January 18 2020: ruff with the smooth

Exactly 20 years ago, Bedlington Terriers were closing on a third successive Northern League title. The sequence would reach five.

Two seaons earlier they’d reached Wembley in the FA Vase final, the following year thrashed Colchester United in the FA Cup first round.

The Dr Pit Welfare ground habitually heaved – 1,600 for the Colchester match – the sponsors’ lounge balcony thronged, chants of “Woof Woof Terriers” echoed around the league. Who let the dogs out, indeed.

Times change. Terriers are now 16th in the Ebac Northern League second division, today hosting league newcomers Carlisle City who still have hopes of a first-time promotion.

The crowd’s put at 58, of whom three are travelling Chelsea fans who’ve booked a taxi in the hope of getting back to St James’ Park for the 5 30pm kick-off at Newcastle. Probably they don’t count dogs but there are at least three of those, too, at least one a Bedlington. One or two of the others may, shall we say, have had a family history.

As usual we’re warmly welcomed by club chairman Ronan Liddane, amid his 101 match day jobs. “Someone has to do it,” he says.

The sponsors’ lounge is unoccupied, the press box long abandoned. The giant scoreboard, legacy of American cookie king Bob Rich’s later flirtation with the Terriers, is still partly operational but as the afternoon wears on tells an increasingly sorry story. An embarrassment of Rich’s.

There are also problems with the floodlights, only 11 of the 20 bulbs illuminated. as if allegorically to underline that these are dark days for the Terriers. They’ve been quoted £40,000 for new ones, says Ronan, and they’re £40,000 short.

It ends 5-0 to City, Sam Atkinson hitting four. The chairman’s doing his best to be positive. “I’m a stayer not a quitter,” he says and we must be very grateful that that’s the case,

January 17 2020: Sheels’ shoals

Noting that crowds at Stockton Town’s last three home games together totalled more than 2,500, Wednesday’s blog wondered when last that happened in the Northern League – and supposed that the answer might lie with Darlington.

It prompted an email, headed “Gone but clearly forgotten”, from South Shields’ meticulous  secretary Philip Reay.

In the Mariners penultimate Northern League season, 2015-16, crowds totalled 15,328 and averaged 730 – and that was in the second division. The best was the 1,827 who thronged to the second-last game, the derby with Hebburn, the lowest the 243 for Darlington RA’s visit.

The following season, 2016-17, no three-game sequence totalled fewer than 2,500. The highest gate was 2,651 when North Shields crossed the Tyne – the Robins won 1-0 – while 2,054 watched the 1-1 draw with Morpeth Town.The lowest was the 702 who saw Chester-le-Street and the average for another promotion season was 1,226.

“It was a bit better than the previous two seasons at Peterlee,” says Philip. “”Our average in exile had dropped to around 70 hardy souls.”

*Speaking of Darlington, as almost we were, it’s a sadness to learn of the death of Luke Raine, appointed the Quakers’ director of football 19 years ago this weekend, following a 3-0 home defeat to Chesterfield. It was one of chairman George Reynolds’s more surprising moves.

Luke, great guy, was a Witton Park lad who’d probably never played at a higher level than the Auckland and District League and who was a joiner. He worked for George, became his right-hand man and had the title of public relations director before his improbable elevation.

“I’m no Terry Venables,” he told fans – a reference to the then Middlesbrough manager. His role, he added, was to be a “buffer” between the chairman and team manager Gary Bennett. Doubtless it was needed.

*Amid recent reworking of football theme tunes, we told the other day how David Wright’s bride Kathy had walked down the aisle last year – at St Mary’s lighthouse in Whitley Bay – to the familiar strains of Z Cars.

Kathy’s a Newcastle United season ticket holder. We’d wrongly concluded that Z Cars, long the Roker Park overture, must have owed something to David’s affiliation to Sunderland. It didn’t; he’s an Evertonian.

The previous week, he recalls, the Toffees were at St James’ Park. Kathy made it known that if Everton won by more than 3-0 the wedding was off and when the Blues led 2-0 at half-time that seemed a distinct possibility.

The Magpies finally won 3-2. “If I’d been a Sunderland supporter,” adds David, “she wouldn’t have married me in the first place.”

January 16 2020: Scotch on the rocks

Burns Night fast approaches. Familiar with the way to the blog’s heart, reader John Maughan sends startling news from Scotland.

A key category in this week’s World Scotch Pie Championships – “haggis with any kind of edible ingredients, to be eaten hot”, no less – has been won by a butcher in Kirkby Lonsdale. Kirkby Lonsdale is very definitely in England.

“Don’t tell Nicola Sturgeon,” urges John, but already there may be questions in the Scottish parliament.

Inevitably there’s a Northern League connection – in truth, there are two – but let’s first turn to the big one, the scotch pie category itself, won this time by a butcher from Blairgowrie.

Last year all 80-odd entrants were from north of the border, the winner the Little Bakery in Dumfries. In May that sent me scuttling up to the home of Queen of the South, the dear old Doonhamers.

This year the world’s longest shortlist – 40-odd names – included three Sassenach raiders, one from Buckinghamshire, Dales Traditional Butchers in Kirkby Lonsdale and Trotters Family Butchers in Seahouses, on the Northumberland coast. I can’t recall having eaten from there – Mr Garry Gibson may be able to advise – but Seahouses has a very good fish shop.

At any rate, the hope last May was to kill two birds with the same stone – to feast on the world champion scotch pies and to catch up with legendary Doonhamers goalkeeper Allan Ball, a former Northern League man. Sadly, I’d missed news of his passing the previous July.

Allan was a Hetton-le-Hole lad, played football for Sunderland boys, went in goal when a team mate called Jimmy Montgomery was injured and stayed thereafter between the posts.

He  became a miner, played a few games for Bishop Auckland – deputy to the great Harry Sharratt – and a few for Durham City but was with Stanley United, £1 a week more than he got down the pit, when Queen of the South scout John Carruthers came shouting down the night shift shaft.

Allan made 819 appearances, 507 consectuively, became one of only two Englishmen to represent the Scottish League and was a long serving club director. Lovely man, I’d interviewed him a couple of times. “You could still be cold at Stanley in July,” he recalled. “In that respect it was like Arbroath. I was never warm at Arbroath, either.”

Kirkby Lonsdale’s near the Lancashire/Yorkshire border, a visit clearly called for. The other Northern League connection is that it was the home of another legendary goalkeeper, the aforesaid Harry Sharratt.

It’s a small world, though perhaps not quite so small as, in the haggis fields of Scotia, they had previously supposed.

*Shildon FC have two upcoming charity events in the clubhouse, the first on Friday February  7 to help fund the rehabiliation of former Bishop Auckland and Willington chairman Richard Tremewan, still recovering from a stroke. The speaker’s former top referee Alan Wilkie, admission’s by donation and it’s looking like the place will be rammed. Any interested are asked first to ring Norman Smith on 07500 874505.

The second’s on Friday March 6 with Jimmy Shoulder, an Esh Winning lad who became Australia’s World Cup manager and a long-time manager of Wales Under 21s. He’s a fascinating speaker. The evening’s to support Quinns’ Retreat, a charity set up after the untimely death of two Shildon siblings. Details from Norman on that one, too.

January 15 2020: second thoughts

Northallerton Town v Stockton Town, bottom v top, and a glance at the Ebac Northern League first division table swiftly identifies Northallerton’s problem. The 46 goals they’ve conceded before tonight is just three more than second placed Hebburn Town and the fewest in the bottom eight, but the 22 scored in 21 games is the lowest tally in the division.

Club chairman Peter Young’s programme notes are unmistakably gloomy, talking of how hard it would be to survive back in the second division. “Relegation is not something I want to contemplate but we must know what may await us if we fail,” he writes.

Stockton, conversely, continue to ride the crest of a wave the size of the Tees Barrier – save, of course, for last Saturday’s surprise Vase defeat – with total crowds for the last three home matches exceeding 2,500. When could a Northern League club – save perhaps Darlington – last claim that?

Tonight’s gate is 202, many in the visitors’ accustomed blue and yellow. Northallerton’s once-vocal band of Yorkshiremen behind the goal seems almost to have vanished, whether over the border or elsewhere.

It’s goalless for an hour before Kevin Hayes and Max Craggs – both of whom came through the club’s youth system – give Stockton a two-goal lead. Charlie Graham’s late strike for the hosts proves merely a consolation.

They’re a smashing, community conscious football club with a loyal band at the centre and now they continue a little run of home games with a crucial meeting with Seaham Red Star on Saturday.  Perhaps they’ll start to score.

*Yesterday’s blog reported the discovery in the attic of a box of Northern Goalfields Revisited, the Northern League’s 530-page millennium history. Lucky for some, there proved to be 13 – not 12 – and they’re already all on the way to good homes from Cornwall to Caithness.

Now there’s a fast-growing waiting list. Have any clubs unsold copies sitting around the place? Do please let me know – they’d find a ready market

Further attic exploration reveals a box of the rather nice programmes for the league’s 125th anniversary match in 2014 and for the League Cup final, Marske United v Whitley Bay, at St James’ Park a few weeks later. A couple of quid for postage and readers can have one each of those, an’ all.

January 14 2020: buried treasure

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We have a large walk-in, or rather stoop-in, attic. Her New Year project, rafter thoughts, Sharon’s howking it out.

Much has been disinterred, much relocated to the council tip. There are scores of LPs, the sleeves stirring particular passions, all manner of later stuff which belonged to the bairns – to how many clubs in Ibiza was it necessary to belong? – some of the younger lad’s collection of football shirts. The tip shall not have those: we wouldn’t dare.

Harry Pearson’s column in the latest When Saturday Comes reckons that the bottom’s falling out of the football memorabilia market: the lofty evidence of our attic suggests otherwise.

His 1991-92 blue Inter Milan third shirt, for example, is reckoned to on eBay to be shifting for £149 99; his Everton second shirt would fetch £99 99. What was he doing with an Everton shirt, first or second,. anyway?

Sharon sent him a picture of some of the collection, spread out on the sofa. “The best text message I’ve ever had. Buzzing,” he tweeted.

The most wonderful find of all, however – though the attic’s further reaches have yet to be explored – is a sealed box of the 530-page Northern Goalfields Revisited, the Northern League’s millennium history. For years I’ve told folk that I couldn’t source any more copies.

The cover, above, shows the late Bishop Auckland journalist Derek Hebden doing an impromptu pitch inspection at Dean Street, Shildon. No problem, it would have been on.

Basically the book’s an extensive updating of Northern Goalfields, the league’s centenary history, both marvellously meticulously researched and written by Brian Hunt and both edited by me.

By the year 2000 I was also league chairman. So much had changed in the intervening 11 years, I wrote in the foreword – “and may change yet more dramatically before the latest millennium has toddled very far along its quizzical course.”

Technology was fast advancing, too, though at snail’s pace compared to today. We held the presses (or whatever then was the means of production) until the 1999-2000 season was complete. Bedlington Terriers won their third successive title, nine points clear of Seaham Red Star, and were also the league’s last Vase representative when knocked out in the quarter-final. South Shields were bottom, seven points adrift of Shotton Comrades and 17 below third bottom Thornaby.

Brandon United won the millennial second division – times change – by seven points from Newcastle Blue Star and 14 from Hebburn. Eppleton, without a win in 36 games, were bottom with just three points and 157 goals conceded. Murton, second bottom, had seven points.

Whitley Bay were relegated from the Unibond League, returning to the Northern League after 12 seasons, and have had more cause than most to enjoy the new millennium.

Brian’s book is true treasure trove, hitherto almost impossible to track down – though there’s one on eBay, doubtless second hand, for £15. The original cover price was £8 99 and that’s what we’re offering these for – plus postage, of course. Proceeds go to the league.

We’ll sort out delivery and exact cost. In the meantime, the first 12 expressions of interest to the usual email address – mikeamos81@aol.com – will get their hands on the treasure.

*It’s a week of birthdays. My younger granddaughter was five yesterday (happy birthday, Bethan), London-based Northern League superfan Gary Brand is 60 today and my old mate Tommy Taylor tonight marked his 79th with the usual gig at Newton Aycliffe folk club.

It’s held in the town’s sports and social club, home also to the football team whose match tonight is among those rained off. At 8 30pm just three people occupy the bar to watch the game on television. By 10pm there’s just one in and his glass isn’t even half full. It’s empty. The licensed trade is in big, big trouble.




January 13 2020: send in the clowns

After yesterday’s blog on the FA’s bad bet approach to gambling in football – with particular reference to Bet365’s streaming of FA Cup games – a blog reader kindly sends a link to the Hansard report of an “urgent” Commons question  on the matter last Thursday.

“It’s fair to say that the FA is more than embarrassed by the situation,” said Nigel Adams, the minister for sport.

The Commons proceedings also revealed that Bet365 employs 7,000 people, that Denise Coated – the firm’s chief executive – earned £277m last year and that John Knight, the MP for Solihull, believed the FA to be “clowns.”

What it didn’t touch upon was how the FA came to sanction BetVictor’s sponsorship of the game across steps 3-4 leagues when the clear and obvious reason for that apparent largesse is to lure more people into gambling down all sorts of possible avenues.

Nor was anyone able to ask if BetVictor’s aim to sponsor all leagues at that level – a spread bet, as it were – scuppered the Ebac Northern League’s chances of running the new step 4 league in the north despite the ENL’s superb presentation.

The Commons question was formally asked by Carolyn Harris, the member for Swansea East. “Problem gambling inthe UK is now so endemic it should be treated as a public health issue,” she said.

“Too many times I have listened to the heart-wrenching grief of a partner, sibling or parent whose loved ones have taken their lives because the demon became too big to fight.”

Clive Betts, the appropriately named member for Sheffield SE, thought it “just another example of the FA’s dumbing down of the wonderful competition that is the FA Cup”; Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) called for legislation. “”It is not about the love of the game, it is about the unrestricted greed of Bet365,” he said.

The sports minister is meeting the FA this week. It would be good to think that he might ask about BetVictor, too.

*The draw for the l;ast 16 of the FA Vase is horrible. Consett are at home but we’re still drying out from last Saturday up there. Hebburn are at Longridge but we were all there a few weeks ago. West Auckland are at Plymouth Parkway.

By catching a train from Darlington shortly after 5am, it’s possible to make Plymouth by kick-off. By catching the 17 27 from Plymouth, it’s possible to return, but only as far as Leeds. The fare’s about £200. We may be stopping at home.

Consett’s opponents, incidentally, are either Binfield or Deal who replay this Saturday after the FA agreed a request to avoid a midweek game. This may interest Plymouth Parkway who, as blog reader Ken Gaunt points out, saw their game at Romsey postponed in an earlier round and were ordered by the FA to travel in midweek.

Romsey’s in Hampshire, 148 miles and three-and-a-quarter hours from Plymouth. See above.



January 12 2020: bad bets

The Daily Mail reported the FA’s latest sell-out to the betting industry on the same day that the North’s first NHS gambling addiction clinic opened, in Sunderland. That’s how serious the problem has become.

The six-year deal with Bet365 meant that most of the 32 FA Cup third round ties were available on the betting company’s website or mobile app while just two were screened on free-to-air television.

To watch via Bet365, fans had either to place a bet before kick-off or open an account with a £5 deposit. Betting odds accompanied the live coverage.

Kick-off in all those Cup matches was delayed by a minute so that spectators could see a 60-second film – fronted by Prince William, the FA president – addressing mental health issues.

“I never thought the FA would stoop so low for a few extra quid. I really despair for this wonderful game,” writes Alnwick Town stalwart Cyril Cox.

The deal was brokered through an image rights company, doubtless very well paid for its efforts and quite likely on a percentage. Aren’t there enough wonderfully well paid people at the FA to do the job themselves?

Bet365 has now amended the arrangement but BetVictor continue heavily to sponsor all leagues at steps 3-4 of the National League System – and, of course, to try to attract more punters by that means.

Had the Ebac Northern League’s superbly presented pitch for the right ro run the new step 4 league in the north been successful, it would have meant – of course – that BetVictor wouldn’t have had what a gambling man might call a full house – but the governing body, after what we were assured was much deliberation, made that possible.

You pays your money, you takes your chance.

*Kevin Ross adds to the recent musical notes by reporting that Dundee (as might be imagined) emerge to Up With the Bonnets (of Bonny Dundee), something we last sang a great many years ago at Timothy Hackworth Junior Mixed, Miss Murray banging away on the joanna.

Kevin also notes that former Guisborough Town favourite Danny Johnson is in Dundee’s colours and that Motherwell, his former club, are another team which demerges to the strains of Local Hero.

He’d also watched West Auckland’s Vase match on Saturday when West, as always, came out to Glad All Over, a 1960s hit for the Dave Clark Five. A home draw on Monday would make them gladder yet. Even money, anyone?