December 13 2018: the X-factor

Ever anxious to claim firsts for the Ebac Northern League, we note that one of West Auckland’s scorers at Thornaby on Tuesday night was the magnificently named James Xydias.

Is he the first player in the league’s 129-year history to have a surname beginning with the letter x? Has anyone lower down the alphabetical pecking order ever appeared?

A run down the current Northern League registrations website reveals any amount of Youngs, Luke Younger at Billingham Synthonia but not, yet, a Youngest. It may only be a matter of time.

Remarkably, Ryton and Crawcrook Albion also list Paul van Zandvliet, though it’s likely purists would insist that his surname begins with a v, whichever is the lower case.

The registrations website also discloses that the two clubs with most players signed on are Penrith with 70 and Durham City with 71 (or thereabouts.) They’re respectively bottom of the first and second divisions – clearly still working on the right permutation.

All that’s as naught, of course, compared to York City who in 1908-09 – their first Northern League season – registered no fewer than 746 players.

They played just 18, finished second bottom of the 12-club league – just above Langley Park. The following season, perhaps with fewer resources, they finished bottom – below Grangetown Athletic – and left for the Yorkshire Combination.

Though subsequently celebrated, City remain a mere footnote in Northern League history. Not even X marks the spot.

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December 12 2018: honours uneven

Since by qualification we’re all getting on a bit, the guys at the Durham Age UK men’s breakfast thius morning were treated to a free mince pie to complement the full English. Thereafter, long serving former Northern League assistant referee Bob Skelton spoke of all that was needed back in the 1960s to gain the Duke of Edinburgh’s gold award.

It seemed incredibly tough, the sort of challenges which these days might qualify a guy for the SAS or to be an assistant referee.

Bob’s award was presented at Buckingham Palace, orchestra playing in the gallery and all the ceremonial works. It stirred memories of my own visit, 12 years ago today, at which the Queen herself did the honours.

The brief conversation between monarch and humble recipient is meant to stay confidential. Now, however, it can be revealed.

“How ion earth do you put up with the FA,” asked Her Majesty.

“With great difficulty, ma’am,” I replied.

Most thereafter head for a celebratiory lunch at a posh place like the Savoy Hotel. We went next door to a pub called the Coal Hole which seemed appropriate; it was a bit like the Age UK breakfast.

*What honours await Jordan Hugill, formerly with Seaham, Consett, Whitby and Marske United and now regularly starting up front for the Boro?

In today’s Northern Echo he talks of his Northern League education,and how it prepared him for anything. “I was a 16-year-old playing against 30-odd-year-old  men, and they’d be telling me they were going to bite my nose off.”

His own proboscis appears intact – should, however, readers in the next couple of weeks spot someone with a very shiny nose, it may not be Rudolph after all. It’s a Northern League centre forward who got a bit too big for his boots.

 

 

December 11 2018: home for Christmas?

Yesterday’s blog recalled Christmas Day football. Most games were derbies, teams necessarily within walking distance. Others owed rather less to the principle of nearest and dearest.

Back on December 25 1929, when the roads weren’t great and the railways had a day off, the Northern League sent Cockfield to Whitby United for a 2pm kick-off.

Those unfamiliar with the geography of the North-East of England should know that Whitby’s on the North Yorkshire coast and Cockfield’s in wild west Durham, the two probably 75 miles apart.

Cockfield’s festive spirit may little have been enhanced by a 2-1 defeat.

In 1951, the Northern League appeared yet more spectacularly to play The Grinch, decreeing that Heaton Stannington – in the club’s first NL incarnation – must complete a Christmas Day fixture at Whitby Town, which must be getting on 100 miles each way.

Heaton Stan’s 8-1 defeat suggested little about peace and good will to all.

Goodness only knows what time the amateur footballers of Heaton Stan got back to Tyneside to spend the rest of Christmas with their families, or what reason the league gave for the extraordinary fixture.

These days they’d blame the fixture computer.

*We also recalled yesterday the snow-bound match between Newcastle United and Ipswich Town, December 29 1969, watched by a St James’ Park crowd of just 19,411 – if not quite the frozen few, then a much smaller gate than they’d expect today.

Tow Law programme editor Neil McKay was among them – only a bairn, of course – recalling that debutant winger David Ford, signed from Sheffield Wednesday, scored one and made the others in a 4-0 win. In 27 further appearances he scored just two more goals.

Neil shares a familiar problem, though. He can distinctly remember that game almost half a century ago – but has completely forgotten those he saw last month.

December 10 2018: match of the Day

We’re back from sunny Southampton and a query awaits from Whitley Bay fan David Hall: when was Northern League football last played on Christmas Day?

Good question – these days they’ll hardly even turn out on Boxing Day – and though I should know the answer, I don’t. Northern Goalfields Revisited, the league’s otherwise wonderful millennium history, seems to have rather a Scrooge-like aproach to Christmas and thus ignores it.

The book does, however, record a particularly happy Christmas for Billingham Synthonia centre forward Arthur Rhodes – known, perhaps inevitably, as Dusty – who on December 25 1945 proved that he was anything but a little donkey by scoring eight in Synners’ 9-2 win at South Bank.

That’s not a league record, lest anyone ask. That’s held by Jack Coulthard, himself a South Bank man, who on May 2 1936 scored ten in the 13-2 win over Ferryhill Athletic. Coulthard, prolific at all times, died when his Merchant Navy vessel was torpedoed in the war.

Back to Christmas Day. Old men still recall how roads, especially in south Durham, would be thronged with folk headed to derbies between Shildon and Bishop Auckland or Crook and Willington.

Were they morning kick-offs? Had they been to church first? Would the lads be home in time for their turkey and stuffing?

David recalls that Whitley Bay’s last Christmas Day match was in 1956, though the festive spirit around Hillheads may little have been enhanced by a 5-0 home defeat to North Shields.

Back then it was a North Eastern League fixture. This Saturday those two old rivals again meet at Hillheads, when doubtless thr spirit of peace and good will to all will be abundant.

Northern League fixtures must last have been played on December 25 at about the same time. Can anyone wrap up chapter and verse?

*Another thing that’s changed, of course, is that we no longer have white Christmases – and, if we had, they certainly wouldn’t play football.

Also awaiting our return from the south is an e-card from Newcastle United historian Paul Joannou, showing Pop Robson scoring in about three inches of snow – December 20 1969, a 4-0 win over Ipswich with 19,411 shivering at St James’s. They had Christmas Day off, though.

December 9 2018: Wethering heights

We’re spending a long weekend in Southampton, the final throw of the ruby wedding dice. It’s where Sharon worked all those years ago.

The hotel’s part of a major new development called Ocean Village, which (of course) isn’t a village at all but at least has a Co-op.

It’s very swish, very friendly, the only problem that the glass-walled restaurant is on the 6th floor – “wonderful panaroma” they insist – and my woeful head for heights causes collywobbles at anything above six feet.

There’s a Wetherspoons about 200 yards away, named after Admiral Sir Lucius Curtis, one of those Masters of the Queen’s Nav-ee who seems to have been from the HMS Pinafore crew.

Sir Lucius’s greater command seems to have been over the Freemasons.

So there’s an interesting psychological dilemma  which is the greater phobia, a first-rate breakfast on the 6th floor, grimly facing an internal wall and leaving the Solent sunrise to others, or a Wetherspoons with both feet firmly on the ground?

On all three days, we manage to hit the heights.

Yesterday, of course, there was football – and much to interest the Ebac Northern League’s four remaining teams in the FA Vase. More of that immediately below.

December 8 2018: Vase: the team to beat

Sholing’s on Southampton’s eastern hem, its football team last encountered in the 2014 FA Vase final when a single goal beat West Auckland.

Not that the first half was uneventful or anything, but a very well known figure in North-East football fell fast asleep in the row in front. Tony Golightly, then Northern League secretary, had £20 on a West win 3-1.

Joe Burlison, his management committee colleague, had £20 on Sholing. “I still want West to win,” he insisted.

The crowd was a greatly disappointing 5,431 of whom an estimated 3,000, support-you-ever-more, were from the Wessex League club.

This season, after what might best be described as several ups and downs, they’re again in the last 32 of the Vase – 6-2 winners last weekend – and before today had won all of their 14 league games, scoring 44 and conceding just eight.

This afternoon they’re at home to Fareham, which is convenient because we’re spending a long weekend in Southampton, the ground shared with the Vosper Thorneycroft Pigeon Club hut (which might not pass a grading inspection.)

The rest seems pretty much OK, even flowers visible in the ladies, though the club has recently been told of a major grant to build a new clubhouse. The existing premises may most kindy be described as homely.

Still they fly Wembley flags, still sing Wembley songs, still have one of those Wembley sponge “hands” on top of the beer font on the bar. What the beer font doesn’t have is beer.

The quite remarkable thing is that for a team with a 100 per cent record, and with Southampton away at Cardiff, the crowd’s just 91 – of whom maybe eight are Fareham weather fans (and one’s me.)

Though the visitors’ late consolation is the goal of the game, Sholing are very comfortable 5-1 winners – a swift passing, fast-breaking and determined team for whom Lee Ward, the big No 10, scores four.

West Auckland are themselves still in the Vase. So are Hebburn, Newcastle Benfield and Sunderland RCA. Should any of them meet Sholing, they’ll need greatly to be on their game.

 

December 6 2018: long live the King

A bit like the dog that didn’t bark in the night, something – someone  – was oddly missing from the 55 crowd who watched Hartlepool United play Ryton and Crawcrook Albion on Wednesday. Where was John Dawson?

John’s the King of the Ground Hoppers, lives in Hartlepool. So far as the North-East was concerned, the game on his doorstep was also match of the day. There wasn’t anything else. For some reason, apparently, he doesn’t watch the Pools.

While looking for something else entirely, I came across a two-page feature on John in the Northern League ,magazine dated January 1991 – shortly after he’d discovered the joys of non-league football.

British Rail, or whatever then they were called, were responsible – they’d knocked off the midnight train from Kings Cross, severely restricting his travels in the south. Hitherto, his 240 games a season had all been “professional.”

“I’m really enjoying Northern League level,” he said. “At a lot of the grounds you can sit in the warm and have a pie and an Oxo for not much more than 50p. In the Football League you now pay 90p or more for a pie from a grubby hut. I don’t bother any more.”

John must now be 77, still travels most weeks on the overnight bus to London in his ceaseless quest to tick off grounds and leagues, sustained for much of the day by the eat-as-much-as-you-like breakfast at Victoria coach station.

Come to think that’s probably where he was last night.

Good blokes like former Esh Winning secretary Lee Stewart now sometimes top the 240 for a season – but the King of the Ground Hoppers reigns unchallenged.

*Elsewhere in January 1991, the magazine told of a major facelift on South Bank’s Normanby Road ground, due to start that spring and including a new stand, social club, gymnasium and family sports complex.

Ha!

The Northern League was in talks both about joining the national pyramid and about forming a North-East pyramid, also to include the Wearside League, Northern Alliance, Washington League (RIP) and the Hyper Teesside League.

What was so particular hyper about the Teesside League wasn’t explained.

Willington had welcomed 90-year-old Harry Colbert to the committee, Ashington’s main stand at Portland Park faced demolition for safety reasons and Gretna’s players had been praised for their work with patients at one of Scotland’s biggest psychiatric hospitals.

The editorial bemoaned the absence of traditional Boxing Day fixtures. Some things never change.

*Itself hyper, the blog now takes a short winter break. The next post will be on Monday afternoon.