October 18 2017: pro’s and cons

Ron Burn, recently retired after 30-odd years as Boro’s youth development officer, is at the Age UK men’s breakfast in Durham this morning. I’m an under-age guest, of course, limited to one sausage.

We fall to talking of 21-year-old Lewis Wing, signed from Shildon last season – the last man Ron brought to Middlesbrough and in full-time football terms very much a late developer. Already he has a couple of first team games under his belt.

He’s convinced that the lad has a good future at a high level. “Tremendous striker of the ball, great vision, sees things that other players would never see.”

It’s coincidental that I’m at Shildon tonight for the derby with Bishop Auckland, Dean Street temporarily three-sided while foundations for the new 250-seat stand are laid. It’ll arrive on the back of a lorry.

The good news is that the much-loved Pagoda won’t just remain, as always had been the intention, but eventually will return to the purpose it’s served for almost 100 years. “It needs repairs but it’ll only be in a coma. It’ll revive,” says club chairman David Dent.

It’s nothing like the derby crowds of old, of course – not when the Christmas Day road between Bishop and Shildon was wick with folk – but a decent turnout, nonetheless. The West Auckland contingent have a Twitter message on their phones about the £26m annual profits of the High Street Group, headed by their team manager Gary Forrest.

Gary, of course, was formerly at Shildon, too – top bloke but goodness knows how he finds time for football.

Bishops are boosted by the return of mild mannered goalkeeper Scott Pocklington, who broke his leg in a July friendly at Willington and in the first 20 minutes alone makes three or four vital saves to keep his team in the game.

Others enthusiastically eye 17-year-old Shildon central defender Dominic Curl, ten years with St Mary’s boys – Bishops’ sister club – and tipped for great things. Could he be the next Wing man?

An excellent match ends 3-2 to Shildon, thanks to two late goals. It’s a hat-trick for the outstanding Billy Greulich-Smith who, memory suggests, began his Northern League career at Brandon and had a couple of full-time seasons at Hartlepool.

Billy didn’t quite make it. There must be much better players at Hartlepool, and elsewhere in the pro game, than ever I’d supposed.




October 17 2017: blow-by-blow account

Ophelia abating, we take ourselves on the train for a blow around Whitby, just £7 60 return from Darlington. It’s 45 minutes late. A group of elderly gentlemen join at Battersby – “bloody frozzen,” says one – adamant that but for Petch’s ham and egg pies they would not have survived the ordeal.

Sated, one of the group tries to barter a spare pie for a cheap day return. The guard reluctantly declines. Petch’s of Great Ayton make very good pies.

The hold-up’s a straightforward points failure down the line. Last week there’d been another delay on the Esk Valley line, but caused by a train being in collision (as the legal folk have it) with a cow. The diesel unit was damaged; the cow probably wasn’t all that clever, either.

Whitby – wick wi’ folk – is preparing for its biannual Goth weekend, October 27-29, a highlight of which appears to be a punk gathering called the Absinthe Music Festival. Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder, presumably.

The Whitby Gazette also carries a story about a public meeting called after Whitby Town decided that all spectators under-16 must be accompanied by an adult, following incidents at the North Riding Senior Cup final at the Riverside Stadium last May. Some set off smoke bombs; others, it’s reported, used the main stand as a urinal.

The kids aren’t happy. Nor that May night was long-serving Seasiders chairman Graham Manser. It still seems a bit extreme. Straws in the wind, anyway.

*Tow Law tonight seems positively balmy, though the wind turbine on the Ironworks Road ground has been on time-and-a-half while Ophelia got herself upset. Lawyers’ secretary Steve Moralee has an image on his phone of a floodlight pylon at an astonishing angle – not as bad, apparently, as it looked.

They’ve had a very good start to the season, 220 in a couple of weeks back for the derby with Crook but only 78 for tonight’s Durham Challenge Cup tie with Gateshead. They include a number of familiar faces but not Mary Hail, voice of the Northern League, though dear old Mary is now out of hospital after her funny turn.

By the interval it’s so warm that assistant ref Lynn Brown takes off her black gloves for the second half. Really, though, it’s a young Gateshead side which turns up the heat with former Synners man Macaulay Langstaff looking impressive. They win 3-0.

October 16 2017: the sense of humour of the average Scottish policeman

Sharon Gayter is an ultra runner who lives near Guisborough Town’s ground but, so far as I’m aware, has never set foot on it. She doesn’t half get around elsewhere, though, most memorably in September 2006 when slicing 18 hours off the women’s world record for the 837 miles from Lands End to John o’ Groats. She was 42, chronically asthmatic, and we are old friends.

The Grass Routes connection? We’ve been discussing Wick, haven’t we?

Wick’s the nearest station to John o’ Groats, 17 miles from there and 525 miles north of Darlington. By catching the 9 23 northwards, change at Edinburgh and Inverness, it was possible to be in Wick by 22 15 and to have booked a taxi in the hope of overtaking Sharon on her last legs. The plan worked perfectly.

Just three miles from the end of the odyssey, the taxi pulled alongside. I wound down the window. “What are you doing here?” said Sharon, as casually as if an acquaintance had walked into the pub. “Come to see the new world record holder,” I replied.

Shortly afterwards she smashed it – 12 days, 16 hours, 23 minutes, an average 65 miles a day for 13 successive days, ten pairs of shoes, her feet expanded from size 5 to size 7 and 6lbs shed from an already spare frame.

Sharon’s small support party stretched a length of bog roll across the fiishing line, placed a chair – and a blanket – two feet behind it.

John o’ Groats failed to notice. The Groats Inn remained locked, the few locals inside resolutely turning their backs on the alcohol-free celebrations.

Their camper vans were in Wick. Though a sleeping bag was offered, I declined. The first train south was at 6 22 and the next at lunchtime. Rather kill time than oversleep.

Clearly a case of burning the candle at both ends, I explored Wick. It was 12 50am and two apparently dotty old ladies and a dog named Bruce were standing at a bus stop. Five minutes later a bus came.

There’s not much to see, not in the dark anyway, though the moon shone on Sunbeam Terrace. Even the Wetherspoons, named the Sir Alexander Bain after the local lad who in 1843 invented the facsimile machine, had closed.

Clearly, though, he was the Bain of Britain.

At 2 30am a Highland Constabulary car, several times seen circling, finally pulled alongside. “Waiting for a train,” I replied, truthfully, when the polis demanded to know what I was doing abroad at such an hour.

Though it was an answer of which I remain inordinately (and perhaps unreasonably) proud, the polis was unamused. It may, indeed, have been the closest I’ve come to being locked up. None may be so mirthless as the average Scottish policeman.



October 15 2017: blackclocked

Trying to reflect on Shildon’s game at Guiseley, yesterday’s blog instead found itself pondering the multiple meanings of the word “wick”, as in “wick wi’ blackclocks.” We should have consulted Wickipaedia.

The blog might also have mentioned its use in a sort of Cockney rhyming slang. “You get on me Hampton,” old man Steptoe would tell Harold, a reference to the suburb of Hampton Wick.

In any case. the job appears only half done. That’s all very well, suggests reader Graham Tomlinson – somewhere down south – but what the hell’s a blackclock?

Good question: some say black beetle, others a cockroach – a particularly nasty piece of work which, it’s reckoned, can hold its breath for 45 minutes, go without food for a month and live for a week after its head’s been chopped off.

The late Dr Bill Griffiths included it in his wonderful Dictionary of North East Dialect, alongside boiley and blebs, farntickles and femmer. The blighters also got a mention at Bert Draycott’s funeral last Friday.

Bert, who’d have been 87 on the day of the service, was a former Durham miner who on many occasions became World Champion Spoons Player, an achievement of which he was properly proud.

Sometimes, however, he’d have to defend the competition’s global reach. “They come from Newton Aycliffe and all ower,” he’d insist.

Bert was also a masterful folk club entertainer, treasured the regional dialect. Fishburn pit, as the eulogist reminded us, was wick wi’ blackclocks – “grit big uns,” said Bert, “an’ all.”

There’s a sort of Northern League connection. Back in 2001, I attended a 70th wedding anniversary party – the platinum, they reckon – for Jack and Cora Coe.

Jackie was also a miner, started down Page Bank pit at 4am on the morning of the 1939 FA Amateur Cup final at Roker Park, loosed out at 10 in order to keep goal for Willington in the big match against Bishop Auckland.

Goalless after 90 minutes, the game turned in extra-time when someone blew a whistle behind the goal. Thinking it to be the referee, Willington defender Jimmy Sumby caught the ball. Penalty, the first goal of Laurie Wensley’s hat-trick for the Bishops.

“We were heart brocken. They overwhelmed us after that,” recalled Jackie, subsequently a referee who’d think nothing of wearing welly boots if the going got a bit clarty and who’d respond appropriately if a player complained he was being kicked.

“Kick the buggers back,” said Jackie. “Not while I’m watching, mind.”

They were a delightful couple, he and Cora, their first marital home at Catchgate, near Stanley. “Crawling with blackclocks,” Cora had told the platinum party.

Their son John, still in Willington, also spoke. “It’s a very special achievement,” he said. “To those of us close to them it’s also a bloody miracle.”


October 14 2017: crowded, out

The word “wick” has numerous meanings, though none of those listed in Chambers covers its employment around here.

The Oxford is more comprehensive. Up north, it says, “wick” is a variant of quick – as in the quick and the dead. Perhaps most familiarly, larders and other places would be quick wi’ blackclocks.

Today’s 9 40am train from Darlington to Leeds is wick wi’ folk. Absolutely crawling with them. Most are headed to York Races, which may be every bit as wick. I’m off to Guiseley v Shildon, last qualifying round – of six, effectively – of the FA Cup.

Guiseley’s a few miles out of Leeds, a pleasant enough place best known as the location of Harry Ramsden’s first chip ‘ole – it’s now a Wetherby Whaler – though one of the Grumbleweeds lived there, too.

The team’s third bottom of the Vanmarama National League, Shildon four rungs below and looking to become the first Northern League club since 2003 to reach the competition proper. That was the Railwaymen, too.

Bruce Speller, a former North Shields secretary but long at Guiseley, recalls in his programme notes that the teams had last met in 1991-92, also in the FA Cup. Shildon had been beaten in the previous round at Seaham Red Star but appealed some irregularity or other.

The FA, rather curiously, ordered the game to be replayed at Shildon. They won 2-1 but then, on a Monday night two days later, were thumped 5-1 in West Yorkshire.

Today’s game looks like being altogether tighter. At half-time it’s goalless, Shildon very much in it and the visiting contingent altogether noisier than the home supporters.

The blog may have remarked before that, to the tune of Yellow Submarine, they’re given to singing “We all live at the top of Eldon Bank” – the slightly curious thing that all there is at the top of Eldon Bank is the Aged Miners’ Homes. Is there something we should be told?

Guiseley score twice in quick succession, a third following from the spot after Kyle May is dismissed for what folk call a professional foul.

No doubt in the hope of history repeating itself, a rumour limps around the ground that a Guiseley sub has played for West Auckland earlier in this season’s competition. It’s wishful thinking, I’m sure.

It ends 6-0, the crowd 772 – probably fewer than on the 9 40 from Darlington. Shildon have done hugely well to get this far: it’s the Arsenal, later in the evening, who really get on my wick.

October 13 2017: Ebac booms

Good sponsors are gold dust. Sponsors who formally seek nothing more than their corporate name in the paper are pearls beyond price.

The late Brooks Mileson, whose companies so wonderfully bouyed the Northern League for 11 years, sought nothing save for an occasional ham and pease pudding sandwich and a bottle of Luzozade. He bought his own tabs.

Truth to tell, Brooks wasn’t much bothered about the ham and pease pudding sarnies, either, so long as his Lucozade was topped up.

Like Brooks, Ebac chairman John Elliott is very much a self-made man, both having left school with virtually no qualifications.

One of John’s favourite lines, indeed, is that leaving school at 15 was the biggest mistake of his life. He should have left at 13, he insists.

Ebac support many other sporting and community-based organisations, mainly in Co Durham. John agreed before I retired as Northern League chairman in June 2016 that the greatly generous sponsorship would continue at least until 2020, with the firm expectation that it will continue well beyond.

John also seeks nothing in return, save perhaps a decent argument – Brexit, regional government, the economy. We take turns to pay; he always wins the argument.

It was therefore a joy to read in today’s Northern Echo that the company’s profits are up by 150 per cent in a year, that sales of domestic dehumidifiers – with water coolers, a staple product – have more than doubled in two years and that John’s greatly bullish about his new washing machine lines and about the US market.

He’s 72, remains chairman, presides with what some might suppose chutzpah and I like to think is a mix of rough-hewn Co Durham charisma and a brilliant business sense.

It would be wonderful, if fanciful, to suppose that being a semi-permanent Northern League prefix has in any way helped the success story – but I reckon it’s my turn to buy lunch.


October 12 2017: Loony tunes

Tuesday’s blog pondered the rise in double barrelled surnames, fielded a hyphenated Northern League X1 and still missed out one or two. Branndon Fearns-Kennedy, it’s pointed out, has recently joined Alnwick. Where, come to that, is Aristote Guerin-Lokonga these days?

There was a remarkable coincidence: that night’s England Under 21 team in Andorra gave them both barrels in triplicate – Kyle Walker-Peters of Spurs, Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ainsley Maitland-Niles from the Arsenal all started the match.

Is this a record for any English side, national or club? Has anyone access to the Association of Football Statisticians? It would be good to know if there’ve been any greater connections.

Around here, the first hyphen-hero who came to mind was Trevor Dixon-Cave, Horden’s goalkeeper in the 1970s. Grass Routes regular Keith Stoker attended Washington Grammar Technical School with the lad, remains a Facebook friend, remembers when he he was simply Trevor L D Cave, son of Cyril and Lillian.

“I once asked Cavey why the change. He said it was his dad’s idea. His dad changed, too, of course.”

Others go to far greater lengths. Some do things in triplicate, a few – like the MP Richard Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax have gathered three hyphens along life’s way.  Since that’s an even bigger mouthful than a Whickham pie – and Whickham pies really are a mouthful these days – he’s generally just known as Richard Drax.

The record’s probably held by the former Monster Raving Loony Party candidate born John Lewis – not as in the stores, presumably – who by deed poll changed his name to Tarquin Fin-Tim-Lin-Bin-Whin-Bim-Lim-Bus-Stop-F’tang-F’tang-Ole-Biscuitbarrel.

Happily, the gentleman never seems to have played football. It would ne an awful lot to get on the back of a shirt.

The Loonies have just held their annual conference in Blackpool, agreed that morris dancing should become an Olympic sport, seem to have spent much of the rest of the time on a Wetherspoons pub crawl.

Their slogan’s now “Vote for insanity.” Most of us seem to have been doing that for ever.