April 13 2018: Matthews magic

Bulldog Billy Teesdale was sent off after ten seconds, playing for ENV Rovers in the Auckland and Distrrict League. He claims it a world record, though memory faintly murmurs of someone sent off before the game began. Any offers?

Make the most of it, anyway, because – yet again – that’s about all the football there’s going to be.

Blog reader Norman Robinson recalls Bulldog Billy in the same breath as Chris Matthews, one of those overseas cricketers who played in North-East leagues in the summer and for their countries in the winter.

A Matthews ball, insists Norman, once flew off the Bulldog’s head and went for six – “plausible with or without a helmet.”

In 1986 he was playing Durham County League cricket for Shildon BR. Two months after leaving those shores he won his first baggy green cap, taking 3-106 in a first innings at Brisbane in which I T Botham smote 138 of England’s 458.

Unlike one or two of the current Aussie crop, Chris was also a smashing guy.  At Willington, his batting proved so destructive that the club lost three balls and told the umpire the game would have to be abandoned.

Matthews ran into the pavilion, returned with a ball of his own. “The funny thing,” recalled Willington stalwart John Coe, “was that after that he seemed content to score in ones and twos. They hammered us, anyway.”

Ray Gowan, that familiar former Northern League manager, was Shildon’s captain in a cup match against a village side, played on a school field. The BR wicket keeper – “shy and retiring” – was Phil Owers, who kept goal for Shildon and others until pushing 50.

“This bloke’s capable of knocking your head off if you annoy him,” Phil warned the cocky young skipper.

“Bollocks,” quoth the youth.

They were 18-8 when a more senior batsman appeared, apologised for the aggro, explained that he’d forgotten his glasses and asked that Mr Matthews gan canny.

The Aussie did, bowled a few dollies, allowed the guy to reach double figures before wrapping up the innings and all but single-handedly knocking off the runs.

For the BR in that rain hit season he took 120 wickets and scored 1,100 runs. Two months after leaving these shores he won the first of his three caps, a test record of six wickets at 52.16.

He was a Perth lad, last I heard back there with Anne Parkes, a midwife he’d met when playing for Whickham in 1985. Goodness only knows what happened next, but tomorrow there may even be some football.


April 12 2018: spirit in the sky

John Butterfield’s funeral all-but overflows Guisborough’s very large parish church. Some wear Guisborough Town scarves, others Dr Feelgood T-shirts.  Town PA man Chris Wood sports the GTFC blazer that his grandfather wore when the team reached the Vase final in 1980 – as a Northern Alliance side – and looks very smart in it.

Feelgood, football and family were among John’s passions. In the wrestling world he was Johnny Green, a sometimes vulnerable MC charged with sorting out the likes of Goliath – Goliath of Trimdon, not Goliath of Gath – and the orientally attired Tokyo Joe.

Tokyo Joe was from North Ormesby.

He’d been Gubsorough’s secretary and later an enthusiastic and highly effective press officer. Among the good things about the funeral – there are often good things about funerals – is the number of past and present players in attendance.

Who says that they only turn up for the little brown envelopes?

The eulogy’s delivered by the Rev Jacqeline Purvis, apparently known as Feelgood Jack, who John had met at a Dr Feelgood convention at Butlin’s (where else?) and with whom he remained close friends.

John, she says, had a very full life. He’d even been a member of the Magic Circle. “As they might say in football, I can only offer edited highlights.” He was 59, had three children with his wife Joanne, and was diagnosed with a brain tumour earlier this year.

The cortege leaves the church to Spirit in the Sky, which wasn’t Dr Feelgood at all, but a 1969 hit for Norman Greenbaum, an observant Jew who, happily, remains on terra firma.

His song The Eggplant That Ate Chicago appears to be rather less well remembered.

The wake’s in the Quoits Club, a huge place, several wrongly supposing that I’ll be headed straight for Marske United’s match thereafter. For one thing it’s started pouring down right on cue and for another I’ve an audience tonight with the President of the Supreme Court. That’s another story.

*A service to remember Sam Gordon, Tow Law’s mascot in the 1998 FA Vase final, will be held at Consett Rugby Club next Tuesday at 12 45 – not 1 45 as the blog the other day said.

April 11 2018: hanging offence

Up to the oxters in mud, yesterday’s blog turned to cricket instead. “It’s often said that Test Match Special is more interesting when rain stops play,” writes Peter Berry encouragingly.

Both he and Don Clarke add the future West Indies captain Jimmy Adams, affectionately remembered at Eppleton — Hetton-le-Hole – to the list of overseas test players who enjoyed league cricket in the North-East.

Don also includes Courtney Walsh, a big man who played for Tynedale, adding the perhaps apocryphal story of an admiring (if mischievous) tea lady who asked him if he were built proportionately.

“If I was built proportionately, ma’am, I’d be ten feet tall,” said Courtney.

It further recalls the story of Seamus O’Connell, centre forward for Bishop Auckland and Chelsea, who – perhaps befitting a cattle dealer – was something of a party animal. At a gathering in London, it’s said, Seamus chose to walk naked from the shower through a room full of guests.

A rather grand lady took a quick look. “Hung like that,” she said, “you should trot.”

Steve Jones, like Peter Berry a welcome first-time correspondent, spent time on Nevis last year with Derick Parry, whose 12 tests for the West Indies were built around ten summers at Horden.  Still he never properly acclimatised to the Durham coast.

Derick, says Steve, now runs his own car hire company and is still revered by fellow Nevistians. “He talks fonly of North-East folk and of how many times he had to buy or acquire a top coat, even at the height of summer.

“He also recalled that the food and drink were something of a novelty to a young West Indian.”

Steve, incidentally, is now in Cambridgeshire, supports Histon FC, but was brought up in Whitley Bay and has fond memories of big Billy Wright terrorising opposing goalkeepers.

There’s also an email from Ebac Northern League president George Courtney, who probably reffed big Billy, not just taking the sun in Tenerife but attaching several bronzed images as proof.

It’s what us Shildon lads would call schadenfreude, though in Spennymoor it’s just taking the mickey.

So far as football’s concerned, all tonight’s matches are again postponed. As probably they say on Test Match Special, rain stopped play.

April 10 2018: West Indian summer

If ever a picture spoke 1,000 words, it’s Ashington secretary Gavin Perry’s in response to a query about tonight’s prospects of play.

Gav emails an image of the Woodhorn Lane ground taken this morning and more closely resembling the Commonwealth Games pool. “Very doubtful,” he adds, perhaps unnecessarily.

The elder bairn, who works from Newcastle and was also headed for Ashington v Shildon, responds gloomily to the news. “Scotswood Road’s like a river,” he says and – of course – almost everything else is postponed, too.

The plan was to have had a bit of tea in the Ashington Wetherspoons, called The Rohan Kanhai after the legendary West Indian cricketer with an improbable local connection.

Rohan Bholalall Kanhai, now 82, played in 79 tests, top scored with 256, made another 14 centuries, averaged 47.53 and ended his career as captain. Yet most summers he’d cheerfully – always cheerfully – head to play his cricket in a mid-Northumberland pit town much better known for its footballers.

Brian Bennett, omniscient press officer to Ashington’s football and cricket clubs for more than 40 years, probably knows the great man’s Northumberland League stats as well.

Kanhai wasn’t alone. His compatriot Lance Gibbs, who is a year older and also played 79 tests, claiming 309 wickets at 29.09, probably spent even more summers at Whitburn, on the north Durham coast. Whitburn doesn’t have a Wetherspoons, otherwise there’d probably be a second West Indian so recognised. Lance couldn’t bat for toffee, mind, not even in the Durham Senior League.

Blackhall for several summers enjoyed the services of the majestic West Indian batsman Clayton Lambert; Horden, up the road, was long the seasonal home of Derick Parry, a spinner who played 12 tests for the Windies and became greatly loved (and greatly successful) on the Durham coast.

I recall interviewing him one late April evening, shortly after his annual migration. The weather was a bit like today only four top coats colder. Lovely bloke, he didn’t half look miserable.

They weren’t all West Indian. Shildon BR in the early 80s had a pro called Chris Matthews who went straight from the Durham County League (RIP) to the Australian test team; Bishop Auckland became so much a second home for the great Kiwi all-rounder Lance Cairns that his son Chris – who followed him into the New Zealand team – even went to school there.

They reckoned Chris a dab hand on the clubhouse bandit, too.

There’s a famous picture of  Lance, again at the end of April, gazing out over a Bishop Auckland ground completely covered in snow. The theme is clear: when it comes to the great British weather, there’s nothing new under the sun.

April 9 2018: Stonewall uncertainty

The FA invitation came utterly out of the blue: the pleasure of your company is requested at the gala dinner to mark the Association’s 150th anniversary. Black tie.

It was October 2013, the Grand Connaught Rooms – the very Grand Connaught Rooms – in London, and it should be explained that the FA’s idea of a gala dinner is very different from that up here.

Up here it’s the usual stuff with a few balloons on the table. Up here, come to think, “gala” rhymes with “tailor”. Down there it rhymes with “parlour.”

Clearly the paparazzi had got wind that the (then) Northern League chairman was coming. Coralled behind crush barriers, they and hundreds of members of the public were held back on the pavement outside.

Prince William, Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini, Sir Geoff Hurst, Lord Melvyn Bragg and one or two others also appeared to be present.

Yet there was something curious about it all. The invitation had been emailed by a lady in the FA’s media department. Was it, I replied, in my capacity as a sports journalist of some years standing or as chairman of the world’s second oldest football league?

She replied promptly. It was as chairman of the Northern League and of Stonewall FC, she said. Stonewall, it transpired, was the biggest gay men’s football club in the land.

Some mistake, surely? Had they just meant to invite the gay guy? Was it a repeat of the fabled story of how West Auckland came to represent England in the first World Cup, the invitation to WAFC properly intended for Woolwich Arsenal?

The invitation stood, and it was a very good night, though William twice passed within a couple of feet and never once asked how Shildon had got on. Seated on table two – not necessarily one down from the top – I appeared to be the only representative of steps 5 and 6 leagues nationwide. See how it pays to keep in with the FA?

Sepp Blatter, about whom questions increasingly were being asked, had in a speech the previous evening compared himself to Robin Hood. Here he attempted a charm offensive, that well known contradiction in terms.

“Honestly, some of the criticism just astounds me,” he said.”They would have you believe that I sit in my headquarters in Zurich with a sinister gun, gently stroking the chin of a white Persian cat as my terrible sidekicks scour the earth to force countries to host the World Cup.”

The Daily Mail thought the speech “barmy.”

It ended at 11 15, all present bearing gifts and police, populace and paparazzi still encamped outside, though none seemed particularly intent on following me to Holburn tube station.

I never did get to find out if the chairman of Stonewall FC was also called Mike Amos.



April 8 2018: sitting ducks


Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin….

….Colin Hurworth’s wonderful picture, above, was taken behind the top goal at yesterday’s match between Thornaby and Duram City.

To Northern League nomads the scene may seem familiar. To others it may appear quirky, distinctive, a happily idiosyncratic example of the joys of football at this level.

It should be stressed, however, that while Thornaby appear to have paid a further visit to the Oxfam shop since last I was there, the rest of the glorious Teesdale Park ground is more conventionally restored.

The picture might even raise a smile, its primary purpose, for there is much gloom about today.

The league’s extraordinary general meeting proved predictable. Clubs voted – inevitably, for to have done otherwise would have been suicide – against leaving the National League System. The league advised, rightly, that it had decided against further appeal – for it would have been both costly and catastrophic.

We are impaled upon a wheel of the governing body’s ponderous making. Still none knows how many clubs will be relegated from the second division or who might forcibly be moved laterally. Is this any way to motivate a volunteer workforce, or to make it feel valued? Little wonder they walk away.

There was rumour of more clubs on the brink, talk of yet further moves by the FA to remove the last vestiges of leagues’ self-determination. In the FA’s homogenised vision all pigs may be equal but, as George Orwell observed, some pigs are more equal than others.

Four clubs didn’t bother to turn up at all, adding likely £100 fines to the general air of unhappiness.

As the meeting in Durham is breaking up, we’re on the way to lunch with our kidder at a country pub near Stockton. Immediately inside, I bump into Tony Lee, perhaps best remembered in the Northern League as the taxi driving manager of Billingham Synthonia and Bishop Auckland but well known at Gateshead and elsewhere.

Leo, as generally he was known, could be a bit excitable and certainly had his moments, but we usually got on well. He’s now coming up 70 and has recently undergone a triple heart bypass, three hip operations and a prostate job.

He seemed happy enough, further cheered by my recollection that, at a recent talk-in at Shildon, well-remembered midfielder David Bayles had supposed Leo the best manager of the many under whom he worked.

It brought a smile to the lad’s face, anyway. These dark days you make the most of them.


April 7 2018: purple patch

This time last week the younger bairn was leaving Washington DC after a six-month work attachment. This afternoon, wholly coincidentally, he drives me to Washington, City of Sunderland, for the derby with Ryhope CW.

It’s his first Bovril for six months, his first on-line bet for six months – most strait-laced American states not taking kindly to such foolishness – and his first Ebac Northern League match of the season.

That’s a bit ambiguous, isn’t it? The last sentence refers only to on-line betting. I’ve no idea how the US feels about Bovril (though Mr Dan Harden may wish to extract enlightenment.)

At 1pm the invaluable league postponements line records just one casualty. An hour later there are two. Between 2-3pm a further five games fall victim to a late and lugubrious deluge, adding to the fearful problems identified in yesterday’s blog and underlining the egregious absurdity of the FA’s immobility.

That blog, incidentally, not only brought many supportive emails – thanks – but attracted more than three times the usual number of Saturday visitors.

Everyone appears to agree that leaving FA jurisdiction is a non-starter, however tempting, not least because of the problem of getting match officials. As former Football League ref Terry Farley points out, an awful lot of very good men have come through since the Northern League became a contributory league in 1965.

It’s my first visit to Washington for two years – they and Alnwick Town missed out last season – and the Nissan ground seems little to have changed, save for the addition of what’s prominently identified as a food court.

It’s a perfectly nice little place, does a canny Bovril (aforesaid), but whatever happened to the tea hut?

It’s the lad’s first match since the Maryland Soccerplex, or some such, in the snow. Washington doesn’t have snow but it’s a pretty foul afternoon, the wind turbines mooching apathetically through the gloom.

Washington’s season has been similarly drear, relegation now inevitable, despite the arrival of 39-year-old defender Pascal Chimbonda, perhaps the only French international to play Northern League football and certainly the only to have been named in the Premier League team of the season – while with Spurs.

Ryhope, purple clad, score after five minutes and at regular intervals thereafter. It ends 9-1, M. Chimbonda never leaving the bench. The bairn’s bet goes down heavily, too.