November 11 2017: soft option

If ever a blog tempted fate, it was yesterday’s. Not a single Northern League fixture had been lost to the weather this season, we said – as it happens, inaccurately – and then prepared to head for Winsford, Cheshire, for the FA Vase tie between 1874 Northwich and Tow Law.

At 7 35am Lawyers’ secretary Steve Moralee rings to report an 8 30 pitch inspection. A local referee discovers a “soft” patch and asks for a second opinion.

Gentle readers must imagine the Lawyers’ reaction for themselves. Suffice that the simile is not “Soft as clarts”, but something scatalogically similar.

Still, it’s a lovely late autumn morning, it can surely only be a precaution and at 9am the Tow Law team coach heads south. Perhaps they are encouraged by the famous line in The Wind in the Willows: “What’s a little wet to a water rat?”

They’re on the A1 somewhere near Boroughbridge when word arrives that the match has been postponed after the inspecting referee had sought advice from the FA – the slight consolation that a day out in Leeds suggests itself.

Our train’s just arriving in Manchester when Steve rings, angry and incredulous. On the sort of day which prompted someone or other to write Ode to Autumn – John Keats? I forget – the station PA announces that due to the day’s inclement weather, passengers should take particular care.

It’s an automatic reaction down there.

More happily, Sunderland RCA are at Runcorn Linnets, two or three stations past Winsford, and we’re able to switch to an impromptu Plan B. The RCA lads have met a group of Tow Law supporters at Ferrybridge services. “They weren’t happy,” reports Owen Haley, perhaps by way of understatement.

The RCA game may best be described as full-blooded – sometimes too full-blooded for the ref who dispatches a player from each side in the first half and the home goalie at the end of extra-time for an offence it’s hard to see but which may have been a last-man foul outside the box.

At least it’s a man’s game, a proper cup tie in front of a noisy 387 crowd on a perfect November afternoon. It ends 1-1, some of the RCA lads off for a night out in Liverpool.

Somewhere in Leeds, meanwhile, Steve Moralee’s further seething because the FA, supporteded by 1874 Northwich, who have recent history in such matters, insist that the second attempt must be in midweek.

It’s the culture, not the referees, which should be questioned. The southern softies, the namby-pambies, the ambulance chasers, the health and safety brigade and the FA have much for which to answer. Sometimes only the cliche seems apposite: they really will have the game done away with.

*In the matter of Northern League postponements, Heaton Stannington fan Kevin Carling points out that they became the season’s first when their match against Durham City was a late victim way back in August. Perhaps  there was a soft patch at Hall Lane, too. “Consett and Tow Law,” adds Kev, “were outraged at being pipped at the post.”





November 10 2017: weather report

The north wind doth blow and we shall have – well the forecast’s a bit iffy, anyway.

It stirs an assiduously idle thought: has the Ebac Northern League lost a single game to the weather this season?

Though recent seasons have been waterlogged right from day one, league secretary Kevin Hewitt confirms that 2017-18 has been absolutely set fair – and, not without reason, accuses me of tempting fate.

Though Penrith lost a Cumberland Cup tie amid the monsoons which prevail west of the Pennines, and though Marske United were drowned out at Darwen, Kevin has so far seen not a single postponement form.

It recalls Gordon Nicholson’s first season as league secretary, 1966-67, when not a single fixture was lost to the elements – but even the weather gods lived in fear of old Nic.

*From cloudless skies to fair weather fans. On Saturday a few of us are off to 1874 Northwich v Row Law, stirring memories of the Lawyers’ FA Vase runs around the turn of the century when a group called the Misfits attached themselves to the club.

Absurdly branded by BBC 5 Live as the most active hooligan gang outside of professional football – though they did have their moments – the Misfits were described by Lawyers chairman John Flynn “a small group of drunks with some easily led hangers on.”Now, peaceably, they’ve re-formed.

Back in 2001, the BBC persisted. Hearing of another group called the Marske Morons, they approached United’s technicolour chairman John Hodgson ahead of a meeting between the two clubs.

Hodgy patiently explained that the Morons were aged between five and 12, produced a junior fanzine from which swear words were banned because they’d get wrong off their mams.

So what would happen, insisted the silly BBC man, if the Misfits set about the Morons. “They’d bash them with their buckets and spades,” said John.

*An altogether more sombre note: the funertal of Paul Tully – former Newcastle United programme editor, Northern League enthusiast and football fanatic – will take place at the West Road crematorium in Newcastle at 12 30pm on Tuesday November 21, followed by a reception at St James’ Park.


November 9 2017: Alan Ball remembered

It’s been a bad few days. Jimmy McMillan, Paul Tully and now Eddie Roberts, another dear old friend, has died.

Eddie’s passing at least offers the chance to recall the diminutive World Cup winner Alan Ball, who’d begin his post-prandial talks by standing on a chair and announcing that he was the after-dinner squeaker.

Eddie’s chief involvement was in schools football, to which he devtoed more than 50 years of his life, but in 1992 he was chairman of Richmond Town FC and organised the do at the Scotch Corner Hotel at which Bally was chief guest and the “support act” was Fr Michael McKenna, a Roman Catholic priest.

Ball was then manager of Exeter City, at Darlington the following day, and spoke (as it were) for a song.

He was unforgettable, talked with gratitude and much affection of his dad, swore just once – when talking about his days at Blackpool and his friendship with Brian London, the former British heavyweight boxing champion from West Hartlepool.

Teasingly, he recalled that London was often on the canvas – “the only boxer I know,” said Bally, “who had a cauliflower arse.”

Fr McKenna, last heard of in Ashington, was every bit as entertaining – and probably didn’t swear at all. Eddie Roberts had heard him before. “I don’t know about saving souls,” said Eddie, “but I once heard him save a sportsmen’s dinner at which Emlyn Hughes was on first.”

Twelve years later, I again heard the late World Cup winner at a Trimdon Juniors dinner. His beloved wife Lesley had died the week previously, her funeral the day before. Alan not only turned up, but spoke wonderfully. “It’s a kids’ team. I didn’t want to let anyone down,” he said.

Between the two, I’d interviewed Brian London at his smart home in Blackpool, snitched on what Bally had said. Brian insisted that, though he’d been stopped a few times, he’d only been floored once in his life.

“I’ll have that little bugger,” he said of his mate, and that was swearing, an’ all.

November 8 2017: Norton but nice?

Norton’s just a couple of miles from Billingham but, goodness knows, the road is paved with rumours.

The Synners left their decaying Central Avenue home after promotion at the end of last season, pitched up at Norton and Stockton Ancients’ former headquarters, struggle terribly.

Before tonight they’ve not won in 18, four draws and just 11 goals, and now host Marske United, high flying and formidable.

Stalwarts have left, loyalists remain. Madge Stamp, long serving tea lady, rejoices that Norton had a washing up machine. Graham Craggs, secretary these past 30 years and still only a bairn, remains stoical, philosophical, cheerful.

Graham remembers the good times, not least the FA Vase run in 2006-07, though the semi-final second leg defeat to Totton – and the manner of it – remains the second greatest disappointment in my 20 years as league chairman.

Regulars won’t need to guess the greatest: that was an FA Vase semi-final second leg, too.

Tonight’s gate is 176, much the season’s highest, many from Marske. It includes Ian Rowe, Marske’s secretary for 16 years, now there to watch his son James in Synners’ central defence.

There, too, is John Dawson, king of the ground hoppers, closer to home after a 0-14 at Cromford, Central Midlands League, on Saturday. The home goalie had suffered a serious injury after five minutes; when the ambulance hadn’t arrived by full-time, his mam took him to hospital instead.

That United’s starting X1 includes seven former Synners men may not be as surprising as it sounds: Teesside players inhabit a carousel.

The visiotrs register a comfortable 4-0 win, a good warm-up for Saturday’s big FA Vase tie with Shildon (see under great disappointments, above.)

*Yesterday’s blog on Paul Tully’s sudden death attracted a record number of views and visitors, about six times the average.

Chiefly it was because of a link on the Newcastle United website, for which thanks. They called me “inimitable”, which no doubt is true and may even have been meant as a compliment.

Paul was one of those people who you always – always – felt better for having met, if only in the queue at the tea hut (and usually behind him.) Funeral details when we have them.

November 7 2017: Top Mags’ man dies


Paul Tully, former Newcastle United publications editor and football fanatic, has died suddenly. He was 61 and, truly, a prince among men.

We were Northern Echo colleagues back in the 1980s, remained good friends, frequently crossed paths at Northern League grounds. Paul always twinkled, always enthused, frequently had a pie in his hand.

If it may not be said that he ate all the pies, he certainly saw off a canny few.

Though the Magpies had been his lifelong passion, he loved football at every level, was a member of the 92 Club by the time he was 30 and in 2007 reclaimed the “set” – having taken in 46 “new” grounds and been generally unimpressed.

“With the exception of places like Bolton Wanderers and Huddersfield they’re all so boring,” he said. “They’re just like warehouses. There’s more atmosphere on the surface of the moon.”

Still he tried to top up the 92, even planning a return to Wembley – where he’d been many times – because he’d never seen it as Spurs “home” ground.

He also counted the number of grounds at which he’d watched Newcastle United teams – by 2003, when he saw the reserves play Bishop Auckland at Shildon, the total had risen to 121.

Others shared that particular passion. “It’s almost like an Olympic sport,” said Paul.

The publications editor’s job was, of course, a dream. Round peg, round hole. The programme won the pro game’s top award; other magazines bore the Tully imprint of journalistic excellence and Magpie mania. One of my columns described him as “near-omniscient”, but had probably understated it.

He was thus devastated to be made redundant,  seldom watched his beloved team thereafter, became a Blyth Spartans season ticket holder and a greatly familiar and always cheerful face around the Northern League.

We’d exchanged emails just the other day: Paul had already been on 16 different NL grounds this season, could have told an entertaining tale about all of them and looked forward with customary fervour to the next.

Come to think, I don’t think I ever heard him swear. Paul’s expostulation of choice was “Yer bugs.”

He’s grown up in Denton Burn, Newcastle, in the same street and with the same passion as Paul Joannou, who has written many books about the Magpies.

“Nobody could ever have had a bad word about Paul, he was just a lovely guy,” says his friend. “He was a great journalist, believed in integrity and honesty, always strove to get the story exactly right. The programme content was top notch. He coped with the pressures and the difficulties of Newcaste United very well.”

From the Echo, Paul had joined the Evening Chronicle – a bit closer to where his heart lay – and from 2010-2013 became The Journal’s man in the Tyne Valley. He never married – the suggestion that he was married to football obvious but undeniable – lived in Hexham with his mum, for whom he was principal carer.

Always, it seemed, I had a question of him. Without exception he’d answer knowledgably and affably, usually with another couple of anecdotes or nuggets of information.

Just a couple of weeks back, through Paul, the blog recounted the story of how the Braille edition of United’s programme was left in referee Jeff Winter’s dressing room – and Jeff’s good natured reaction to the joke.

Though often urged formally to mine his rich seam of football travels and knowledge, Paul only formally put his name to one book. Paul Joannou fishes it from crowded shelves . It was called The All-Time Greats, a title which could hardly have been more appropriate.

If ever there was an all-time great it was Paul Tully. May he rest in peace.

November 6 2017: knocking copy

The blog a couple of days back recalled the efforts of Houghton-le-Spring MP BIlly Blyton – later Lord Blyton of South Shields but still Baron Billy to his mates – to convince the Commons that dominoes was a game of skill.

“5s and 3s takes more skill than chess, that monotonous game I see played in the smoke room so often,” he told them back in the 1960s.

Billy was making the distinction, of course, between 5s and 3s and what usually are termed “ordinary” dominoes. The late Stephen Smailes, a high profile Conservative councillor in Stockton, once lost all 28 “ordinary” games in the Sunday night school at the cricket club and to compound a thoroughly miserable evening lost last-in-the-box as well.

“It’s all luck, bad luck,” he lamented. “It’s cost me £1 45.”

Our own 5s and 3s team has a bye tonight, so we take ourselves off for a team-bonding session at Akbar the Great, the curry house over the road. Conversation turns, as always it does on such occasions, to great moments in sport.

There was the time an opponent tried to play with six dominoes and a bit of black pudding – he’d been on what then was called wacky baccy – and the occasion when a spectator with a facial twitch was accused of tic-tacking during a crucial game. The league in its wisdom ordered a replay.

My favourite, however, concerns a night at Middleton St George when, unusually, we had a spare man. Someone had to stand down, the skipper deciding that it should be old Puddled Pete because he’d already been on the ale all day and might (shall we say) have impaired judgement.

Pete wasn’t happy, thought it should have been Mike Amos who was dropped, spent the entire evening cussing away to the bloke in the next seat about the inadequacies (another euphemism) of his poor old team mate.

The pub watched with growing fascination but, wisely, said nowt. The bloke sitting next to him was me.

*Saturday’s blog reported the death of Jimmy McMillan, the only man with four FA Amateur Cup winners’ medals – all with Crook Town between 1954-64.  Jimmy’s funeral will be at the Methodist church in his native Kibblesworth, near Gateshead, at 11 15am on Monday November 13.


November 5 2017: the plot thickens

The younger bairn is on a six-month attachment with the BBC in Washington, where he’s writing for the website. A few days back he did a piece on the fact that almost anyone in the US can tote a mini-arsenal but that many states ban fireworks. It’s illegal even to wave a sparkler.

Then, Guy Fawkes night of all nights, there’s news of yet another mass shooting, this one near San Antonio. Still, they’re safe from Roman candles.

Then there’s the Soviets. On the continuing subject of cookies – apparently personalised ads at the foot of each day’s blog – Lance Kidney reports that he’s being offered “hot Russian singles.”

“I don’t think they mean warm vodka,” he adds.

Grass Routes reader Brian Miller writes not of cookies but of podcasts (about which I also know nothing). On one of them – and on the Non League Zone website, says Brian – are reports that some of the top teams in the Northern League first division are joining forces to mount a legal challenge to the FA’s imposition of compulsory promotion.

Great good luck with that one, boys.

The notion of compulsory promotion is, of course, iniquitous. For reasons to do with obduracy and with jealousy, it seeks to compel clubs to play at a level and in a geographical area that for financial and personnel reasons may be wholly unsuitable for them.

It also flies directly in the face of the original guiding principle of the long-ridiculed restructuring exercise, that costs and travellling distances should be reduced. Most damnable of all, the word is that if a champion club refuses to take promotion, they’ll be relegated instead.

Behind it all, of course, is the tall poppies syndrome. It’s about cutting the Ebac Northern League down to size and, regardless of the league’s relative remoteness and of most clubs’ wishes, the FA eagerly hones the sickle.

The only problem with a legal challenge – so far as I can see – is that while in sporting terms it’s inarguable it still hasn’t a cat in hell’s of succeeding.

The bottom line is that if you play in an FA-approved competition, you agree to abide by FA rules – however short sighted or downright villainous they may be.

That the world faces graver issues goes without saying. At 00 35 on Monday morning there’s a short email from the bairn. “Just getting on a plane to San Antonio….”