June 14 2018: 50-year faithful

It’s nine months since the blog had a day off, so it’s time for a short break. First though, news of richly deserved awards for football folk and maybe a not-so-little surprise at the end.

Fifty-year service awards, some handsome gear, have been presented by the FA and Northumberland FA to Cyril Cox, Ken Redfearn, Ken Rodger, Keith Scoffham and Alex Smailes (and please note alphabetical order.)

Cyril Cox, Alnwick Town’s secretary and much else, has spent much of that time commuting – by bus – from his home in Newcastle. Ken Rodger, now 80 but still wonderfully energetic, is Heaton Stannington’s secretary and spent many years before that developing football on Tyneside.

Alex Smailes, known to Ted Ilderton as the Bloodhound, has had a long involvement with both West Allotment Celtic and Northumberland FA and was for 40 years Liverpool’s scout in the north. Now he spends his time, or so we’re led to believe, tailing Ted.

Ken Redfearn and Keith Scoffham are referees, Keith affectionately remembered by Northern League folk and Ken – still the oldest swinger on Tyneside – in the middle for the first season of the Premiership. Now 74, he’s still refereeing (and still dancing.)

At the same presentation there were 25-year awards for referees Geoff Lowes and Davy McCallum (otherwise Scotchy) and for Alan Matthews, North Shields’ magnificent chairman, who in truth seems to have been around much longer.

The game would be lost without guys like these. Very well done to them all.

These days I only have two titles. One’s president of Darlington Hole in the Wall FC – promoted to the first division of the Crook and District League; well done boys – and the other is president of Wensleydale Writers.

Among their watchwords is brevity – the soul of wit, as was observed in Hamlet – or if not brevity then succinctness. It’s reinforced by the local community magazine which has a 500-word limit on even the best prose and 40 lines on verse.

As faithful readers well will understand, such  a discipline is wholly alien to Grass Routes.  Ever perverse, I wrote for the Writers a poem in praise of prolixity – for prolixity read waffle. It’s reproduced below: make the most of it until the blog returns on June 23.


Caught short

(Or a presidential paean in honour of garrulousness and prolixity.)


I truly delight in being your president –

Though some, with good cause, might suppose me non-resident;

The pleasure’s in watching you honing your craft

Though some might suppose I’ve been a bit Daph’t.


There’s much to admire, much to applaud,

At Wensleydale Writers no time to be bored;

To a man and a woman you seem on a mission,

If the group has a watchword, the watchword’s excision.


Never furnish two words when just one will do,

Nor write of the toilet when thinking in loo.

Never scatter the syllables, energies waste

Loquacious at leisure, repentant in haste.


To each member her quota, her ration, her limit

If the maximum’s bust, then speedily trim it.

It’s not worth the wrath, the froideur, the glare

From, uncomfortably titled, esteemed Madam Chair.


Yet while there are those who’ll suppose it monstrosity,

Allow me to make a plea for verbosity,

For circumlocution, though some it may baffle –

In terms of the layman, just old fashioned waffle.


I’ve been writing professionally 53 years,

Through good times and bad, through blood, sweat and tears;

Though Wensleydale Writers would see it rescinded

I got where I am by being long-winded.


I don’t use a short word when longer will do,

Nor monosyllabic, when there could be two.

In newspaper terms I could do with a sub

But whenever you want one, they’re all in the pub.


Succinctness, of course, does have its admirers

They waste not, they want not, they don’t want to tire us;

They hassle, they harry, seem almost to fear

Those of us who suffer with verbal diarrhoea.


In literature, happily, there’s room for all sorts –

For briefness, economy, restricted thoughts;

But why not expansive, prolix, discursive

Without by the Writers being considered subversive?


For me it all peaked at Buckingham Palace

(Where Christopher Robin went down with Alice);

The Queen was most gracious, almost non-fictionary –

“Mr Amos,” she said, “keep on swallowing the dictionary.”


So now I have shattered the last great taboo –

The most’s 40 lines, this one’s forty-two.


June 13 2018: lost souls

In remembering the golden jubilee of Durham City’s Northern League membership in 2002, yesterday’s blog had cause to quote the league magazine of October that year.

Perhaps the best story in that issue was headed “Billy Town: lost again” and helped explain why the directions to away games in Town’s programme always ended with the injunction “And remember, never follow Robbo.”

Alan Robinson was team manager, previously at Guisborough Town and Thornaby, top bloke. That his navigational skills left something to be desired might explain why they’d set off for Tow Law at 1pm and ended up 30 miles away in Barnard Castle.

“I wouldn’t care, I’d not only been to Tow Law thousands of times, I was through it just last week with my wife,” said Robbo, a teacher (though probably not of geography.)

His passengers that afternoon were assistant manager Michael “Chopper”Watson, physio Paul Shannon and club secretary Glenn Youngman who, happily, now finds his way about very much better as Northern League chairman.

“I was beginning to get a bit worried when we passed Raby Castle,” said Glenn. Locals will understand why.

Having left Billingham at 1pm, they arrived in Tow Law at 2 52. Embarrassed at facing his team, Alan went for a swift half in the clubhouse instead.

He’s long been on foreign shores – Thailand, memory suggests. It would be lovely to see him again, but how on earth will he ever find his way?

*Speaking of lost souls, Tow Law programme editor Neil McKay was reminded by the blog a couple of days back of a somewhat disorienting experience at the Lawyers’ FA Vase final in 1998.

We’d mentioned journalist Andy Potts’s difficulty with running reports. Neil, covering his only game in 16 years as a news reporter on The Journal, almost didn’t make it at all.

Still outside the stadium, he bumped into a farmer friend from Tow Law, showed him his ticket, explained that he simply couldn’t find section PB.

“I’m not surprised you daft bugger,” said the farmer, “PB stands for press box.”

*Lez Rawe, a former sports master at Bishop Auckland Grammar School and probably the Northern League’s oldest surviving player, died this week. He was 98.

Lez had been determined to reach 100. “I’ll do it even if I die in the process,” he liked to tell friends.

He’d been a commanding centre half for Willington and Evenwood Town. The 1956 FA Year Book carried his five-page article headed “Amateur coaching at Evenwood Town FC.” It posed problems, Les concluded, not least finding enough footballs.

After a lifetime dedicated to education, the Methodist church and the community, he was made MBE in 2005. The only thing in which he never succeeded was teaching the elder (and better looking) of the Amos twins how to do the forward roll.

June 12 2018: tomorrow the world

Just when Donald Trump thought he was getting somewhere with Korea, along comes the problem of Cascadia. There’s a Northern League connection, of course.

Cascadia’s described as a bio-region, approximately embracing the US states of Washington and Oregon and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Some there seek secession, what Ian Smith called UDI, to become a nation in their own right.

Though President Trump’s views are unknown, they may perhaps be imagined.  Since it’s the thought that counts, however, it was enough for Cascadia to be accepted into the recent Conifa Cup for unaffiliated nations, played in London.

The manager was Jim Nichols, former goalkeeping coach and then team manager at Penrith, where he frequently travelled to watch future opponents at his own expense. “Everyone at the c lub is absolutely delighted by his move into international management,” says Penrith secretary Ian White.

Some of the Cascadians may actually have been from North America. Many played in the Lodnon area, one for Elgin City. Jim hadn’t met any of them.

Known as the Doug, their flag depicts a Douglas fir tree – a Conifa fir, perhaps.

They didn’t do badly, beating Tamil Ellam 6-0 before losing to Karpatalya (me neither.) The Cascadians have now cascaded whence they came, but are anxious for Jim to continue. In the meantime, he’s gone back to coaching at Kendal.

*Durham City are marking their centenary. The magnificernt David Asbery, club president and involved for over 50 years, is writing a history. “Some of them think I was around when the club was formed,” he says.

Particularly he’s keen – long shot, but can anyone help – to find out who the founders were. In seeking information, I come across a league magazine piece from 2002 marking the 50th anniversary of City’s Northern League membership. It told how Dave became involved.

A television engineer in the 1960s, he’d converted his uncle Harry Davison’s set from 405 to 625 lines and, of course, declined payment. Harry, the club chairman, gave his a season ticket instead. Hook, lines and sinker, they had him.

June 11 2018: publish or be damned

Just as Grass Routes said that they would, Football League clubs decided at the weekend that a match programme would no longer be obligatory.

For many supporters in the digital age, a programme is no longer part of the match experience. For many clubs it is no longer viable. The Football League decision makes sense.

Yet FA “standard” rules still decree that clubs at Ebac Northern League level – steps 5 and 6 – must produce a programme, with a fine of up to £100 on every occasion that they don’t.

“What a wonderful situation when clubs like Middlesbrough and Sunderland will no longer be required to produce a programme when clubs like Washington and Billingham Town will,” writes blog reader Andy Lister.

Could ever there be a greater or clearer example of how shamelessly out of touch are those at the FA with the honest and self-sacrificing folk that they fail so hopelessly – and sometimes it seems so insouciantly – to represent?

*The endlessly enthusiastic Peter Mulcaster, who may have managed more different non-league football clubs than any man alive, is back in the game with Seaton Carew, re-forming in the Wearside League in 2018-19. That must be 15, Pete must be 70.

Darlington RA, his last club, have been told that they’ll also be in the Wearside next season and not the North Riding League, as first suggested.

*The book I meant to write would have been called Flowery Field For Ever, about railway stations with roseate names but more down-to-earth reality.

Flowery Field’s an unprepossessing place on the line from Manchester to Glossop. Whern last I passed – memory suggests for a Vase match with Marske United – there wasn’t so much as a dandelion.

A perpetual reminder of good intentions, a large Flowery Field station sign – Manchester PTE – still hangs in our hall.

It’s recalled after Hazel Grove – former home of Cockfield United, now of West Auckland Tuns and perhaps a little less than verdant –  was mentioned in yesterday’s blog. Don Clarke emails that his “upmarket cousin” lives in Hazel Grove, Cheshire, where the average house price is around £500,000. It sure isn’t in Cockfield.

*A Wetherspoons breakfast today – but this time eggs Benedict, honest – with Andy Potts, whose greatly illuminating e-book on ten years watching Russian football is out in time for the World Cup. It’s called Snow on the Seats.

Andy became a journalist in 1998, his first by-line – we all remember those, though mine was a year or two earlier – on running reports from Tow Law’s FA Vase final in May that year. Unfortunately, he discovered that no one had sorted him out a phone and he was obliged to keep nipping out to a call box out the back.

He remembers it only too well. “Guess what I was doing when the only goal was scored?”

June 10 2018: days of wonder

Hazel Grove, verdantly named though latterly down-at-heel, will again will again host senior football when West Auckland Tuns join the Wearside League next season.

The ground’s in Cockfield, a fell-side village of 1,500 or so souls in west Durham, one of those places that historically punched far above its weight.

There was a canny male voice choir, too, some champion pigeon men and a chap called Billy Gypp who got barred out of the workmen’s club for scrounging and won a gurning competition without moving a muscle.

Dubbed “The Wonder Village” by the local press, the team reached the FA Amateur Cup semi-final in 1922-23, won the inaugural Northern League Challenge Cup the following season and in 1927-28 astonished football by reaching the Amateur Cup final, losing 3-2 to Leyton at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough after twice leading.

Though several ties took place at a thronged Hazel Grove, the third round was switched to St Albans after Cockfield told the FA that their top gate all season had been £18 and they wouldn’t be able to cover expenses.

Local rumour had it that that the Hertfordshire club had offered Cockfield £100 to make the switch.

After decades of post-war inactivity, a Cockfield side joined the Auckland and District League and in the 1990s were hugely successful, frequently winning a splendid array of solid silver league and country trophies.

On a perishing post-Christmas Saturday about 25 years ago they hosted Northern League side Whickham in the Durham Challenge Cup, just about the only game to survive.

I fell into conversation with a chap of about 80 who at half-time said he’d have to nip backhome. “I have to put some coal on for my dad,” he said. His dad was 98.

Word from Wearside League secretary Kevin Harrison is that the semi-derelict old pavilion has been replaced by a new building named in memory of former local councillor Pauline Charlton.

West Auckland’s about four miles down the road, though they’ll have to go an awfully long way before emulating the original Cockfield side. Good luck to them, anyway.

*The Wearside League expects to learn its 2018-19 constitution on Monday,  the likelihood that former Northern League members Stokesley SC will join the North Riding League and that Darlington RA, relegated from the NL in May, will make Wearside numbers up to 16 – one down from last season.

Horden Community Welfare, playing on the former Horden Colliery Welfare ground, are also joining. Darlington Reserves, the identity which the Colliery Welfare formally took in mid-season two years ago, are changing their name to Darlington Town.

Taking five clubs from the now-defunct Durham Alliance League, the Wearside will also launch a nine-team Develpment Division in which Stockton Town Reserves will compete.

The Alliance’s demise means that the Crook and District League will now be the only “local” Saturday league in Co Durham, where once every town seemed to have one.

June 9 2018: Jack’s lad

The Times today has a lengthy piece by the excellent George Caulkin – Langley Park lad – talking to a player from each of England’s World Cup finals squads since 1954.

The oldest was former Newcastle United man Ivor Broadis, now 95 and long over Carlisle way. Among the others was Jack Charlton, who has dementia, with whom George caught up at Jack’s son John’s bar/restaurant in Cambois, outside Blyth.

John Charlton? The Northern League’s arch and implacable critic? So that’s what happened to him.

He’d worked for his dad at Newcastle and with the Republic of Ireland, played for 14 years in Australia (“I was brilliant”) managed Blyth Spartans  and Whitley Bay, the Hillheads parting acrimonious.

Having vowed never to return to the Northern League, he became Peterlee Newtown’s unpaid manager in the autumn of 2004, vowing to sue the league for as long and as much as it took over its application of transfer rules.

Particularly he wanted an end to transfer fees – donations, call them what you will – and for players to be free to leave after seven days notice, regardless of the wishes of the club which held their registration. “I will fight this as far as I have to and we’ll take it to the extreme,” he promised.

We met for three amicable enough hours in December 2004, John’s stentorian tones rather drowning out the carol singers in the next room in the pub. Partly it was wearing my league chairman’s hat, partly as magazine editor, the two sessions strictly segregated.

The magazine piece began: “The man who said that he wouldn’t touch the Northern League with a barge pole, or something equally long and unequivocal, is back as manager of Peterlee.”

The headline was “Back where he doesn’t belong?”

Half way through, we were interrupted by the chance appearance of a Whitley Bay player he was trying to sign for Peterlee. “Now then fat man,” said the player, and wasn’t even talking about the league chairman.

At Peterlee he’d succeeded Andy Toman, had a disappointing start – “not even Sir Alex Ferguson could have won matches with the problems I’ve had” – vowed at all costs to get his club out of the Northern League.

“If it fails it won’t be the club’s fault it will be the league’s,” he insisted.

Memory suggests that his tenure was short. Peterlee finished second bottom of the top division, a point above Guisborough Town who’d had six deducted, and were relegated.

The following season they were bottom of the second division with just 16 points, 12 behind Guisborough (and South Shields) and dropped out of the Northern League and into the Northern Alliance. Another victim of the East Durham Triangle, the club folded in 2013.



June 8 2018: Polly gone

Fleet Street’s transformed, the inky trade dried, the press halls silent. Only ghost writers now stalk that part of EC4.

Homeward this lunchtime – and with apologies for the stop-press timing of yesterday’s blog – we look for old times’ sake into the Cheshire Cheese, beloved of writers and journalists from Dickens to Defoe, and from P G Wodehouse to G K Chesterton.

A wonderful spot, glorious in its gloominess, it’s all but empty. Across the narrow lane, and all along the street, long queues form outside fast food shops. Even the historic church of St Dunstan in the West – on no account to be confused with the saints of Dunston in the North-East – is now shared with the Church of Romania.

Hold the front page….

In a dark corner of the Cheese, a lone Cockney – if not quite a barrow boy then a rag trade van man, he says – is telling a couple of Irish visitors about the pub’s legendary parrot, which answered (among other things) to Polly.

Sharon’s talking about shampoo.

Polly inhabited the Cheese for 40 years until 1926 when, as inevitably happens, she fell off the perch. Cause of death was given as pneumonia, though a fondness for Irish whiskey may or may not have helped. “Half London gloomed,” said the Evening Standard.

Another 200 obituaries were recorded around the world, from the New York Times (“Expert in profanity dies”) to the North China Star (“Cheshire Cheese’s sad loss.”)

Polly was an African grey, though more familiarly blue, her injunction to F**k the Kaiser particularly popular at the time.

The Hull Daily Mail’s assertion that she would often scream “Rats” at customers was perhaps born of a psittacine misunderstanding. She was probably drawing attention to unwelcome arrivals amid the sawdust.

The Angus Evening Telegrah (no less) also supposed Polly to be known for her knowledge of Scottish words, something which Grass Routes usually leaves to Mr Donald Cowan, chairman of Guisborough Town.

When once she went missing, half the city searching, the silly bird rather gave the game away by screeching “Give us a kiss, darling” at a hunter.

“Certainly not,” replied the gentleman, perhaps accustomed to such approaches, before realising that something may have been lost in the translation.

At any rate, the Cheese finally starts to fill up this lunchtime with the arrival of a middle-aged stag party from East Anglia, the groom-to-be in a blue Ipswich Town shirt – a punishment shirt, apparently – and the rest in the yellow and green of Norwich City.

They’ve not been there ten minutes when one of the lads comes over to apologise for their language. I’ve heard about swearing like a parrot, or even a trooper, but like a Canary? The Northern League should start a campaign.

We’re home on the 2 30 out of Kings Cross. That’s all the news that’s fit to print.