as hapless as it is hopeless. Fans – certainly none of those to whom I speak at Marske United v Sunderland RCA tonight –  have any idea of kick-off time but turn up for 7 30, anyway. It’s 7 45.

Such is the confusion that the league – blameless in all this – has today posted a list of clubs’ evening kick-off times on the website. If clubs just shrug, sigh at yet another manifestation of the mantra that all pigs really must be equal, then the “default” position is 7 45.

There are, of course, far more serious issues over which we will have cause to regret the FA’s ever-more throttling grip, but this may be supposed a corrosive little cameo, a symptom of an elite both out of touch and out of reach.

A slight consolation is that, finally having established kick-off time, I’ve chance of a pint in Biggles, the newish micro-pub in Marske so named because W E Johns, who wrote 101 Biggles books and many others, was briefly based at Marske airfield during World War I.

A potted biography in the pub – it was either that or the Sun – records that, unlike his fictional hero, Johns was somewhat accident prone.

Once he wrote off three planes in as many days – they blamed engine failure – and was responsible for wrecking at least ten, as well as strafing the Marske bathhouse and station commander’s quarters.

“Had he been a German pilot,” says the biography, “he would have been an ace.”

It’s also good to see the RCA lads, though general manager Colin Wilson regrets that long-time stalwart Graham Defty remains hors de combat – as well they might have said of Captain W E Johns – after suffering a nasty wrist fracture after falling over a kerb on the players’ end-of-season bash.

“The only thing I asked of them was that they take care of Graham,” says Colin.

The match is a niggly, rather nasty affair. Marske score twice in quick succession in the first half but, redced to ten men, concede at 9 24pm. At 9 25 I have to leave to catch the train, joined on the platform by John Dawson, king of the ground hoppers, who’s every bit as unhappy.

We aren’t so much as specks in the FA’s universe, of course, but – curmudgeonly or otherwise – could there be a more telling example of the governing body’s pathological inability to leave well alone?


August 14 2017: Ghost story


The Times football pull-out this morning devoted a full page to Stephen Constantine, an Englishman abroad. As frequently happens, the piece tied in with the publication of what still is supposed an autobiography.

Steve has managed more national football teams than any other Englishman – Nepal, Malawi, Rwanda, Sudan, India twice – and worked in several other countries, including Iran.

It’s a tremendous story – The Times call it “remarkable” – told at pace with verve, great skill and passion.  Steve Constantine’s not the author, though, he’s the subject. The author’s Owen, my younger son.

Though credited equally on the book’s cover, lads like him will otherwise barely get a word in edgeways. The photograph atop today’s blog means that you’ve just seen a ghost.

Steve Constantine had a difficult though football mad childhood, lived with his father in Cyprus after his mother died, slept in garden sheds and an abandoned car when that didn’t work out. He also spent several years in America, basically bumming about the place but always seeking employment through football.

Though he never quite made it as a player, he became a highly qualified coach, had brief backroom spells at Millwall and Bournemouth but unable to get a manager’s job in England looked to the big wide world. Still does, though his wife and three daughters split their time between the family home in Cyprus and her mother’s in Brighton.

It’s been a long and oft-lonesome road, countless hours spent in apartments or hotel room playing Championship Manager – or whatever these things are now called – on his laptop.

They’re good mates now, he and the bairn, hopeful that the book will at least make the William Hill Sports of the Year long list because those long listed win a £500 free bet.

Chip off the old bloke? Honestly, it’s a great read.

From Delhi to the Den is published by deCoubertin at £12 99 and available through Amazon and all the usual places.

*Two more things about that photograph, firstly that the positioning of the lad’s right index finger over his co-author’s name must be assumed coincidental. Secondly, he appears to be wearing a Richmond Mavericks shirt, complete with the sort of Latin motto which recent columns have been discussing. I forget the Latin but the alleged translation is “They don’t like it up ’em.” More of all that in the next day or two.

August 13 2017: Prescient and correct?

Mr Tomasz Schafernaker: an apology. OK there was a little bit of a cloud over your forecast for Seaham yesterday but today you said it would be lovely and you were spot on, young un.

Trusting souls, we take ourselves off on the first train to the North Yorkshire moors. The younger bairn, who’s London based, texts from a Wetherspoons called the Sennockian and asks us to guess where he is. Answer at the foot of the blog.

I’ve known quite a few weather forecast folk, including Wincey Willis and Bob Johnson when both were at Tyne Tees Television.

Wincey was a Gateshead lass, real name Winsome, who went on to national television but whose real interests were in animals and the environment.She’s now 67.

Bob had a bit of a feeling for the Northern League – I once got him to Alnwick Town, near his home – but like some of the forecasts, it never really materialised.

Older readers may recall Jack Scott, one of the BBC’s best. He was a miner’s son from East Howle, a two-terrace colliery village near Ferryhill, endlessly played football on what the kids called The Black.

“In those days the weather just came and went,” said Jack. “The only interest I had in it was whether it would stop us playing football on The Black.”

Weather man and boy, he’d been a meteorologist since he was 17. In 2004, when he was 80, I went down to see him at the Oxfordshire home to which he’d moved two years oreviously after the death of his wife. He was lonely.

“I talk to the lady who lives over the road and might say how-do to the chap out the back but apart from that I don’t know anyone at all,” said Jack.

“That’s what strikes me as being the big difference between here and up north. Where I came from everyone knew everyone else. If you stopped to talk to someone in the street down here, they’d think there was something wrong with you.” Jack died in 2008.

Michael Fish, the best remembered of all, spoke three years ago at an arts festival in Swaledale. I tried to google my subsequent column – “Michael Fish” and “Reeth.” Do you mean Michael Fish and teeth, it asked.

Reassured that I didn’t, the fourth hit was Michael’s fish and chip shop in Blyth. Doubtless that’s something to get the teeth into, an’ all.

Michael Fish, much to his chagrin, may best be remembered for failing to get wind of a hurricane. “I never get tired of researching the weather or presenting the weather,” he told me nbeforehand. “I just get tired of being blamed for it.”

He was 70, listed “grumpy old man” among his hobbies – it could be imagined – insisted that between 85 and 87 per cent of weather forecasts were correct. “Mind,” added Michael, “that’s based on information from the Met Office, of course.”

Set fair, the Sennockian is in Sevenoaks, Kent.