April 19 2017

A rum do at Darlington, is it not, odder yet that they seem set to appeal – these things can be punitively expensive – and curious that Poole, aka the Dolphins, appear to be in the same boat. Poole have form.

I’ve been there twice, the first time in January 2008 when Consett visited in the FA Vase fourth round and the ground was enclosed not by the regulation 6ft fence but by the sort of thing which elsewhere might have bordered a municipal flower bed.

It was a former school field, the fence the sort of structure over which a determined three-year-old coud have played hookey. Viewing from outside the ground was possible on all four sides. Perhaps the FA had different ground criteria for clubs in the south.

Poole’s in Dorset, English Riviera, home to 140,000 people, almost as many yachts, to the Bank of New York and to Sandbanks, where the seriously rich – like Mr Harry Redknapp – lay their heads.

Former Morpeth Town secretary Les Scott, ostensibly on a spying mission, hadn’t been impressed. “There are bigger back gardens back home,” he said.

Nor was Northern League Club secretary Martin Haworth, who found Sandbanks awully windy. “You can get blown away in Consett for nothing,” he added.

Consett led through Steve Brown’s 44th minute free kick – what, that short little feller off the Sunday Sun? – but were pegged back by an unfortunate own goal. Memory suggests that they lost the replay.

Three years later Whitley Bay were down there, semi-final first leg. The train was late; somewhat anxiously I stopped an elderly lady to ask directions to the ground.

“Do you know that my water rates have gone up to £80 a month?” she answered.

In the VIP marquee they were eating sausage rolls and egg and cress sandwiches, though one gentleman appeared to be dining out on his young lady’s left ear. Was it, my Northern Echo column incorrigibly observed, a case of wooing within tent?

A goal down, Whitley Bay brought on Brian Rowe after 75 minutes. “A fat bloke who wouldn’t get in our Sunday morning team,” said the chap on BBC Radio Solent.

On 90 minutes the fat bloke broke up an attack, passed out to Paul Chow whose cross was turned in from at least 18 inches by Damon Robson. In the 92nd minute, Lee Kerr’s 22-yard free kick ensured the Seahorses romped home with a vital lead.

The rest is FA Vase history – and Poole had finally done something about the fence.

*For the record, it’s 175 years today sincxe Shildon Tunnel – 120ft deep, 1,225 yards long, – saw its first train (or posibly didn’t, because it’s awfully dark down there). What an engineering feat – how on earth did they manage it? I pay a nostalgic visit though no longer tempted to walk through it as, foolishly, we were when much younger.

Yesterday’s blog had a Shildon flavour, too – news that former Railwaymen’s manager Gary Forrest, 11 years at Dean Street, was joining West Aucland with most of his coaching team. It attracted the second-highest audience in the blog’s nine-month gestation. As always, many thanks for your support.

April 18 2017

Another Grass Routes exclusive: Gary Forrest, who led Shildon to a triple triumph in 2015-16, will be manager of near neighbours West Auckland next season.

He’ll be joined by assistant manager Stuart Niven, goalkeeping coach Keith Finch and player/coach Paul Connor, all of whom were with him at Dean Street, but not by key backroom man Phil Brumwell.

Gary and his coaches left Shildon in January, following disagreement with the club over a player transfer. “I don’t want to talk about my own situation but I can’t persuade Phil to come back into football because he was so disillusioned over what happened,” he says.

The moves, much rumoured, become pretty obvious before tonuight’s match bewteen West and Jarrow Roofing when Stuart’s helping with the players’ warm-up, Gary’s on the field chatting to some of them and Paul’s also kicking around somewhere.

Gary promises a post-match statement and is (as always) as good as his word = though he insists that the deal is dependent upon West Auckland making significant improvements to their pitch.

The appointments followed a lengthy interview between Gary, West general manager Stuart Alderson and club president and Ebac Northern League sponsor John Elliott.  “Gary was absolutely brilliant,” says Stuart.

Though Roofing win 2-0 tonight – two more goals for Michael Mackay – Gary expects his new team to avoid relegation. “I told Stuart and John that I’d only move to a club with real ambition and I believe that West ha\ve it.

“If we can help them to do what they would like to do, then they could be very exciting times. The chances are that they’re going to finish fourth or fifth bottom. You could say that the only way is up.”

Stuart Alderson, with West fior more than 50 years, is delighted with the appointments. “Gary and his people did a wonderful job at Shildon, Last season they won almost everything – if we can pick up just one trophy next seasson, it would be brilliant. We’ll even try to do something about the pitch.”

Still not mathematically safe, West’s last game is at home on Saturday to Shildon, of all people. “Stuart will be around,” says Gary. “Unfortunately I’m on holiday.”

So that’s it, four games in five days – just like old times – and three matches in ten days which involve Jarrow Roofing. Richie offers a signing on form.

It’s a good evening, good crack and on the way home an interesting thought occurs: no one’s mentioned the general election all night.




April 17 2017

The Billingham derby, 11am start at Bedford Terrace, first half largely uneventful. “That’s the trouble with morning kick-offs,” someone says, “there’s still a bit of clinker in the boiler.”

“God hates Synners but he loves the Town,” says an Easter Monday banner, though it’s Synners who ascend after Town could only draw at Esh Winning on Saturday.

For Synthonia, last Saturday’s was the last match after 59 years at the much-enjoyed Central Avenue stadium, though a couple of cup finals remain before the shutters and the question marks go up. “A funny occasion, quite emotional really,” says long serving secretary Graham Craggs.

Madge Stamp, that stalwart tea hut supremo, contemplates disposal of assets. “Billingham Town can have the pie warmer but I’m keeping the till, cost me £80,” she says. “The grandbairns can learn money on that.”

Town, coming up their 50th anniversary, have also had a good season and will finish fourth or fifth. “No longer the little club over the road,” says team manager Barry Oliver in the top-class programme.

Central Avenue’s swansong attracted a crowd of 315. Today’s is a greatly encouraging 421, including the usual detachment from HM Regiment of Groundhoppers and former Shildon manager Gary Forrest who seems to spend most of the match denying rumours.

“I’ve not seen you for ages, are you still going around?” one of the hoppers asks.

“Aye,” says his mate before I can answer, “but only at 33-and-a-third.” (Younger blog readers may wish to ask a responsible adult to explain.)

Though the clinker may be out of the boiler, the second half’s little more compelling than the first, the season’s second Billingham derby ending goalless in the sunshine, just as the first had done. It’ll be the last for a while. We’ll miss them, nonetheless.

*Last Thursday’s blog reported former Northern League chaplain Leo Osborn’s claim that his beloved Aston Villa were the only Championship club not to play their home game on Good Friday because they’d been formed as a Methodist Sunday School side.

It may almost have been true. Today’s Times reports that the change was made so as not to disrupt the Good Friday service at the nearby Aston parish church but also that, when the 2013 game with Liverpool was switched to Easter Sunday for television’s paramount purposes, churchgoers staged a “generous protest” by handing out hot cross buns to the footy folk.

After Saturday’s defeat, Villa manager Steve bruce said that he was minded to visit the church to say a prayer. After today’s, Leo might be minded to join him.

April 16 2017.

Happy Easter! Guisborough Town chairman Don Cowan draws attention to a clue in yesterday’s Northern Echo crossword: “Sounds like a slight gain for Amos, say (5,7).” The answer, and a little more on Don, at the foot of today’s blog.

For 17 years until retiring from full-time journalism, I wrote a column called At Your Service, entailing attendance at a different church occasion every week. It was usually greatly enjoyable.

Among the traditions was what the churches sometimes call an Easter sunrise service, meteorologically optimistic but spiritually grounded in hope. It required a darkest-hour-before-the-dawn start, fine by me but demanding of the ever-supportive lady driver.

We’ve attended services on Redcar beach, the Las Vegas amusement arcade still bleeping like two fat ladies, and at the foot of Captain Cook’s monument. Several Easter dawns were spent panting up Pen Hill, in Wensleydale, of which it was said that if you could see the top it was going to rain and if you couldn’t it was raining.

Another year there was a 5am start in the cloisters at Durham Cathedral. “What are you ding here?” asked Tom Wright, then the bishop.

“Working, what are you?”

They’d lit a welcome fire in the cloisters – “what the county fire brigade calls controlled burning, not the sort of bonfire on which to immolate a November effigy or even barbecue a decent sausage, but splendid and symbolic, nonetheless.”

Old habits being what they are, we rise at 4am today for a service atop Middlehope Moor, in the wilds of Weardale, followed by a magnificent Easter breakfast down in Eastgate village hall.

It’s brilliant, the sun with his hat on – or least his Easter bonnet – at precisely the moment that Mr Michael Fish or one of his successors might have forecast. By nine o’clock we’re back Easter egg hunting with the grandbairns.

Whether Don Cowan started the day in church I know not, but his early afternoon email records that he’s already watched 15 times the video (is that still the word?) of young Louis Goldsack’s wonder goal against Penrith yesterday and still plenty of hours in this one.

And that little clue? Minor prophet, of course.



April 15 2017

Until the early 60s there was a direct railway line from Darlington to Penrith, 64 more-or-less straight miles in two-and-a-half scenic hours via Broomielaw, Barnard Castle, and Belah Viaduct.

That option no longer being available, the alternatives for the much-anticipated annual visit to Frenchfield are to take a roundabout train ride via Newcastle and Carlisle or to cadge a lift on the opposition charabanc.

Guisborough Town, ever-obliging, pick me up at the Sedbury layby near Scotch Corner, a place with the semi-permanent aroma of bacon butties and the invariable attendance of some large and overfed crows.

In truth, the hour westward over Stainmore isn’t so much a journey as a pilgrimage, a search for the holy grail that is a Cranston’s meat and potato pie. It’s thus somewhat disconcerting to learn from Penrith secretary Ian White that the local shop had sold out.- “I got you a steak and kidney instead,” he says.

Perhaps disappointment could have been better camoflauged. At any rate, Ian abandons other duties and heads for the nearest Cranston’s food hall to get meat and potato at source.

What a guy, what a club, what a league.

The fixture appears well balanced. Penrith have won their last three, five goals in two games from ace striker Martyn Coleman meaning that he comfortably overtakes the previous Blues scoring record held by Stephen Rigg.

Guisborough, trying valiantly to escape the third relegation place – if, indeed, that trapdoor will be operational – have won their last four.

At half-time it’s wind-affected, uneventful, goalless. After the interval, Guisibrough twice hit the bar, twice are awarded penalties – just one converted – and win 4-0.

All present will long remember the third, 17-year-old Louis Goldsack lobbing the goalkeeper whilst almost on the touchline. The celebration might long be remembered, too.

Guisborough may still have plenty to do, however, their remaining games against arch-rivals Marske United and champions-elect South Shields.

They leave for East Cleveland about 5 45pm, a happy return augmented by that residual steak and kidney pie. If not quite the feeding of the five thousand, it gets divided among a canny few.

I’m dropped off at a layby on the opposite side of the A66. For some reason many of the other passengers are equally eager to alight. I hadn’t realised they lived so near.

April 14 2017

I’m on the 10 41 Transpenine Express from Darlington to Newcastle. So are a great many Leeds United fans, lashing back the lager, making a fearful racket and beligerently singing stuff which many would find offensive.

Crumbs, if they’re like that before 11 o’clock what’s it going to be like by three? Then I glance at the paper: the match with Newcastle doesn’t start until 7 45….

Much the greater attraction is the noon kick-off between West Allotment Celtic and Whitley Bay, given greater significance after West Allotment’s formal Ebac Northern League resignation on the back of Northumberland FA’s 66 per cent ground rent rise.

The bank holiday crowd’s 260, a bit disappointing, the atmosphere rather flat. Celtic are relegated regardless, Whitley have had a good second half of the season but won’t trouble the leaders.

Briefly among the spectators, though he insists he’s really on a bike ride, is Andy Bowes who played for both clubs and recalls what he supposes to be his claim to fame. “I missed the penalty in Whitley Bay’s 2002 Vase final at Aston Villa,” he says.

West Allotment were formed in 1928, have committee members with more than 50 years service and would fold completely if their NL resignation can’t be withdrawn before the league’s annual meeting.

Quite a lot’s been happening since the blog broke the news. Though it must remain confidential – there are still those who trust me with confidences – they are not without hope, as the Old Gentleman observed to the Railway Children before springing their father from the chokey.

Suffice that club secretary Ted “Rottweiler” Ilderton doesn’t just buy me a post-match beer, he buys me two – and insists that the tenner used for the purpose has been authorised from club funds. As things stand, however, the club’s last-ever game will be at home to Dunston UTS on April 22

Whitley Bay win 3-1. Some of the lads are headed thereafter to the 3pm kick-off at Hartlepool, a few to a ground hop match at Knaresborough, one or two to Newcastle Races and then to St James’ Park.

I’m headed hearth and homeward, to hot cross buns and Coronation Street and as far away as possible from the returning gentlemen of Leeds United.

April 13 2017

After the Success story – recent blogs have noted that it’s a little place near Houghton-le-Spring – what of the road to Wembley?

Wembley’s on the edge of Murton, five terraced rows clearly identified on the former Easington District Councuil’s street map and perhaps only to be expected in the county of Standalone and Not Standalone, of Quebec, Pity Me and, near Ferryhill Station, the now-buried hamlet of Linger and Die.

Someone may even know where Glower O’er Him once intimidated.

Wembley, Co Durham, was built – like the original north London stadium – in 1923 and was domianted, half a mile distant, by the twin towers of South Hetton colliery. There was even a football pitch. I wrote about in May 1992, days before Sunderland took on Liverpool in the FA Cup final.

“As anyone who’s played there will tell you, the Wembley pitch has seen very much better days. There’s a manhole cover in the six-yard box, a set of swings that encroach into the penalty area” – surely an indirect free kick to the opposition? – “and a circular bald patch on the wing where the teapot lid used to be.”

A chap called Bob Winlow remembered happy days. “Oh aye, we had some magic matches on this pitch when we were bairns. Sometimes it was 18 a side, sometimes mebbe 20. You only had to walk past to get co-opted.”

Rather worryingly, the place no longer features on the OS map. A quarter of a century later, it may be time for a return visit. For the moment we mention it solely so that the South Shields army don’t pitch up at the wrong place.

*Good to hear this morning from long serving former Northern League chaplain Canon Leo Osborn – his Maundy Thursday penance, perhaps. Apropos of little, Leo insists that his beloved Aston Villa are the only Championship side without a Good Friday game – though one of two, obviously – because they were formed as a Methodist Sunday School team and refuse to play on that sacred day. You never quite know when Leo is (how may this delicately be put?) pulling your leg, but it’s interesting that West Allotment Celtic v Whitley Bay is the only Northern League fixture on Good Friday. Has St Kevin of Langley Park seen the light at last?

*Maundy Thursday or no, tonight’s the occasion of the monthly pint with Bishop Auckland director Terry Jackson. Since these encounters are always on Privy Council terms, however, there’s nothing further to report.