December 4 2017: fag packet diplomacy

Blog reader Norman Robinson is watching the news tonight, manages to stay awake during the Brexit bit, notes a comment from the reporter: “It wasn’t a deal written on the back of a fag packet scenario.”

“Why not?” asks Norman. “If it’s good enough for the Northern League….”

Gosh, that stirs memories. It was the 1997 FA Vase final, North Ferriby v Whitby Town, towards the end of my first year as league chairman.

The Federation Brewery had unexpectedly pulled the plug on sponsorship – I’d never so much as met them – and the ball, or at least the begging bowl, had been left firmly in my court. Weeks of supplication had got nowhere: then a friend suggested I approach Brooks Mileson, who was Whitby’s principal sponsor.

I cornered him at half-time. Brooks at once proposed that I come to see him the following Tuesday, at the former coal owner’s mansion near Houghton-le-Spring where the Arnott group (as then it was) had its headquarters.

Tough negotiations? Oh aye. “How much would you like?” asked Brooks at once. “Thirty thousand a year,” I replied.

He found an empty Marlbro Lite packet from the many lying about the place – Brooks existed on Lucozade and Marlboro Lite – pulled out the inside flap and wrote a ten word agreement.

It was signed “Charlie Bear, picnic director” and it lasted for 11 years until Brooks’s death, with add-ons worth getting on half a million quid. I still have it, still treasure it.

It is, of course, a clear message for Mrs May and her people. A deal written on the back of a fag packet? A latter day picnic director? That’ll do nicely.



December 3 2017: Costa packet

Robin Hinds, himself a former Northern League official, drops a reminder that it’s 18 months today since my last blog on the league website. How time flies.

Conversely, it’s three days since the lady of the house flew off to Washington and that feels like – well – 18 months.

A recurring theme in Pete Sixsmith’s ever-entertaining column in Shildon’s programme is that the dear old town no longer has a bank – these days, who has? – but does have a Costa. Aghast at the former, he seems quite excited by the latter.

Probably it’s all right for Pete because he has a teacher’s pension, a paper round (honest) and at this time of year can be found moonlighting as Santa Claus (honest Injun, and double time on Christmas Day.)

For those of us in more straitened circumstances, less ho-ho-homely, Costa visits are much more occasional. Still, needs must.

Having hoofed up to Scotch Corner services for the papers, I colllapse in Costa for breakfast. It’s either that of half a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

The place seems surprisingly quiet for a Sunday morning, staff with “Barista” emblazoned on the back of their shirts lest anyone suppose them to be AA patrol staff or the FBI checking out the place ahead of Mr Trump’s unlikely visit.

The special is salted caramel cappuccino with clementine loaf cake. There are fancy “Christmas drinks” and, on the website at least, something called billionaires’ drinks. It seems rather appropriate.

A large americano and a smallish tuna melt panini is £8 18. EIGHT PUND EIGHTEEN!!!! Half a week’s pocket money. For that in the Northern League a poor old pensioner can get admission, a programme, a pie, a Bovril and sttll have 18p left over for the poor box.

Back home, a bit of googling confirms that Costa is Britain’s biggest and fastest growing coffee shop chain, and the world’s second biggest (behind Starbuck’s.) It’s wholly owned by Whitbread. I never liked their beer, either.


December 2 2017: Ancients and modern

It’s impossible for us old incorrigibles to think of football in Stockton without recalling the 1933 FA Amateur Cup final replay, in which Stockton lost 4-1 to Kingstonian in a replay.

The losers’ centre forward was a muscular railwayman called Ralph Smith, known as Bullet, who’d won six England caps in 16 years with the club but who the FA suspended for a year after an incident following the game.

History’s a little vague, but the most likely theory is that old Bullet told the FA where they might relocate their medal, and not in the top drawer of the sideboard.

Known as the Ancients, playing on the affectionately remembered Victoria Ground, Stockton had won the Amateur Cup three times, four times been losing finalists and five times won the Northern League title. After the war they were literally all over the place, including two spells in the Midland League, before the club folded in 1975.

And now Stockton Town are making history of their own….

Though the new club traces its lineage back to Hartburn Juniors in 1979, it was just nine years ago that they first played senior football – Teesside League second division. Today they’re in the last 64 of the FA Vase, home to City of Liverpool.

Apparently nicknamed the Anchors – was that wise? – they’d won the Wearside League in four successive seasons before finally joining the Ebac Northern League second division in 2016-17.

Well I remember countless ground inspections, Town officials ever-professional but greatly frustrated by red tape and neighbourly protest. Finally they developed a new ground, with a 3G pitch, behind the town’s Sixth Form College. It had been an education.

They won the second division at the first attempt, still with a core of players who’d progressed through the 20-or-so junior teams.

Today there’s a big crowd, boosted by 150-or-so boisterous Scousers. City of Liverpool, apparently known as the Purps because of the colour of their shirts, didn’t play their first football until 2016-17, somewhat surprisingly allowed by the FA to join the North West Counties League second division (which they won) despite being a new club and ground sharing. Good luck to them.

Fred Woodhouse scores the game’s only goal after 20 minutes or so, the visiting keeper perhaps culpable. It seemed like one of those shots at which he might have thrown his cap, as probably they said in old Bullet’s day.

So a great day and a deserved win, and a particular pleasure at the end to shake hands with club chairman Martin Hillerby, whose vision and infomitable enthusiasm have driven the club on.

Who knows if there’ll be medals at Wembley next May, but Martin richly deserves one of some sort. He’s unlikely to tell them where they might relocate it.

December 1 2017: ghost trains

Goose and gander, I’ve been to Washington, too. While she reflects upon the White House and climbs Capitol Hill, I’ve been on several laps of the Galleries Shopping Centre. They are circles of hell.

Washington CD – Co Durham, as traditionalists would have it – has a population of 67,000, the third biggest town in England without a railway station. Even the Tyne and Wear Metro thought twice about setting foot there.

The biggest, somewhat surprisingly, is Gosport, in Hampshire (82,622), followed by Newcastle-under-Lyme (75,125). Gosport’s a naval base, isn’t it? How do the matelots reach their ships?

Also in the top ten are Blyth – though news this week suggests renewed efforts to reopen the line from Ashington to Newcastle – and Coalville and Wisbech, both of which have been venues in recent seasons for Northern League teams in the FA Vase.

Coalville, at once renamed Coldville, played Spennymoor Town in January 2009. Honest, it was perishing. Moors, not quite so comfortably off as now seems to be the case, all sardined into a mini-bus driven by acting club chairman Alan Courtney.

Coalville, good Leicestershire folk, welcomed them with a banner proclaiming “Eee up, me ducks.”

It was 1-1 after 90 minutes, Jamie Clark – old Blackbread the Pirate – firing an extra-time penalty over the bar. Memory suggests that Moors lost the replay. Has Blackbeard finally hung up his boots?

Coalville had been easy – Sharon drove, via the Battle of Bosworth Field – Wisbech was more difficult. Once the Cambridgeshire town was served by three different railway lines; now the nearest station is ten miles away at March.

They played Dunston UTS, one of six Northern League clubs in the last 32, January 2012. My mate Kit came, too, insisted that he could navigate a walking route from March to Wisbech and for the first two miles headed in diametrically the wrong direction.

His dad was a navigator on Lancaster bombers, won DSO and DFC before he was 21. Kit probably didn’t pass O-level geography.

A third of the population was eastern European, chiefly employed on the endless miles of flat fields doing jobs that the locals wouldn’t rouch with a turnip picker.

The game ended 2-2, Bully twice on target, leaving five Northern League teams in the draw for the last 16. Dunston won the replay, and the trophy.

It’s Vase day again on Saturday, Kit among the little pre-Christmas party headed for Stockton Town. This time I’ll navigate.

November 30 2017: Home alone

She’s off to Washington for a week. Not the ground at the back of Nissan but the place with the white house across the water, where the younger bairn’s on attachment for six months. Save for lighting a canny fire, an essential skill on nights like this, I’m not what you’d call single-minded.

At lunchtime there’s a reunion of Tyne Tees Television staff, former weather man Bob Johnson growing anxious at relegation clouds over his adopted Alnwick Town. In the evening there’s chance to test the fire lighting skills, see what’s in the fridge – nowt much – and check the emails.

Following Tuesday’s blog on Prescot Cables, John Briggs wonders if we know w2hich “legendary” Sunderland player signed from the Merseyside non-league club.

It’s my old friend Len Ashurst, 463 league and cup appearances in 16 years at Roker Park, now 78 and back up Whitburn way.

Martin Birtle recalls a formidable full back partnership with Cec Irwin, one goal in 350 appearances before heading back to Ashington where he ran a paper shop and managed the Northern League team in Portland Park days.

The Roker End, Martin recalls, used to sing “Cec and Len” to the tune of Bill and Ben,

Martin also reports that Barry Oliver has resigned as manager of Billingham Town, just days after the blog noted programme comments about frustrations on and off the field. He remains, apparently, as chairman.

We’d also reported that Town, marking 50 years, host a reunion of all former players during and after the game with Bedlington Terriers on December 23. The contact for that one is Joe Driver, 07877 291526.

Shildon also plan a reunion, at the end of season awards night, of the squad which reached the FA Cup first round – the last Northern League club to do so – against Notts County in 2002. Norman Smith’s the contact – 07500 874505 – but isn’t end of season when Ray Gowan, the team manager, is finally getting married?

Ray’s in South Africa. Are you going to tell Pauline, Raymond, or shall I?

Anyway, the coal scuttle’s empty, it’s much too cold to go outside for more so probably it’s time for bed. Where does she keep the hot water bottles, for heaven’s sake? Food parcels may be left at the usual address.

November 29 2017: faded Pink

A couple of recent blogs have had cause to mention the Pink, and no matter that one was simply a reference to Willington’s eye-catching away kit.

Remember the Pink, or sometimes the Green Un? It was a hot metal miracle chucked uncermoniously about 6pm every Saturday from a can’t-stop van onto the pacement outside the paper shop. Half way down the street, a queue eagerly awaited its arrival.

Sometimes it was labelled the Final, sometimes the Late Final (which suggested that the Final was nothing more than penultimate.) Always, or so it seemed, its collection was followed by Dixon of Dock Green and the Billy Cotton Band Show in front of the fire.

Most towns and cities with Football League clubs had an evening paper with a Saturday sports edition. Often they were proudly parochial.

Old Man United fans may recall a 6-1 defeat at St James’ Park. In the Manchester Evening News Pink it was headlined “United lose seven goal thriller.”

Back in the wet-eared 60s I wrote the Darlington Weekend League column for the Northern Despatch Pink in Darlington. There were three divisions; like the Pink it’s long gone.

The last Evening Chronicle Pink in Newcastle almost literally hit the streets on December 17 2005, perhaps with mixed feelings reporting Michael Owen’s hat-trick in the Magpies’ 4-2 win at West Ham. The Pink on Teesside was whitewashed in 2008 and the Sunderland Echo sports edition, remembered for the sometimes-smiley cartoon character which accompanied the main match report, finally died on December 29 2013 after 106 years.

The only survivor is said to be the Southern Evening Echo Football Pink in Southampton, but that’s a “weekend paper”, chiefly available by electronic means, and not a Saturday tea time treat.

Technology’s partly accountable, but so are staggered kick-off times. In 2004-05, the season before the Evening Chronicle Pink folded, Newcastle had just 14 matches which kicked off at 3pm or earlier on a Saturday.

To old hot metallurgists it’s all quite sad. To see the pink these days, it’ll just have to be Willington away.


November 28 2017: Bulls hit

The plan’s to watch Tow Law v Jarrow, the notion unsurprisingly aborted when a  referee calls off the match shortly before 3pm.

At 5 15 there’s a text message from Lawyers’ seretary Steve Moralee. “It might have been a good call. It’s just started to snow.” It’s not a bad night to be in.

On the subject of the cold, however, there’s an email from exiled Whitley Bay supporter Geoff Smoult who was still half frozen to death at last Saturday’s match between Prescot Cables and South Shields despite wearing a Seahorses shirt, jumper, light jacket and an overcoat to top it off.

South Shields secretary Philip Reay, as familiarly is the case, wore a short sleeved shirt and nothing else atop. “Is there ever a time when he’ll confess to feeling slightly chilly?” asks Geoff. “It took me the 25-mile drive home and the first half of Liverpool v Chelsea just to thaw out.”

Prescot are on Merseyside, named after the British Insulated Wire Company and still play in the amber and black chosen because those were the colours in which the company wrapped its stuff. For reasons unimaginable, they’re nicknamed the Pesky Bulls.

I’ve only been once, a 2-1 Vase defeat for West Auckland in November 2002. West’s anguish was lessened because most of them had taken a tip and backed Red Wine, an 18-1 win winner at Doncaster.

2002-03 was to prove a very good season for Cables. At the North West Counties League’s annual dinner which I attended the following summer, team manager Tommy Lawson was presented with the league, league cup and manager of the year trophies and in the raffle won a bag of mixed wallpaper (presumably because they’d been on a roll.)

His hands being full, Tommy gave the wallpaper back.

In 1959, Prescot had also become the first non-league team to fly to an FA Cup tie – not many may know this – at Darlington. The M62 hadn’t been invented, it was explained.

Swiftly they were brought back to earth, a couple of players said to be suffering air sickness and lost 4-0. “It was like a bantamweight in a heavyweight contest,” said The Pink, unsympathetically.

That was also the day when Shildon drew 1-1 with Oldham Athletic at Dean Street, robbed – ask any of us – by an iffy goal in the last minute. No flights of fancy for the Railwaymen: M62 or not, they took a bus to the replay.